Looking ahead in 2020: Fate of TMT uncertain after 2-month stalemate

  • Kahookahi Kanuha talks with TMT opponents in July on the Maunakea Access Road. (Tribune-Herald/file photo)

HONOLULU — As 2020 dawns on Maunakea, the fate of the Thirty Meter Telescope seems less certain now than it did a decade ago when the billion-dollar-plus project was first proposed.

Protests and legal and regulatory hurdles over the last five years have helped bring the project where it is today — at a stalemate.

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The TMT International Observatory collaboration continues to pursue construction of its cutting-edge telescope atop Hawaii’s tallest mountain, while the largely Native Hawaiian protesters say they remain committed to preventing that from happening.

For now, apparently, there is a two-month pause on any potential TMT construction activity after Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim negotiated a truce that led to the clearing of the protest camp off Mauna Kea Access Road.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the protest leaders, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week that the stand-down on the mountain is “a welcome thing,” offering opponents an opportunity to engage in a campaign to influence decision making on the TMT issue on the mainland and in Hawaii.

At least one event is being planned: A demonstration at the Hawaii state Capitol in Honolulu when the 2020 legislative session begins Jan. 15.

The protectors, as they like to be called, continue to hold space at the access road, greeting visitors and distributing brochures in an effort to let tourists and others know about the sacred and fragile environs of the mountain.

“This is our Makahiki Season that is specifically meant to bring abundance, joy, celebration and peace, so no matter what the state may decide to do, we remain committed to protect our sacred mauna and to be in deep reverence and aloha,” Mauna Kea Hui leader Kealoha Pisciotta said.

Meanwhile, the TMT has gained the necessary permissions to allow for construction at its Plan B site in the Canary Islands. One local newspaper there reported last week that TIO is already paying license fees there.

However, at least one Canary Islands environmental group, Ben Magec, has vowed to continue to challenge the TMT if and when it is relocated to the island of La Palma.

In addition, reportedly there is a split on the TIO board regarding the La Palma site, with representatives from at least Japan and Canada insisting on sticking with Maunakea. Those two countries control Maunakea observatories that tie in well to the TMT and are reluctant to give up that advantage.

Astronomers advising Canada say Maunakea is well worth holding out for. A recent report to the society’s Canadian Long Range Plan 2020 panel says Maunakea’s site characteristics are vastly superior to the smaller La Palma alternative.

“The preference is so strong that any additional delay, even of several years duration, does not change it,” the report says. “TMT is being built for future generations, and will have a productive lifetime of many decades. We should not be shortsighted about the impact of a few years’ delay, but must build the best telescope we can, on the best site we can: of the options available, this site is Maunakea.”

But funding is a concern. The project is likely to cost several hundred million dollars more than the announced $1.4 billion price tag and more partners may be needed to help chip in.

The TIO is also hoping to win hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The TMT has teamed up with another proposed mega-observatory, the Giant Magellan Telescope under construction in Chile, to formally ask for the money.

Funding decisions are expected in the coming months.

If the TMT is allowed to start construction, it is expected to stretch over a full decade.

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Already, the components and the science instruments that will be mounted on the giant telescope are being manufactured around the world by the project’s partners, which include the astronomy institutions in Canada, India, China and Japan.

Canada is busy producing the main adaptive optics system and the telescope dome, while China is making the tertiary mirror and polishing some primary mirror segments. India is in charge of the observatory software and the support systems for the primary mirror segments, while Japan is making the steel telescope structure and all mirror glass, along with polishing some of the primary mirror segments.

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