A lot has happened in the four years since construction of the landmark Thirty Meter Telescope was stopped in its tracks by protesters and ultimately the Hawaii Supreme Court.
The legal and regulatory twists seemed to play themselves out front and center with all the drama of a television soap opera.
But through it all the telescope design remains largely the same, according to the project developer. It’s still the same next-generation instrument that promises to push astronomy to a higher level.
Now that the TMT has finally received the green light for construction on Mauna Kea, astronomers are over the moon.
“It’s going to be transformative. It does things we can’t do now,” said Thayne Currie, a Mauna Kea astronomer and TMT supporter.
“Every time you open a better window on the universe, you discover all kinds of things,” said Roy Gal, associate astronomer with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy.
TMT International Observatory LLC isn’t saying when construction will commence at its site near the summit of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, except to say it will be sometime this summer.
Whether the project sees the light of day (night?) may be up to the largely Native Hawaiian “protectors” who have mounted social media campaigns and demonstrations over the past four years to supplement a legal and regulatory fight that was ultimately thwarted by the state’s highest court.
While they have vowed to protect their sacred mountain and prevent crews from reaching the construction site like they did in 2015, Gov. David Ige and his lieutenants have promised to ensure lawful access by the TMT workers and have reportedly drawn up a plan with law enforcement to make that happen.
At risk to the state are millions in fees and educational and economic dollars that will flow from the project. Some say even the future of Hawaii astronomy is at stake.
“I don’t want to imagine that future,” Currie said.
The TMT is one of three extremely large-class telescopes expected to put the exploration of the universe on steroids.
Like TMT, Europe’s 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope and another U.S. project, the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope, will have massive mirrors capable of gathering enough light to see galaxies forming in the early universe and peer at the atmospheres of exoplanets, the planets of distant stars.
“It may help us answer the question, Are we alone?” Gal said.
The TMT timeline was once ahead of its rivals — now under construction on separate mountaintops in Chile — but is now lagging behind with a construction schedule expected to stretch over a full decade.
While the Hawaii telescope might miss out on some of the early, low-hanging discoveries, scientists say it will have a monopoly on the sky in the Northern Hemisphere and be located in what is arguably the best place in the world for astronomy.
A dozen years ago, when the TMT was first being unveiled, scientists were aiming for a 2009 construction launch that would achieve “first light” in 2015. The estimated cost: $750 million.
Today estimated costs have ballooned to $1.4 billion and will probably be several hundred million dollars higher before it’s all over.
TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said an updated project cost would be determined once on-site construction officially begins.
Meanwhile, the components and the science instruments that will be mounted on the enormous telescope are being manufactured around the world by the project’s array of partners, which include the astronomy institutions in Canada, India, China and Japan.
Canada is producing the main adaptive optics system and the telescope dome, while China is making the tertiary mirror and polishing some primary mirror segments. India is in charge of the observatory software and the support systems for the primary mirror segments, while Japan is making the steel telescope structure and all mirror glass, along with polishing some of the primary mirror segments.
Ishikawa said the TMT Board of Governors does not need to vote whether to proceed in Hawaii, since it has always maintained the position Mauna Kea is its first choice.
But the second choice, La Palma in the Canary Islands, remains a viable backup site, should that become necessary, he said.
Here are some of the details of the TMT:
>> The observatory is 180 feet tall with an exterior diameter of 216 feet.
>> The dome base, cap and shutter structures will appear rounded and smooth and have a reflective, metallic exterior coating.
>> The dome shutter will be 102.5 feet in diameter, and it will retract inside the dome when opened.
>> The dome will rotate on two planes, one horizontal at the base structure 25 feet above the ground and the other at roughly 25 degrees at the cap structure, enabling the telescope to view from straight up into the sky to 65 degrees toward the horizon.
>> The fixed cylindrical structure below the rotating base will enclose 35,000 square feet and extend to 25 feet above-grade. That portion of the structure will be lava-colored.
>> A one-story support building will be attached to the dome. It will have a roof area of about 21,000 square feet, a total interior floor area of roughly 18,000 square feet, a flat roof and be lava-colored.