TMT VP says decision needed ‘sooner’ than two years

HILO — Although the deadline to begin construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope was pushed back until 2021, project authorities believe a decision about the project’s future will have to be made soon.

“I don’t know what ‘soon’ exactly means in this situation, but definitely sooner than two years,” said Gordon Squires, TMT’s vice president of external affairs.

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Squires said Wednesday that the continued inaction on the project — which was scheduled to begin construction on Maunakea in July, but has since been impeded by demonstrators blocking the Maunakea Access Road — may cause some of the project’s partners to reconsider their involvement.

“All of our partners are concerned right now,” Squires said, explaining that the project’s six partners — including government agencies of Canada, Japan and India, the National Astronomy Observatory of China, and the University of California and Caltech — remain committed to building TMT, but have to justify the substantial amount of money they supply the project each year.

The government agencies, in particular, need to solicit funds from their respective countries’ national budgets, Squires said, which may become harder to justify as the standoff continues.

Ultimately, Squires said, the partners will have to choose between three options: to build on Maunakea; to build on its secondary location, the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands; or to not build at all.

“At some stage, we need to have a site to build on,” Squires said.

A partner dropping out of the project could be disastrous for TMT. Beyond their financial support, each partner is responsible for constructing various parts of the telescope; if Canada, which is building TMT’s dome, were to drop out, the project would have to source the dome from elsewhere.

While Squires said there are other organizations and agencies that could potentially become partners, most of the potential candidates are already committed to other large-scale telescope projects like the Giant Magellan Telescope or the Extremely Large Telescope, both under construction in Chile.

However, TMT may yet receive federal funding from the U.S. government pending results of a survey of major astronomy projects. The National Academy of Sciences’ Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey reviews the state of the astronomy and astrophysics fields and recommends projects worthy of U.S. federal funding.

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Should the survey identify TMT as a sufficiently high-priority project in 2020, the project could receive backing from the National Science Foundation.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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