From Nature: “Canada weighs scientific consequences of moving a mega-telescope’

Nature Mag

30 May 2017
Alexandra Witze

Existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea take advantage of the mountain’s world-class astronomical observing conditions. Babak Tafreshi/NGC

Is second-best good enough? That’s the question Canadian astronomers will confront this week as they analyze how relocating the planned Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) could affect their science plans.

TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

A study looking at the consequences of such a move, which researchers will present on 31 May at a meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society in Edmonton, finds that they’ll still be able to do most of what they want to do — but not everything.

Legal challenges to the construction of the TMT on the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Kea meant the international collaboration behind the facility had to consider an alternate site. But less than ideal observing conditions at their back-up site could keep scientists from pursuing what is likely to be one of the hottest topics in astronomy in the coming decade: investigating exoplanet atmospheres.

The mega-telescope is “a critical component of the Canadian astronomical landscape,” says Michael Balogh, an astronomer at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The country — one of six major international partners — has committed CAN$243 million (US$180 million) to the project. “If we have to move, it’s effectively a de-scope in the project,” says Balogh.
A long, hard look

The back-up site, Roque de los Muchachos in La Palma, the Canary Islands, is lower in elevation than Mauna Kea, and its skies are more turbulent than those above the Hawaii mountain.

Isaac Newton Group telescopes, at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain

That means that observing conditions are not quite as good; in particular, the extra atmosphere above La Palma interferes with much of the observing in mid-infrared wavelengths of light, the sweet spot for looking at exoplanet atmospheres.

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