Holding out “several years“ for construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea may be worth it to get the superior viewing conditions found atop Hawaii’s tallest mountain, according to a committee advising Canada, a partner in the TMT project.
The Canadian Astronomical Society’s TMT advisory committee released a report late last week expressing a strong commitment to the Mauna Kea site and the $1.4 billion project in general despite the delays that have stalled the next-generation telescope for five years.
What’s more, the committee, according to the report, “remains hopeful that (Hawaii island) Mayor (Harry) Kim will be able to identify a process through which TMT will be broadly welcomed in Hawaii. This guarded optimism stems from recognition that a) there are many, perhaps a large majority, of Hawaiians that support the telescope construction, and b) many of the concerns that motivate the protesters and their supporters have little to do with TMT itself.”
Kim released his report Monday calling for, among other things, a new governance structure over the Mauna Kea summit, one that will include Native Hawaiian representation, and accelerating Department of Hawaiian Homelands homesteads.
“Yes, we are hoping that Hawaiians will come together to find a way forward that works for everyone,” Michael Balogh, professor of physics and astronomy at Canada’s University of Waterloo, said in an email Monday.
Balogh is chairman of a joint committee of the Canadian Astronomical Society and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy that formed to take a closer look at the issues surrounding TMT’s location.
“It may take some time, but there are serious issues to resolve. It is important to do this right, for the future of Hawaii and Hawaiians, as well as for this particular project,” Balogh said.
While many opponents of the project are hoping the TMT International Observatory board is nearing a decision to move its project to an alternative site in the Canary Islands, this report suggests that at least some TMT decision-makers may be willing to hold out for Hawaii for awhile.
Friday’s report to the society’s Canadian Long Range Plan 2020 panel says Mauna Kea’s site characteristics are vastly superior to the La Palma alternative.
“The preference is so strong that any additional delay, even of several years duration, does not change it,” the report says. “TMT is being built for future generations, and will have a productive lifetime of many decades. We should not be shortsighted about the impact of a few years’ delay, but must build the best telescope we can, on the best site we can: of the options available, this site is Maunakea.”
Inferior but acceptable
According to the report, the lower-elevation Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos site on La Palma greatly compromises observations in the “mid-infrared” and “extreme blue” regions of space.
“This impacts a relatively small number of science cases, but they are some of the most compelling, including the search for biosignatures on exoplanets. Searching for life on other planets is one of the most exciting things we can do as a human race, and it is something that neither (of the other planned next- generation telescopes) will be able to do as well.”
Observations in the near- infrared are also impacted, with integration times 20% to 40% times longer on La Palma than on Mauna Kea, the report says.
While La Palma is indeed an inferior site, it is also “an acceptable site” that will allow TMT to conduct “transformational science,” the report says. If it becomes impossible to build in Hawaii or if a decision to pursue Mauna Kea jeopardizes the future of the project, that’s when a move is recommended.
But moving may not be as easy as it sounds, the report says, because pursuing the permit for construction on La Palma has been a slow process with unanticipated hurdles.
“This includes legal challenges by an environmental group that has a history of opposing development on the Canary Islands. This group appears to have been somewhat energized by the protests on Maunakea,” the report says.
As of Friday, a building permit on La Palma has still not been secured.
“While it is likely this will ultimately be successful, there is still potential for delay,” the document says.
Mauna Kea astronomer and Yes2TMT spokesman Thayne Currie said the Canadian report appears to have the situation in Hawaii pegged.
“I think the Canadians have it pitch perfect,” he said. “Mauna Kea is the best site for TMT and it’s worth letting the process play itself out, even if it means some delays.”
More money needed
The report also talks generally about the cost of the TMT project, which has increased significantly over the past five years. Canada will need to pony up more money, it says.
Both Canada and Japan are manufacturing major pieces of TMT infrastructure, and the cost of those have increased significantly over the past five years. More money will be needed to keep these contracts and the share of the project they represent, the report says.
Additional partners will be needed to complete the project, according to the report, and the top choice is the U.S. through the National Science Foundation, which is preparing to evaluate major funding priorities in its 2020 Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics.
But no NSF funding would flow before 2023, the report says, and there is a need for additional contribution prior to that date. And if NSF does make a commitment, the contribution will likely trigger the need for a federal Environmental Impact Statement, which could take two years or longer to complete.
Balogh said that if the NSF money does not come, it would leave a significant gap in construction funding that would need to be filled.
“I am fairly confident that, if a route forward can be found to construction in Hawaii, the project will get a top ranking in the U.S. Decadal Survey — because it is an outstanding project that will keep the U.S. and its partners at the forefront of optical/infrared astronomy for decades,” Balogh said.