United States Launches Environmental Study for Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea | Hawaii

The National Science Foundation will examine the environmental impacts of an optical telescope project atop Hawaii’s tallest mountain, a project that has faced strong opposition from native Hawaiians who consider the area sacred.

Native Hawaiians have long protested plans to build what would be one of the world’s largest optical telescopes on Mauna Kea, and say the $2.65 billion project will further soil an area already damaged by a dozen other observatories.

The National Science Foundation on Tuesday released a notice of its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the $2.65 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, as well as another telescope project on Spain’s Canary Islands. He will host several meetings on the Big Island of Hawaii in August and said after considering public feedback, environmental review and technical readiness of the project, he will decide whether to fund the project. .

The international consortium of scientists behind the effort, the TMT International Observatory (TIO), has been pursuing plans to build the telescope on Mauna Kea for more than a decade and in 2010 completed an environmental study required by Hawaiian law for building on Mauna Kea. Mountain peak. TIO has offered to build the telescope on the Spanish island of La Palma off the west coast of Africa if it cannot build in Hawaii.

The Gran Telescopio Canarias, one of the largest telescopes in the world, is located in La Palma, Spain, where TIO has proposed to build the Thirty Meter Telescope. Photograph: Carlos Moreno/AP

The latest study is required under US law for the National Science Foundation to invest in the project. TIO, a partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and government-supported research institutes in Canada, China, India and Japan, plans to raise $800 million, or 30% of the estimated cost of construction, from the US government, according to a report.

Government funding will allow the entire US astronomical community to access the observatory, Robert P Kirshner, executive director of TIO, said in a statement.

“This ensures that the TIO is testing the best ideas and making the most important observations to help understand where we are in the universe and how it works,” he said.

Proponents of the project have argued that it will bring jobs and educational opportunities to the area, including through scholarships for students from the island of Hawaii.

Native Hawaiians who have been arrested and charged for protesting the project say the sacred site should not be further desecrated. “For Native Hawaiians, there is an issue of our right to self-determination as defined by international law, but I think it’s so much bigger than that,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, spokesperson for the groups. Mauna Kea Hui and Mauna Kea Aina Hou, who oppose the project, had previously told the Guardian. “It’s about teaching us to live and be interdependent.”

A policeman with his back to the camera addresses a group of people holding flags and placards.
A police officer speaks to protesters on July 15, 2019 blocking a road at the base of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain. Photograph: Caleb Jones/AP

Pisciotta slammed the new study, which she says will force opponents to walk away from their lives again to give their point of view.

“Why don’t people accept our ‘no’ for the answer?” said Pisciotta.

In a report released last year, the US astronomy community said the National Science Foundation should invest in at least one or two of a new class of observatories called Extremely Large Telescopes being planned by US institutions. The proposed project in Hawaii would cover the sky from the northern hemisphere, while the giant Magellan Telescope project, based in Chile, would observe the universe from the southern hemisphere.

The report deemed the projects’ success critical because of their “transformative scientific potential” and said having at least one was “absolutely essential” for the United States to remain a leader in ground-based astronomy.

The The University of Hawaii and the U.S. government began using Mauna Kea for astronomy purposes in the 1970s because its frequent clear nights, dry atmosphere, and dark skies make it one of the best places in the world. world to observe deep space.

Denise W. Whigham