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Tuesday, November 25, 2014         

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The final frontier

A state panel is poised to consider whether to allow construction of a telescope on Mauna Kea powerful enough to see back nearly to the dawn of the universe

By William Cole

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Astronomers would be able to peer farther into space and back in time — reaching fairly close to the "big bang" that started the universe — under a plan that would add the 14th and biggest telescope to date atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii island.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources will consider on Friday the request from the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. to build the more than $1 billion telescope.

The TMT, as it is called, would be among a new class of big telescopes worldwide that can see farther than ever into the cosmos.

TMT Observatory Corp., based in Pasadena, Calif., said the planned 184-foot-tall Mauna Kea telescope would be able to get pictures 10 times clearer than the Hubble Space Telescope and be able to see 13 billion light-years away — to within about 400 million years after the big bang.

Its 30-meter mirror would provide nine times the image-collecting area of the twin 10-meter W.M. Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, officials said.

"It (TMT) is such a powerful general 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," Charles Blue, a spokesman for TMT Observatory Corp., said in an interview.

Concerns about the plan that are expected to come before the board at the 9 a.m. meeting are much more down to earth.

The board will consider a conservation district use application for the proposed telescope at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, as well as whether a contested case hearing should be held for opponents of the plan.

The University of Hawaii manages the summit of Mauna Kea, and TMT Observatory would be a UH lessee.

Environmentalists say the 13 telescopes already on Mauna Kea's 13,796-foot summit are 13 too many and adversely affect rare native plants and insect species.

Some Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, meanwhile, believe Mauna Kea is sacred.

"This conservation district was established to protect and conserve the natural resources of Mauna Kea — not to serve as an industrial park for telescopes," said Marti Townsend, program director for Kahea: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance.

"The (environmental study) for the TMT, as for the Kecks, states that the telescope will contribute to the substantial adverse impacts that all the telescopes are having on this conservation area," she said.

Townsend said there are also concerns about cultural practices, protection of view planes, the quality of the habitat and overall protection of open space.

The telescope would have an 18,000-square-foot support building. The biggest telescope on Mauna Kea would be built on the northern plateau about a half-mile northwest and 500 feet below the existing observatories. Officials said it would be visible from 14 percent of the island.

Sandra Dawson, manager of Hawaii community affairs for TMT Observatory, said if the board approves the conservation district use application, construction could begin in early 2012. The project is expected to take about eight years.

Dawson said the telescope would provide 300 local and specialized construction jobs lasting eight to 10 years. Additional jobs would be created through materials, goods and services purchased locally, she said.

Additionally, Dawson said TMT Observatory would require about 140 full-time employees, most working at the TMT headquarters in Hilo.

She said TMT Observatory, a nonprofit, will provide $1 million a year for science, technology, engineering and math education programs for Hawaii island students.

Hunter Bishop, deputy director of environmental management for Hawaii County, said Mayor Billy Kenoi supports the new telescope project.

"The size of the project in terms of economic impact into the community is going to be significant with jobs and investment," Bishop said.

The $1 million educational commitment is "just tremendous," he said.

The observatory would be built by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Additional participation would come from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Science, and Department of Science and Technology of India, Dawson said.

Several large telescopes are being built in the Andes Mountains of Chile, and plans by the European Southern Observatory include a 42-meter telescope called the European Extremely Large Telescope.

TMT looked at building in Chile, but the nearest city was a two-hour drive and the venture would have had to put in a road and electricity, Dawson said.

Operators would have had to live at the observatory and work for four days, fly to Santiago for four days, then return to the observatory, she said.

A lot of TMT astronomers have ties to other observatories on Mauna Kea, "so the synergy with the existing observatories was really good," she said.

In Hawaii, astronomers can "work on Mauna Kea and drive home," she added. "The headquarters will be right here in Hilo, so there are a lot of advantages to being somewhere in the United States."






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