Hawaiian gods push their giant telescope toward the Canary Islands

Dispute over use of sacred land to build Thirty-Meter Telescope has officials looking for Plan B

An artist's rendition of what the giant TMT telescope would look like atop the Mauna Kea.
An artist's rendition of what the giant TMT telescope would look like atop the Mauna Kea.(TMT)
Javier Salas

Imagine that Europe’s largest telescope were to be built atop Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Suppose that this Catholic holy place had unbeatable conditions for space observation. Should it be built?

Many Hawaiians are facing this dilemma, and have been doing so for decades. It began when NASA started taking advantage of the magnificent conditions of Hawaii’s sacred mountains by building some of the world’s largest telescopes there.

The largest of all was scheduled for construction at Mauna Kea, a volcano that is something like the Mount Olympus of the Hawaiian divinities.

There is no scientific work that can be done in Hawaii that cannot be done in La Palma

Rafael Rebolo, IAC director

But the gods appear to have won a battle that could ultimately benefit an observatory in the Canary Islands, which already hosts the world’s biggest telescope.

Mauna Kea is already home to 13 world-class astronomical observatories, including several giant telescopes such as the Keck twins, with their 10-meter primary mirrors.

The University of California and Caltech were now planning to build the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) on this most sacred of the Hawaiian mountains, one which still contains burial sites. According to the project, the exact site where TMT is to be built on Mauna Kea has no known archaeological shrines or burial sites

The TMT delegation during its visit to La Palma, as posted on Facebook.
The TMT delegation during its visit to La Palma, as posted on Facebook.

But management of the TMT project, which had a budget of more than €1.2 billion, can be described as disastrous. Construction began in 2014, but was halted due to serious protests. All construction material had to be brought back down from the 4,200-meter altitude it had been taken to. And in December, a court ruled that due process was not followed when the building permits were issued.

All of which brings the project back to square one, legally speaking.

At that point, one individual in Spain showed quick wits: Rafael Rebolo, director of the Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands (IAC), wrote to the scientific board of TMT with a proposal.

In March, four members of the board, including project chief Gary Sanders, visited the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma. And this month, says Rebolo, a five-member task force will return to the facilities to gather more detailed information.

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“As far as I know, we are one of the alternatives together with two other places in Chile and Mexico,” says the head of IAC, which oversees all astronomical observatories in the Canary Islands.

The Indian press adds another candidate, the Hanle observatory, given that India is one of the countries financing the TMT project together with Canada, China and Japan.

Rebolo said that by May two sites could be shortlisted to replace the failed Hawaiian location.

But sources at TMT said there are still no set deadlines or firm alternatives.

“Mauna Kea is still the first option,” said project spokesman Scott Ishikawa. “The board of directors gave the green light early this year to study a list of sites, some of them new, that could work as a Plan B in case the TMT does not get built in Hawaii.”

All construction material had to be brought down from the 4,200-meter altitude where it had been taken up

TMT managers are in a rush to get the project completed, because it has a European rival: the Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is already under construction atop Chile’s Cerro Armazones, and will be operational by 2024. The TMT was supposed to start working before that, but now finds itself on the sidelines.

In Hawaii, it could take a long time to rent public land that is protected because of its cultural value. And the answer could still be no, just like back in 2006, when an extension was requested to upgrade the Keck telescopes.

Authorities are so desperate that state governor David Ige offered detractors a trade: building the new telescope in exchange for tearing down a quarter of the existing ones.

By comparison, Canary Islands politicians at all levels of government have offered nothing but support for the project. Socially, the observatories are a point of pride, and there is even a Sky Law by which residents accept to live with lower light pollution so as not to affect space observation, which requires dark skies.

“There is no scientific work that can be done in Hawaii that cannot be done in La Palma,” says Rebolo, adding that there are financial advantages as well. “The TMT’s operating costs are 40 million a year. We could do it for half of that, which is a lot of savings for a device with an expected lifespan of 50 years.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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