Wednesday, 22 October 2008


A group from the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy and the California Institute of Technology have been doing the rounds recently on the Big Island. There have been several meetings and presentations with the local population encouraged to attend. The "public scope" meetings are for discussion of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

The TMT will be the largest optical telescope in the world when built with a mirror three times the size of the current largest telescopes. I don't know if it will revolutionise observational astronomy, there are still plenty of new things to discover using the existing smaller telescopes, but it will certainly allow observations of the faintest astronomical objects and we'll learn a lot more about the early universe among many other things.

As to where the telescope will go, the decision seems to be between two of the best astronomical sites in the world, Mauna Kea in Hawai`i and Cerro Armazones in Chile. There are likely several scientific arguments for either site, but putting that aside for the moment, the proposal for building the telescope on Mauna Kea has been controversial to say the least; according to colleagues who have been able to attend the public scope meetings, there is a lot of strongly-felt local opposition to the project. I just read a blog in the local rag (*) where the comments were, what shall I say, somewhat outspoken.

The main reason behind the opposition to building on Mauna Kea appears to be cultural with some environmental concerns as well. Many Hawai`ians consider the summit a burial ground and therefore sacred, and they are already upset about the number of observatories on the summit, so constructing another, massive observatory is simply unacceptable to them. I hope there is room for compromise, because I don't think there's any doubt that the TMT will be a great benefit to the island.

Construction alone will take seven years and provide employment for local companies. The observatory will require a significant local workforce to run successfully (just like the other telescopes on the summit). There appears to be an opinion among many locals that the observatories employ only people from the mainland and abroad, but this simply isn't true. Most of the observatories' employees are locals - and well-payed ones at that.

I hope people won't be too shortsighted (nearsighted for my American friends!). The economy is in a mess and Hawaii's biggest industry, tourism, is tanking with drops in tourist rates of 20% or more compared to last year. People are going to become unemployed, there's no way of avoiding that. We've already lost a famous airline within the islands, Aloha, and it will likely get worse. Restaurants are closing, hotels can't fill their rooms and there's even talk of hospitals going bankrupt.

The TMT is a gift horse, let's try and find a way to actually make it happen in Hawai`i.

(*) Apologies, I think registration is required.

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