The construction of a giant new telescope that has faced intense protests may be moved from Hawaii to the Canary Islands, it was announced yesterday.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is set to be one of the modern wonders of astronomy, a vast ground-based observatory that will peer into the distant universe in the mid-infrared range.
Originally, the plan was to build the telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, an area notable for its high altitude and thus thinner atmosphere, allowing for less obstructed views of the cosmos. There are more than a dozen telescopes in the area that take advantage of the conditions.
But one issue with the area – a dormant volcano – is that it is sacred ground to native Hawaiians. Since the site was picked for the TMT in 2009, some locals have fought the construction in Hawaiian courts and protested vehemently. In December 2015, its construction was temporarily blocked.
Now, in an announcement yesterday, the TMT International Observatory’s (TIO) board of governors has selected a back-up site, La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands, if the construction at Mauna Kea is not approved.
“After careful deliberation, the board of governors has identified Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain as the primary alternative to Hawaii,” Henry Yang, chair of the TIO board, said in a statement.
Protesters against the TMT, pictured on August 4, 2015. Babak Tafreshi/National Geographic/Getty Images
A decision on the Mauna Kea construction will be made this month following hearings. But that decision is likely to be contested either way, and it may be months before it is resolved. With construction hoped to begin in April 2018, a second site has now been selected in case the Mauna Kea site is rejected.
La Palma is already home to many telescopes, but being about half the altitude of Mauna Kea – 2,250 meters (7,380 feet) compared to 4,050 meters (13,290 feet) – it is not the preferred location for the telescope. If La Palma is eventually selected, the telescope may require some slight redesigns and recalibrations in order to make the best of things.
That is not to say all Hawaiians are opposed to the project. Many see its benefits, including bringing jobs and tourism to the area, not least the incredible science it would afford. In fact, a recent poll in July 2016 showed that 60 percent of residents supported the TMT, with 31 percent opposed.
Whatever the outcome, astronomers hope the issues are resolved soon. With its aperture of 30 meters (98 feet), it will be second in size only to the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is currently being built in Chile and expected to begin operations in 2024. Both will give us glorious new views of the universe, and increase our understanding like never before.