September 21, 2015
This artist’s rendering shows how the Thirty Meter Telescope (lower left) might look on Mauna Kea. Courtesy of TMT.
The TMT International Observatory is sticking with the same timeline for completing its giant telescope on Mauna Kea despite protests that have halted land clearing at its construction site for nearly six months and a legal challenge before the state Supreme Court, according to one of its board members.
Michael Bolte, an astronomy professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told the Tribune-Herald on Friday that he still hopes to have the Thirty Meter Telescope ready to begin studying the stars in 2024. That’s assuming the court upholds its Conservation District land use permit and a resolution is found with the mostly Native Hawaiian protesters, who view construction on the mountain as desecration of sacred land.
“That’s still our target and I think we can still meet that,” he said, cautiously.
While grubbing and grading has been on hold since late March, when protesters first blocked workers from reaching the TMT site below the summit, Bolte said design and production of telescope parts and structures continues in each of the five partner countries, helping to keep other aspects of the $1.4 billion endeavor more or less on track.
“Pretty much in all the partner countries activities are running full speed ahead,” he said.
The project’s nonprofit corporation is based in Pasadena, Calif., but it is supported and funded by Canada, China, India and Japan, in addition to Caltech and the University of California. Each partner is currently playing a role in getting the project ready for when construction might be able to resume, Bolte said.
He said a few segments that will make up the telescope’s massive 30-meter-wide primary mirror have been built. The parts will be mass produced in four countries.
“I think it’s going to happen soon,” Bolte said, regarding mass production. “I don’t have the schedule.”
Rather than one giant piece of glass, the mirror is made of 492 segments, similar to the Keck telescopes, though on a larger scale.
He said the segments have to be extremely precise and the more difficult pieces are being manufactured first.
The two Keck telescopes, also on Mauna Kea, have the world’s largest mirrors at 10 meters across each. TMT will have the largest next to an even bigger 39-meter telescope planned for completion in Chile about the same time.
Bolte said the TMT’s primary mirror would be 12 times more powerful than the Hubble space telescope.
It’s expected to capture images of the universe’s first galaxies and stars, and allow other objects to be seen more clearly.
In Japan, he said prototypes of the telescope structure, which will hold the mirror, are being made, while the mirror’s sensors and actuators are being designed or built in India.
China is working on secondary and tertiary mirrors, in addition to designing the sodium laser that will be used for the telescope’s adaptive optics system, he said.
The laser allows the telescope to adjust for the atmosphere’s distortion by creating a fake star. That system is used on other Mauna Kea telescopes, though TMT would be the first to have it from the start.
Canada, which is responsible for building the telescope’s dome, also is working on the adaptive optics system, Bolte said.
In the United States, Caltech and the University of California are working on the instrumentation and the control systems that will run the telescope, he said.
“Everybody has bits and pieces of almost everything,” Bolte said.
He estimated hundreds of people are working on the TMT project around the globe. TMT estimates it will create about 130 permanent jobs on the Big Island.
Bolte said a lot of the work is on five- to eight-year timelines, which is why it’s not being delayed.
But are the delays on the mountain affecting the project in the long run?
Bolte wasn’t ready to make that statement.
“Eventually, that has to be the case,” he said, regarding grubbing and grading work resuming.
“The delays are pretty small in the big project timeline. I don’t know when serious replanning would start. I hope we don’t get to that.”
Bolte also said the board hasn’t updated the estimated cost of the project, which is $1.4 billion in 2012 dollars, despite construction delays and higher security costs.
With its land use permit before the Supreme Court, there’s also the possibility of the project having to seek approval again from the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources if the justices find the land board violated the due process of TMT opponents.
If that happens, he said the TMT board would have to decide whether it wants to stick with Mauna Kea and restart the process in the face of stiffer opposition.
“The answer is yes, probably,” Bolte said, when asked if it would still try to build the telescope on the mountain.
“As a board, we will just have to consider that.”
For now, he said there is no timeline for resuming construction.
“We have been patient,” Bolte said. “These are real issues in Hawaii. The protesters had the question mark about the state process. We don’t want to be pushy.”
Despite the challenges, he said he isn’t discouraged, adding the advance in science TMT represents helps keep him feeling positive.
“I give a lot of talks about TMT,” Bolte said. “Every time I do that I get really excited.
“Every time I review my slides I’m just amazed how powerful it’s going to be and how it’s going to solve all the things that are right at the edge of our knowledge right now.
“I think we’re going to get through all these challenges on Mauna Kea, build this, and this is going to be one of the most productive scientific facilities of this century.”
In addition to providing the best pictures of the early universe, the telescope is expected to be able to determine if life exists, or can exist, on planets in other solar systems by studying the light spectrum from the distant worlds.
The TMT won’t be alone in cutting-edge astronomy. The 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope [GMT] and the ESO 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope are planned for completion in Chile about the same time, if not earlier.
Still, astronomers say TMT is needed since it will be the only one of its kind in the northern hemisphere, meaning it would see parts of the universe the telescopes in Chile can’t.
“In astronomy research … the two (Chile and Hawaii) have played almost equally important roles,” Bolte said.
“They are very complimentary.”
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Near the center of Pasadena, California, a team of scientists, engineers, and project specialists is busily planning and designing what eventually will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth. When completed later this decade, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time.
The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy
California Institute of Technology
Department of Science and Technology of India
The National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC)
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
University of California