Telescope site decision is near


POSTED: Saturday, July 18, 2009

The decision on whether to build a $1.2 billion telescope observatory atop Mauna Kea or in a desert in Chile will be determined by a board starting Monday.

The Thirty Meter Telescope, the first of its kind, is more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope and capable of images that are 12 times sharper using sophisticated adaptive optics systems, according to astronomers.

This “;next-generation telescope”; would allow astronomers to discover new galaxies and planets yet unseen.

If built on the northern slope of Mauna Kea, the telescope would be inside an 180-foot-tall silver-colored dome, nestled among at least a dozen other telescopes built in earlier decades.

It would be a multiphase construction project, including an access road, a midlevel facility at Hale Pohaku, a headquarters at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and a possible satellite office in Waimea.

The TMT board of directors, made up of nine members from all three universities that are partners in the project—the California Institute of Technology, University of California and Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy—will finalize the site on Monday and Tuesday at its headquarters in Pasadena, Calif.

While a draft environmental impact statement that went out in May garnered plenty of community support in Hawaii, it also has drawn opposition from environmental groups and cultural practitioners who say the “;football stadium-sized”; telescope has no place on top of the sacred mountain.

Marti Townsend, a spokeswoman for KAHEA, a nonprofit Hawaiian environmental group and critic of the university's management of Mauna Kea, said the telescope does not belong in a conservation district, where it will cause irreparable damage to endangered plants and animals.

“;My question is, Which telescope are you taking down to put up this telescope?”; said Townsend last month at a public meeting on Oahu.

KAHEA describes Mauna Kea as a sacred summit—the spot where Wakea (Sky Father) joined Papa (Earth Mother). The telescopes obstruct the horizon and summit view plane, says KAHEA, which has battled their development since the late 1960s.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs board of trustees, however, voted earlier this month to support the project.

Community members say the observatory will bring economic benefits, high-paying jobs and attract more technology to the Big Island.

Richard Ha, president of Hamakua Springs Country Farms and a grandfather of four, says he believes the telescope will bring opportunities for the future generation.

“;When I look into the future and imagine where we're going to be, we have got to figure out ways to make ourselves sustainable,”; said Ha. “;We should take advantage of opportunities that arise.”;

Ha sees the telescope as a way to bring education, jobs and money into the local economy.

“;The education is going to be far-reaching,”; he said.

If approved, the TMT Observatory Corp. has agreed to offer an annual $1 million community benefits package for Hawaii County education programs while the telescope is in operation.

Sandra Dawson, the project's EIS manager, says the observatory would create 140 full-time permanent jobs and about 300 construction jobs over seven to eight years.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has offered $50 million for the project's design phase and pledged $200 million more for the telescope's construction.

“;It's a legacy project,”; said Mark McGuffie, of Enterprise Honolulu, which supports the telescope project due to its job creation.

Dawson said the team has worked hard to make the design sustainable. There are two potential sites for the observatory: one higher up on the northern slope and one on a lower plateau.

Architects have designed the observatory so that it blends in with the landscape and is built into the slope, with underground parking.

But Townsend of KAHEA says a federal environmental impact statement should be required and that a comprehensive management plan should be approved by the Board of Land of Natural Resources as required by law first.

Both Cerro Armazones, Chile, and Mauna Kea, Hawaii, are pretty close in competition as potential sites for the Thirty Meter Telescope. Cerro Armazones has less cloud cover, but Mauna Kea is at a higher elevation.




Looking afar

        » Target sites: Top of Mauna Kea or Cerro Armazones, Chile

» Estimated cost: $1.2 billion


» Buildout: Access road, observatory, midlevel facility, headquarters at UH-Hilo, satellite office in Waimea


» Construction phase: Seven to eight years


» Jobs created in Hawaii: 140 permanent, about 300 during construction phase


» TMT Observatory Corp.: A nonprofit made up of the University of California, Caltech, Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA)


» Mauna Kea's endangered species: Wekiu bug, palila (Hawaiian honeycreeper), ua'a (Hawaiian petrel), 'ahinahina (Mauna Kea silversword)


» TMT board of directors meeting: Monday and Tuesday (to finalize site selection)


Source: TMT