Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thirty Meter Telescope approved on top of Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed

I have regularly provided an update on the controversy over telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii (see here for links to earlier posts). The central issue has been the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the volcanic mountaintop held sacred by some groups of Native Hawaiians, and hosts flora and fauna on the candidate list of endangered species. After numerous rounds of permissions, the TMT has been given the final go-ahead:

Hawaiian officials have granted a permit for the planned Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to proceed atop the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea, project officials announced on 13 April. 
The move clears the way for construction to start, as early as April 2014, atop the 4,200-metre-high summit. Thirteen telescopes already dot the mountain, but the TMT would be the largest of them by far. The biggest optical telescopes now atop Mauna Kea are the twin 10-metre Keck telescopes. 
Development on the mountain is a sensitive subject in Hawaii. In 2011, the state’s board of land and natural resources granted a conditional permit to construct the TMT. Opponents pursued a contested case hearing under a board officer. The new decision confirms the original permit granting and moves the TMT forward for good.
Of course, this is tricky subject. On the one hand, this is good for astronomy and the economy of the island. But this comes at the expense of others who feel marginalized in this matter. The TMT folks, it seems, did make an effort to reach out and hold regular town hall meetings to at least listen to the grievances of the local community. However, the history of the US involvement in Hawaii is so messy  that it is unlikely that the issue can ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Indeed, the opponents of the telescope have vowed to keep on fighting - but I think the game is over on this matter:

One of the leading groups opposed to building the world's largest telescope at the summit of Hawaii's revered Mauna Kea volcano vows the fight against the space exploration site is far from over, despite a state panel's vote last week in favor of the project. 
"We're not going to go away because of one bad ruling," Nelson Ho, co-chair of the Mauna Kea Issues Committee from the Sierra Club's Hawaii Chapter, told Latinos Post. "We're in the early rounds of the boxing match and this is a twelve-rounder." 
Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources approved plans for the so-called Thirty Meter Telescope, a collaboration between the University of California system, the California Institute of Technology, or, Caltech, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. China, India and Japan have also joined the effort as governmental partners. 
According to a report in the Associated Press, the telescope's primary mirror would measure nearly 100 feet (30 meters) long and be able to collect data from an area nine times greater than that scanned by the largest optical telescopes used today.
The Thirty Meter Telescope's images would also be three times sharper than anything currently captured. 
That improved range and strength would help researchers see an estimated 13 billion light years away. 
The next procedural step for the group spearheading the TMT project is to negotiate a sublease for the site with the University of Hawaii, which itself leases the summit area from the state. 
The Sierra Club and a handful of other environmental and Native Hawaiian culture organizations assert the TMT will severely damage the area atop the volcano, which Native Hawaiian traditions hold as sacred, a gateway to the afterlife that once only high chiefs and spiritual leaders were allowed to visit. 
At least one ancient burial site is confirmed on the mountain, which naturalists also say is one of the last pristine environments in Hawaii, let alone the world.
When it was planning the since-abandoned Outrigger Telescoping Project on Mauna Kea in the early 2000s, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration completed a study of the environmental impact of astronomical research facilities on the area, which in part concluded, "From a cumulative perspective, the impact of past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future activities on cultural and biological resources is substantial, adverse and significant." 
Read the full article here.

If interested, you can find earlier posts on the topic here:


Akbar said...

There won't be any flora and fauna left anywhere on the planet, let alone Mauna Kea, if we keep on missing the earth-bound objects, like the one that swept across siberia few weeks ago. These telescope are not only for space exploration but a must for the very survival of life on this planet.

Salman Hameed said...

Hmm...sure. But this telescope is not dedicated to finding asteroids and comets. In fact, there are other telescopes specifically designed for those purposes - and they are not, and don't have to be, at a place like Mauna Kea. So yes, there we can argue for the importance of the TMT, but the survival of the Earth isn't one of them.

Akbar said...

I am talking in general. In fact, Neil deGrasse Tyson has some interesting statistics as to how little is being spent on the project of looking for Earth bound objects as compared to defence budget of nations in general. It all seemed wishy-washy till we had that thing slamming into the remote wilderness of Siberia. Its impact was still powerful enough to kill thousands had it landed in any metropolis. Then we have this comet C/2013 A1 that will "likely miss Mars". This statement worries me, even if there is a 1% chance of that happening. TMT may not be specific for this job and scanning skies to anticipate such eventualities is nowhere near to being called a priority. On a different note, for the scare about local ecosystem on Mauna Kea, I guess Atacama Desert may be suitable alternative, places of which are devoid of any ecosystem outright :-)

Salman Hameed said...

Well, Mauna Kea hosts couple of species that are on the verge of extinction. Plus, there was a contract in the late 70s that limited the number of telescopes on the mountain - because of the both the sensitive ecology as well as its importance to native Hawaiians. From that perspective, Atacama would be better (it is also much bigger). However, it is not so straight forward, as the local economy also benefits a lot from the telescopes. These are some of the reasons why this is a complex issue and astronomers and others affected by the project have to think about the implications.

The threat of asteroids is indeed real - but that is independent of the issues on Mauna Kea (one doesn't need a 30m telescope to do that...). And the US congress did tasked NASA with the mandate to find all Near Earth Asteroids (NEO's) greater than a mile in size. That task is mostly completed, and now more money has been directed for 250m and above. All of this still leaves open the threat of comets - as some can still be coming from behind the Sun. But, yes, indeed, there should be efforts to identify as much as possible.

Créama Buscaro said...

If these few species are on the ESL then you have to ask is it because of the minimal development there or are they simply phasing out by natural course, as is the case with all species inevitably? Also, do the few species you reference play a vital role in a complex and larger ecosystem atop Mauna Kea or are they the last remaining vestiges of vanishing and doomed lifeforms? Are they crucial to the continued existence of any other more complex life forms in the area? Will Mauna Kea's already very stark environment be in any truly measurable way negatively impacted by their eventual disappearance? Is the TMT going to wipe out the entire species? And are there plans to simply relocate the few organisms on-site to another habitable location nearby?

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