Besieged Mauna Kea Telescope Finds a Plan B

From Scientific American:

The decision, announced on October 31 by the TMT International Observatory’s board of governors, creates an alternative path forward for the troubled mega-telescope. The project’s opponents blocked access to the Mauna Kea site in April 2015, halting construction, although work on the telescope’s components continues at sites around the world. Native Hawaiians regard the decision to build the TMT on Mauna Kea as the continued desecration of a sacred mountain top that hosts 13 other telescopes, some of which are being decommissioned.

In December, Hawaii’s state supreme court nullified the permit that would have allowed construction of the TMT to proceed. A fresh round of hearings began this month, in which TMT officials are seeking a new permit from the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources.

“We’ll be watching the situation in Hawaii carefully, hoping that continues to move forward,” says Fiona Harrison, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a member of the TMT board of governors. “And the success of those efforts will determine whether we can build the TMT in Hawaii.”

Mauna Kea remains the TMT board’s preferred site, but the path to build the US$1.5-billion telescope there is narrowing. TMT officials want to start construction no later than April 2018. But the legal battle surrounding the telescope could drag on for months.

“We just want a mountain to start building on,” says Christophe Dumas, a scientist with the TMT International Observatory in Pasadena.

The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, on La Palma, won out for the second-place spot over San Pedro Mártir on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula and two sites in Chile. Existing infrastructure—such as a road going up the mountain, and dormitories for work crews—helped to tip the balance in La Palma’s favour, Harrison says. The exact site has not yet been decided, but …

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