The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) might have to be built in La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands due to Native Hawaiians opposition to the new observatory. The TMT International Observatory’s board of governors announced Monday that Spain is the alternative location if the TMT is denied to built atop the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Kea as planned.

Native Hawaiians are fighting for their rights. They want to restore their sovereignty and Mauna Kea is part of their territory, which they believe to be a sacred place. The fight for the mountain started in April 2015 and halted the TMT International Observatory construction. Mauna Kea already hosts 13 telescopes, and although some of them are being decommissioned, the natives do not want to allow more structures in the mountain.

The Thirty Meter Telescope might have to be built in La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands. Photo credit: Thirty Meter Telescope / Forbes
The Thirty Meter Telescope might have to be built in La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands. Photo credit: Thirty Meter Telescope / Forbes

Indigenous efforts manage that the Hawaii’s state supreme court nullified the permit for the observatory in December. Hearings regarding the situation began this month. TMT officials are trying to keep the space because it is the best location for the telescope, which will allow the best conditions to study the night sky.

The TMT International Observatory needs authorization from the state’s Bureau of Land and Natural resources to continue the construction, but if the talks take too long, La Palma in Spain’s Canary Island will be home to the TMT. The observatory construction cannot start later than April 2018.

The hearings are expected to conclude by November. After that, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources will decide to grant the permit or not, but either way, it is sure that the decision will be appealed to the state supreme court, another procedure that could take months. The odds to build the $1.5-billion telescope in Hawaii are against the new observatory.

The TMT board wants to build the telescope in Mauna Kea since 2009 due to its exceptional observing conditions which include cold temperatures and low humidity. The second place on the list was Cerro Armazones in Chile, but the site was taken in 2010 by the European Extremely Large Telescope and its planned 39-meter observatory.

The TMT board chose the next best location to build their observatory

There were other several options to build the TMT, but the Observatorio del Roque de Los Muchachos on La Palma was the one with the best observing conditions and with some essential characteristics for a construction plan. La Palma already has roads leading to the mountain and dormitories for the work crews. It won the construction site over San Pedro Mártir on Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

Fiona Harrison, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and member of the TMT board of governors, stated that the observatory had not decided the exact spot for the construction if it happens to be in La Palma. Harrison said that there is a place just outside the Observatorio del Roque de Los Muchachos that could suit the TMT needs. If Hawaii denies the permit to the telescope after the hearings and the appealed motion, the observatory could quickly start the construction in Spain.

Mauna Kea already hosts 13 telescopes. Photo credit: Wikiwand
Mauna Kea already hosts 13 telescopes. Photo credit: Wikiwand

Mauna Kea is 4,050 meters high, compared to La Palma’s elevation of 2,250 meters, which means the Spain site has more atmosphere between the possible TMT construction and the sky it wants to observe. When there is more atmosphere between an observatory and the sky, there is more water vapor in the telescope’s line of sight to block mid-infrared wavelengths and degrade measurements.

Some proposed mid-infrared instruments for the TMT can penetrate dust-obscured regions. Harrison said the observatory would be built to overcome any obstacles that the La Palma site presents. The telescope could accommodate mid-infrared astronomy by coordinating observations with the time when conditions are best, for example. The observatory could also develop sophisticated adaptive optics to sharpen the measurements and not let La Palma’s height affect the TMT work.

Harrison said the TMT board would be closely following the situation in Hawaii hoping they get the permit. She thinks that the success of the observatory efforts to build in Hawaii will determine if the TMT gets to stay in Mauna Kea. Christophe Dumas, a scientist with the TMT International Observatory in Pasadena, California, stated that they just want a mountain to start building the observatory.  

Even when Hawaii is not a precise location, the TMT’s components continue to be built outside the state. Scientists just want to ensure where they will install it to start building the observatory.

Native Hawaiians and their fight against astronomical sites: The observatories are destroying precious places for the indigenous

Native Hawaiians fight against observatory sites is not new, but their opposition to the TMT construction is a significant step to regain their sovereignty. Protests against the new observatory is a fight for indigenous territories in Hawaii and part of a larger movement: The recognition of aboriginal rights in America and the world.

The legal fight for Mauna Kea continues, but Native Hawaiians think the hearings are compromised. Retired Judge Riki May Amano is currently hearing testimony from both sides in the TMT case, but Amano’s family relations with the astronomy-education center in Hilo does not assure that the retired judge will be objective with the Native Hawaiians testimonies. Either way, the hearings decision will be appealed, that is almost a fact.

Source: Nature