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Giant Hawaiian telescope gets go-ahead for construction

tmt sunset

TMT Project

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.

Ed Stone, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and vice-chairman of the TMT board, says that the telescope offers opportunities for discovery that astronomers haven’t yet even dreamed of. Scientific operations could begin in 2021.

Other Mauna Kea projects haven’t always fared as well. In 2006, amid controversy over development, NASA pulled funding for a set of smaller ‘outrigger’ telescopes to accompany the twin Keck telescopes. On the neighbouring island of Maui, solar astronomers last November received their own construction permit to move ahead with the 4-metre Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, the biggest such facility ever planned, atop the mountain of Haleakala — but only after agreeing to concessions such as hiring a cultural specialist and having construction workers receive mandatory ‘sense-of-place’ training.

TMT officials picked Mauna Kea over Chile in 2009 for the site for its behemoth, 492-segment mirror. Like other mountain summits in Hawaii, Mauna Kea is held in trust by the state for the public good. The University of Hawaii leases the observing site, and the TMT would sublease from the university.

In March, the TMT officially partnered with the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Its rival, the 25-metre Giant Magellan Telescope planned for Chile, had opted out of competing for the NSF partnership. Last fall, the GMT announced that it had finished the first of the seven 8.4-metre mirrors meant to make up its heart.

In a third giant-telescope plan, the European Southern Observatory is trying to corral funds to move ahead with its own telescope on the same scale, the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, also planned for Chile. The United Kingdom confirmed last month that it would contribute, bringing the total to 11 member states who are on board.


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