Moments ago, Hawaii’s Governor David Ige announced at the Hawaii State Capital in Honolulu that work will begin on the construction of a controversial massive telescope on Hawaii Island, also known as the “Big Island” in the state of Hawaii, this summer. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a permit to proceed with construction yesterday.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is from a new class of extremely large telescopes that will allow scientists to see deeper into space and observe cosmic objects with unprecedented sensitivity. With its 30 meter prime mirror diameter, TMT will be three times as wide, with nine times more area, than the largest currently existing visible-light telescope in the world. This will provide unparalleled resolution with TMT images more than 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope. When operational, TMT will provide new observational opportunities in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics. Observing in wavelengths ranging from the ultraviolet to the mid-infrared, this unique instrument will allow astronomers to address fundamental questions in astronomy ranging from understanding star and planet formation to unraveling the history of galaxies and the development of large-scale structure in the universe.
The TMT would join several other telescopes already near the summit of the volcano. Just months ago, scientists at Mauna Kea shared the first images snapped of a black hole. The JCMT and Submillimeter Array, both located on Mauna Kea, are among the eight radio telescopes that make up the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of observatories that worked together to image the supermassive black hole, an object with the mass of 6 billion suns that would take up our entire solar system. The network allowed them to make an Earth-sized telescope, without which the object 53 million light-years away wouldn’t be visible. The image and data captured by the Hawaii team allows scientists to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which says gravity is a warping of space and time.
Mauna Kea is the highest location in the state of Hawaii, with its summit standing at 13,800 feet above sea level. Most of the volcano is underwater, and when measured from its oceanic base, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, measuring over 33,000 feet in height. Mauna Kea last erupted 6,000 to 4,000 years ago and is now considered dormant. The peak is about 125 feet higher than Mauna Loa, its more massive neighbor also located on the Big Island of Hawaii.
In Hawaiian mythology, the peaks of the island of Hawaii are considered to be extremely sacred spaces; an ancient law allowed only high-ranking leaders to visit their peak. Some that continue to practice traditional Hawaiian customs believe building an additional telescope would not only create environmental harm on the island, but it would desecrate an area of great religious significance. Because of that, the proposed telescope has been the subject of bitter fights in courts over its future. Last October, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that construction of the telescope could continue.
The TMT isn’t the only giant telescope being built in the world. The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is an astronomical observatory now under construction in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Being built as part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the giant facility will host a 39.3-metre-diameter segmented primary mirror and a 4.2 m (14 ft) diameter secondary mirror, and will be supported by adaptive optics, eight laser guide star units and multiple large science instruments. The observatory will gather 100 million times more light than the human eye and be able to correct for atmospheric distortion. When completed, it will be the largest telescope in the world.