Mixed reactions to plans to build world's largest telescope atop Mauna Kea

Published: Apr. 14, 2013 at 9:27 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 15, 2013 at 1:52 AM HST
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A photo-illustration of the Thirty Meter Telescope
A photo-illustration of the Thirty Meter Telescope

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state's recent approval to build the world's largest telescope atop Mauna Kea has thrilled astronomers eager to explore the edges of the universe. But it also has disappointed environmentalists and Native Hawaiians.

The Thirty Meter Telescope received approval from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources after a two-and-a-half year effort. As its name suggests, the telescope will have a mirror approximately 100 feet in diameter.

"That's three times larger than the world's largest telescopes right now, which are based here in Hawaii on Mauna Kea. So you can think of this being able to see things ten times further or fainter than our best telescopes today," said Gordon Squires, an astronomer with the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

Scientists said that will allow them to see almost to the edge of the universe, with a higher resolution than even the Hubble Space Telescope orbiting the earth.

"We're also going to learn about planets near our own sun, around other stars," said Squires. "Are there life on those planets? We'll be able to look at the atmospheres of those planets and see if there's breathable oxygen, for example."

Hawaii was competing with Chile to be the site for the telescope. Astronomers said efforts were made to alleviate the concerns of environmental groups and Native Hawaiians. "Despite the need to convince the local community that it was a good thing to do, it was still worth proceeding with coming to Hawaii," said Bob McLaren of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

The state's approval includes 24 conditions, including cultural sensitivity training for telescope personnel.

There are currently a dozen telescopes at the summit area of Mauna Kea. Some say that's already enough. "Industrial astronomy has had free rein on the mountain and continues to do so," said Nelson Ho of the Hawaii Sierra Club's Moku Loa Group, who expressed disappointment at the decision.

Hawaiian groups, who consider Mauna Kea's summit to be sacred, also are alarmed at the sheer size of the telescope. They said it could become the tallest building on the island of Hawaii. They also said they're prepared to keep fighting it.

"All is not over yet," said Kealoha Piscionatta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou. "We're still deliberating and trying to make a decision, but we do have the circuit court to appeal to."

Current plans call for construction on the $1.2 billion telescope to begin a year from now, with completion in 2021.

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