CATAC Update on the Thirty Meter Telescope

By / par Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Winter / hivers 2019)

There has been no attempt to restart construction of the TMT since protestors blocked the Mauna Kea access road in mid-July. The protests, and the responses to them, have remained non-violent, as stakeholders work to find a solution to the conflict. Meanwhile, TMT opponents have been effectively disseminating their message, tapping into broader issues related to indigenous rights in Hawai’i and around the world. Parallels have been drawn with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation committee here in Canada. This has mobilized some in Canada to express strong support for the view that the TMT project must do more to achieve the consent from Native Hawaiians before proceeding.

There is a long history of astronomy on Maunakea, including many stories of discovery and inclusiveness, but also a history of conflict that predates TMT. TMT itself has been part of the Canadian conversation since 2000, and the present site on Mauankea was selected (and supported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a public agency responsible for improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians) ten years ago. This context is important, as are the efforts of the TMT project over the past decade to gain the consent and support of the Hawaiian population. To this end, CATAC prepared a document about the history and current status of the project, with several important references and links to factual information. To quote from that report:

All evidence is that the project followed procedures that were believed to be appropriate for obtaining consent from Hawaiians, and that construction halted in the face of protests. We see nothing shameful in trying to find a peaceful solution for a project that has been nearly twenty years in development, and that promises economic benefits to Hawaiians and scientific benefit to the world.

There appears to be a good understanding now, at least among most Canadian astronomers, University and political leaders, that Canada should not directly interfere in the process happening in Hawai’i. Mayor Harry Kim has been charged with negotiating a solution, and he released a report in late September titled The Heart of Aloha. While this short report is a good start, it is likely that additional, new ideas will be needed to resolve the conflict. We understand that there is still a lot of activity going on within the Hawaiian community to find a solution. Thus, we continue to wait to see if a path forward will emerge.

In the meantime, progress on obtaining two building permits at the alternative site in the Canary Islands continued, and both were in place by mid-November. Decisions on the next steps will be made by the TMT International Observatory (TIO) Members, who have been meeting regularly since August. The site at ORM presents its own significant challenges, scientifically, socially, financially and politically.

TMT and the LRP

CATAC provided a comprehensive report to LRP2020, which is meant to also serve many of the purposes of a white paper. TMT has been a topic of discussion at Town Halls across the country. At the moment there is uncertainty about the project, and much of this is likely to be resolved, one way or the other, well before the LRP report is published. Should a fundamental change (e.g. in site, scope, timescale etc) be announced, there will be a need for consultation and further input to the LRP process. CATAC is prepared to lead this process.


Following discussion at the CASCA meeting in May, CATAC revised and finalized our recommendations for post-first light instrumentation. Those recommendations are summarized here for convenience:

  1. We recommend that Canadian SAC members support a transparent and effective instrumentation development plan, similar to the one presented by Luc Simard to the TMT SAC in November, 2010.
  2. Instrument teams require time and funding to develop ideas to the level that allows them to compete for significant external construction funds. We recommend that Canadian Board and SAC members emphasize the importance that the TIO provide funding for early design work (e.g. mini-studies) as well as for Conceptual Design Phases. Despite the budget challenges facing the project, this work must begin immediately if we are to have a competitive instrument suite on the telescope.
  3. We recommend that Canadians interested in the scientific or technical capabilities of an instrument contact other TMT partners and begin work on these ideas now, to the extent possible.
  4. The TMT Science Forums have proven to be fertile environments for building relationships between partners for instrument development. Forums have now been held in all partner countries except Canada. Canada should host the next TMT Science Forum.

Regarding the final recommendation, the SAC has expressed support for this proposal and it is expected that the next Science Forum will be held in Canada sometime in 2021.

The main new development is that the high-contrast, high-dispersion spectrograph MODHIS has been endorsed by the SAC as a first-light instrument, though its exact nature is still a topic of discussion. MODHIS will be effective for finding and characterizing massive exoplanets. Several Canadians are part of a CFI application that includes funding to participate in the development of this instrument.

Upcoming Events

The TMT Early Career Workshop will be held at HAA, May 26-June 1, 2020.

CATAC membership:
Michael Balogh (University of Waterloo), Chair,
Bob Abraham (University of Toronto; TIO SAC)
Stefi Baum (University of Manitoba)
Laura Ferrarese (NRC)
David Lafrenière (Université de Montréal)
Harvey Richer (UBC)
Kristine Spekkens (Royal Military College of Canada)
Luc Simard (Director General of NRC-HAA, non-voting, ex-officio)
Don Brooks (Executive Director of ACURA, non-voting, ex-officio)
Rob Thacker (CASCA President, non-voting, ex-officio)
Kim Venn (TIO Governing Board, non-voting, ex-officio)
Stan Metchev (TIO SAC, non-voting, ex-officio)
Tim Davidge (TIO SAC Canadian co-chair; NRC, observer)
Greg Fahlman (NRC, observer)

Pour marque-pages : Permaliens.

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