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TMT to begin construction

July 29, 2014 - 12:05am

After years of waiting, construction plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope will soon be put to use.

Site clearing for the next Mauna Kea observatory is expected to begin in September with a formal site dedication ceremony to follow in early October, said Sandra Dawson, project spokeswoman.

Construction of the observatory will begin early next year after the mountain loses its snow cap, and the $1.3 billion facility — part of a new generation of advanced optical telescopes — is not expected to be operational until 2022.

Still, seeing the project move off the drawing board is giving its supporters plenty to be excited about.

“It means we will continue to be at the forefront of ground-based astronomical research,” said Bob McLaren, associate director for the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

The TMT International Observatory Board of Directors was given the green light Friday to begin construction after the state Board of Land and Natural Resources dismissed requests for contested case hearings on the project’s sublease.

The sublease with UH covers 8.7 acres on a northern plateau within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.

But the legal fight may not be over yet.

Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the five contested case petitioners, said an appeal of the board’s decision will be made to the 3rd Circuit Court in Hilo.

In their request, the petitioners, who see the mountain as sacred, said further development will negatively impact Native Hawaiian cultural practices and the environment. They also believe BLNR erred by holding the meeting in Honolulu rather than the Big Island.

“The destruction of our mountain is not negotiable,” Pisciotta said.

If the appeal is made, it will be the second regarding the project.

Another appeal was filed in the state Intermediate Court of Appeals earlier this year regarding a decision in 3rd Circuit Court to uphold the project’s conservation district use permit. That stemmed from a previous contested case hearing.

Pisciotta said that appeal will likely be taken to the state Supreme Court.

Dawson said neither appeal will impact construction, and she doesn’t expect them to be a major issue for the project.

“We’ve been before the land board several times, we had a contested case hearing with a hearings officer and we had been before the court in Hilo,” she said. “And, in every case, the ruling was in favor of the university and the project.”

Dawson said cultural advisers will be on site during construction.

Meanwhile, manufacturing of parts for the telescope is ongoing in partner countries, the TMT board said in a statement Monday. Final design work is also occurring.

The TMT will be part of a new class of telescopes, and the only one in the northern hemisphere, McLaren said.

He said it will be able to capture 10 times more light than the Keck Observatory, which will allow it to peer deeper into the universe and capture faint images of planets in distant solar systems.

“That’s sort of the holy grail so to speak for this type of work,” McLaren said.

Two other large telescopes are also planned to be finished about the same time. Both will be located in Chile.

According to its website, the Giant Magellan Telescope will have a 24.5-meter mirror made up of six segments. It’s scheduled to be finished in 2020.

The European Extremely Large Telescope will be an even larger 39-meter telescope. It’s expected to be operational in 2024.

TMT founding members include Caltech, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Science, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences in Japan and the University of California. India and Canada are both “associates” of the project but are expected to become full members, the board said.

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