Giant Telescope In Hawaii Gets Go-Ahead, If Others Shut Down | Independent Newspapers Limited
Newsletter subscribe


Giant Telescope In Hawaii Gets Go-Ahead, If Others Shut Down

Posted: Jun 4, 2015 at 12:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

One in four must go. Hawaii’s giant Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is back in business after a hiatus of 2 months – but at the expense of other telescopes.

Back in April, construction of the telescope was temporarily halted in the face of mounting protests from native Hawaiians. The telescope would dwarf any observatory now in existence, allowing astronomers to peer to the very edge of the visible universe. Its presence atop the extinct volcano Mauna Kea, however, which many Hawaiians consider sacred ground, was considered an insult – especially since there are more than a dozen telescopes on the summit already.

“When astronomers first came to build on Mauna Kea in the 1960s we were concerned,” says Hawaiian activist Kealoha Pisciotta, “but back in the day Hawaiian people were oppressed and didn’t have a voice.”

That voice has now been heard: On 26 May, Hawaii’s governor David Ige announced that construction on the TMT could resume. But by the time the telescope goes into operation in the mid-2020s, at least one-quarter of the 13 telescopes now on the summit must be shut down.

Not only that: by 2033, the University of Hawaii, which oversees astronomical operations on the summit, will have to abandon 40 of the 45 square kilometres it leases from the state, and promise not to build telescopes on any undeveloped land. And anyone who visits the 4205-metre summit from now on will not only get warnings about altitude sickness, but will also receive training on the peak’s cultural significance.

No one knows which of the 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea will be shut down, apart from the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, which had been scheduled for demolition even before the controversy over the new telescope arose. It’s virtually certain that the twin Keck Telescopes, the Gemini Telescope and the Subaru telescope, all of which are among the most powerful on Earth, will survive. The overall harm to astronomy will be minimal.

The educational value for astronomers, however, could be enormous. Some have dismissed the protests as just a lot of noise from troublemakers, but others have found the episode eye-opening.

“I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t even thought about the impact astronomy has had on indigenous Hawaiians,” says Renée Hlozek, who is just finishing up a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton. “We’ll have to make some sacrifices, but as a community we haven’t been on the receiving end of sacrifice.”