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Friday, October 24, 2014         

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Project worthy of its ambitions


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Since the Air Force planted the first optical observatory atop Mauna Kea in 1964, the mountain has become an extensive astronomical landmark, hosting 13 observatories. They soon may be dwarfed by an extraordinary 184-foot-tall telescope proposed by a California company. A place for it should be allowed within acreage that has long been designated as a home for astronomy.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources will consider the request tomorrow, including opposition to the plan by environmentalists and native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who believe Mauna Kea is sacred. They maintain that telescopes never should have been placed on the mountain, but that decision was made decades ago and turning around at this point would be foolish.

Opponent Tom Peek opined that no federal environmental impact statement was prepared ("Land Board should reject telescope proposal," Star-Advertiser, Island Voices, Feb. 23). But that's because a comprehensive EIS has already been completed for the state board, not a federal agency, that will make the decision. The ceded land at the summit is managed by the University of Hawaii, and the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. would be a UH lessee within the science reserve's 525-acre "astronomy precinct."

No doubt, the project is positively staggering. The 184-foot-tall telescope would be able to snap pictures 10 times clearer than photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope as it obits Earth. Its 30-meter mirror would provide nine times the image-collecting area of the two eight-story-tall W.M. Keck telescopes, the world's largest optical and infrared telescopes, erected at Mauna Kea in the 1990s. Its capability will come close to reaching the "big bang" that started the universe.

The Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, is such a powerful telescope "able to answer virtually any question in astronomy and astrophysics that I think it's just going to really change the whole game of the study of astronomy," TMT Observatory Corp. spokesman Charles Blue told the Star-Advertiser's William Cole.

The company acknowledges in the environmental statement that it expects the project, like past telescope placements at the summit, to have "substantial, significant and adverse" effects at the location. That's a frank and important acknowledgment -- for it recognizes that actions, especially one of this scale, will bring unpristine consequences. So the decision -- made decades ago, really -- to allow careful management of the telescope community atop Mauna Kea brings with it a hefty responsibility by TMT and other scopes already there. That respectful co-existence needs to continue.

Economically, the TMT's effect on the Big Island will be positive. The observatory, a nonprofit, will provide $1 million a year for science, technology, engineering and math education program for Big Island students. The observatory would require 140 full-time employees after construction is completed, which could be early next year.

Mauna Kea has become world-famous as a host for observatories at nearly 13,800 feet, surrounded by thousands of miles of thermally stable ocean, with no nearby mountains that agitate the upper atmosphere, hardly any city lights to pollute the skies and an atmosphere that is usually clear, calm and dry.

The worldwide benefits in the search of the cosmos are indeed worth the predictable environmental effects within the confines of the relatively small area.






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