Report from the CASCA/ACURA TMT Advisory Committee

By Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2017)

CATAC’s first report to ACURA and CASCA has been made publicly available, at http://casca.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/CATAC-Report-Final.pdf. This report is the result of broad consultation with the community, members of the TMT project office, experts in adaptive optics, site testing and computational fluid dynamics, and Directors and users of telescopes on the Canary Islands. The report includes a quantitative comparison of the capabilities of TMT on its preferred site on Maunakea (MK13N), relative to the alternative site (Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, ORM) and the other 30-m class facilities under development: ELT and GMT. In summary we find that TMT is most capable and competitive if it can be constructed as planned on MK13N. However, if it proves necessary to move to ORM, TMT will still deliver transformative science that will meet the needs of the majority of the Canadian community. We made the following specific recommendations, which are worth repeating here:

  1. Given that ELT will be located at a better site, with a substantial aperture advantage, competitiveness now and in the future for TMT will require extracting the maximum from instrumentation and operations. Innovation will be of fundamental importance. A robust development budget with stable funding commitments is also essential. Operations must include an adaptive queue, and should allow observing flexibility. Canadian participation in a VLOT that fails to meet these basic national facility requirements should not be considered.

  2. TMT@MK13N offers significant competitive advantages relative to ELT. In particular it is expected to outperform ELT in the UV and MIR, while remaining competitive for visible and NIR observations. Therefore the site on MK should not be given up prematurely. The decision to move to ORM should only be made once it is clear that construction on MK will delay the project significantly relative to ELT, or fail to attract the necessary funding. As both the realistic timeline for ELT and the funding opportunities for TMT remain uncertain, we should proceed with caution.

  3. The broader Canadian community should be engaged in a project to which we are dedicating so many resources. We should aim to have ~5 Canadians on each science team. They should be representative in terms of geography, institution, gender, and career stage. While all Canadian researchers are encouraged to apply, CATAC (or LRPIC) should also develop a list of specific individuals to approach to apply for ISDT membership well before the next call (January 2018). LRPIC should investigate whether there exist mechanisms within the Canadian funding ecosystem to support ISDT activities, or whether a new allocation should be sought, perhaps by ACURA.

We presented a summary of our findings at this year’s CASCA meeting in Edmonton. From the ensuing discussions (during both the CATAC lunch meeting and the LRPIC/CATAC meeting the following morning) we took away the following:

  • The community remains strongly supportive of TMT on Maunakea. A move to ORM would generally be disappointing. However, when asked directly, no one stated that they would be unable to achieve significant scientific progress with TMT if it were located on ORM. This is strong affirmation that the alternative site will be acceptable to the Canadian community.
  • The community is dissatisfied with the TMT project’s transparency regarding its financial planning and overall viability. Little or no information about how the Board is dealing with the financial shortfall is available, and this lack of communication has resulted in some skepticism in the community regarding the project’s ability to complete construction.
  • The Canadian astronomical community is aware of the conflicting interests on Maunakea, and respects the legal process that is being undertaken in Hawai’i. There is an understandable desire to act ethically.

CATAC agrees that the TMT project office and Board need to be more forthright in their communications with the community. To encourage this, we would like to hold our next public Webex meeting on the financial status of the project, and we will invite one or more representatives of the project to lead with a presentation and be available for following discussion.

Finally, we would like to thank and congratulate those of you who answered our call to participate in the International Science Development Teams. As of this writing, 18 individuals have responded to fill 23 positions (with five individuals serving on more than one ISDT). Including those already participating, we anticipate at least 35 ISDT positions filled by 28 Canadians. This is a great improvement and a better reflection of what this telescope means to our community.

The TMT Science Forum is being held in Mysore, India on November 7-9, 2017. We would like to encourage especially those participating in the ISDTs to consider attending. We are still working on identifying sources of partial financial support, but now recognize that may not be possible before this meeting. We hope many of you will still be able to attend.

As always, CATAC is happy to hear from you at any time. Please email mbalogh@uwaterloo.ca if you have questions for us, opinions or advice relevant to our mandate, or indeed information that you think might be useful to CATAC. Our website is now hosted on the CASCA site and we will keep this updated with upcoming meetings, events and documents.

CATAC Members:

  • Michael Balogh (University of Waterloo) Chair
  • Sarah Gallagher (Western University), Vice-Chair
  • Stefi Baum (University of Manitoba)
  • Chris Wilson (McMaster University)
  • David Lafrenière (Université de Montréal)
  • Harvey Richer (UBC)

Observers:

  • Greg Fahlman (General Manager of NRC-HAA, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Don Brooks (Executive Director of ACURA, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Bob Abraham (CASCA President, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Doug Welch, (Science Governor for Canada on TIO Governing Board, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Tim Davidge (NRC)
  • Luc Simard (NRC)
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