Sunday, December 06, 2015

Hawaii Supreme Court Rescinds Permit to Build Thirty Meter Telescope

          By Henry Stewart

It's big in Hawaii, but in Canada, the story seems to be relegated to the bottom of the news cycle. This is a shame, because our last Federal government committed several hundred million dollars to its construction, and our current one will likely be on the hook for several hundreds of millions more to cover the costs associated with the inevitable delays resulting from this latest setback.

There's big money in large telescopes and the TMT (on the right, above) is only one of three new and extremely large telescopes, expected to be built over the next ten years. As outlined on the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) partners website, GMT partners include Astronomy Australia,the Carnegie Institution for Science,  Harvard University, the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI), the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP),  the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago. The European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), is an inter-governmental organisation supported by 16 member states, along with the host state of Chile.  The Thirty Meter Telescope Observation Corporation partners include the California Institute of Technology, the Department of Science and Technology of India, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), National Institutes of Natural Sciences/National Astronomical Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada and the University of California. Each of the three organizations insists that their particular project is needed to maintain the high academic reputations currently enjoyed by their academic partners and the ongoing funding which normally accrues as a result of this reputation. Info-graphic c/o

As outlined in the December 3rd, 2015 New York Times post, "Hawaii Court Rescinds Permit to Build Thirty Meter Telescope," the Hawaiian state supreme court has rescinded the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a $1.4Bln USD observatory planned for the state’s tallest mountain, the 33,000 foot tall Mauna Kea, a revered symbol in Hawaiian culture.

But Mauna Kea is also considered to be the best stargazing spot on the planet and is a state-designated conservation district. According to the article:
Opponents of the project have contended that the planned telescope, which at 18 stories high would be the biggest building on the Big Island, is industrial development and would violate the rules for such zones. In 2005, a court-ordered environmental impact statement concluded that 30 years of astronomy had had an adverse effect on nature and culture on the mountain.
The planned TMT, isn't the only observatory in the area. As outlined in the November 19th, 2015 Business Intelligence article, "This giant telescope will taint sacred land. Here's why we should build it anyway," there are already thirteen other space telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea, and they are there mostly because the University of Hawaii deemed the place to be a reserve for astronomy in the 1960's in the aftermath of a tsunami that swept over the city in 1960.

Mauna Kea is home to the largest concentration of telescopes in the northern hemisphere, and includes almost a dozen optical, near-infrared, sub-millimeter and radio telescopes. These include the United Kingdom Infared Telescope (UKIRT), the Canada France Hawaii telescope, the NASA Infrared Facility (IRTF) and the two Keck 10-metre telescopes. Photo c/o the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii

As outlined in the article:
There are now 13 telescopes on the mountaintop, but they have brought less of an economic boom than expected. Hawaii still consistently ranks among the worst places for business and economics. And this year Hawaii was rated the worst state to do business by CNBC’s annual America’s Top States for Business ranking. Meanwhile, native Hawaiians bear a disproportionate chunk of the economic burden 
The telescopes were supposed to help change that and didn’t. The problem is that most observatory jobs do not go to Hawaiians, Sarah Ballard, an astronomer at the University of Washington, told Tech Insider. Most jobs are outsourced to the universities and organisations that invest in the telescopes...
But the article also insists that "the TMT corporation knows Mauna Kea is in high demand, so it has deviated from the business-as-usual approach." It credits TMT with at least trying to provide a fair market value for its land investment on Mauna Kea. As outlined in the latest proposals:
  • TMT will pay $1Mln USD ($1.34Mln CDN) per year for its space on the summit. Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Management group is tasked with preserving and protecting the mountain, and it will get 80% of the rent. The remaining 20% will go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs that works to improve the well-being of native Hawaiians.
  • TMT has committed to a $1Mln USD per year ($1.34Mln CDN) community benefit package. This will go toward a STEM-education program for Hawaiian students called the THINK fund. TMT has already started contributing to this fund.
  • TMT is also setting up an annual $Mln 1USD ($1.34 CDN) fund to help funnel local Hawaiians into observatory jobs. Called the Workforce Pipeline Program, it will partner with local colleges and the Department of Education to create training programs, internships, and summer jobs for the kinds of engineering and tech positions required to operate and maintain the telescope.

As outlined on the Canada and the 30 meter telescope website, the instruments will be used to identify the wonders of our universe. A report released in 2000 under the title, "The Origins of Structures in the Universe," identified the TMT as the ‘highest priority project,’ for Canadian astronomers. Graphic c/o Canada and the Thirty Metre Telescope.

Should the program ever move forward the 30 meter telescope is "set to alter Canadian astronomy," at least as outlined in the April 7th, 2015 Globe and Mail post, "Thirty Meter Telescope project set to alter Canadian astronomy." According to the article the Stephen Harper conservative government had committed to spending $243.5Mln CDN on the TMT.

But after the latest round of adventures, more funding will certainly be needed.

The final decision on the TMT and Mauna Kea will likely take time to set up. Whether or not it moves forward is an interesting question that won't be answered any time soon.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym for a Toronto based aerospace writer. 

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