CATAC Update on the Thirty Meter Telescope

By Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Winter 2020)

The recently published Canadian LRP2020 recommends, as its top priority for large ground-based facilities, “that Canada participate in a very large optical telescope (VLOT), and that this participation be at a level that provides compelling opportunities for Canadian leadership in science, technology and instrumentation”. The report notes further that this access is best implemented through “continued participation in TMT, either at the currently proposed Maunakea site or at the scientifically acceptable alternative of Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos”. This is consistent with past recommendations and reaffirms the importance of VLOT access for the Canadian optical/infrared astronomy community in the coming decades. The leadership opportunities provided by TMT (or any VLOT) depend to some degree on the final share, governance model and construction timeline. CATAC expects that there will be more certainty about those factors over the next year, but with the information available today we agree that participation in TMT (at either site) represents the best route to fulfill the goals of the LRP.

LRP2020 also recommends developing and adopting “a comprehensive set of guiding principles for the locations of astronomy facilities and associated infrastructure in which Canada participates. These principles should “be centred on consent from the Indigenous Peoples and traditional title holders who would be affected by any astronomy project”. CATAC is aware that many Canadians are very concerned about how TMT construction in Hawai’i can be consistent with these principles, and that there has been important discussion within Canada about this. CATAC has raised these concerns with the Board. Our recommendation for continued support of TMT is based in part on the following considerations:

  • First and foremost, CATAC reaffirms our position that the decision about whether or not TMT is built in Hawaii should be entirely in the hands of the Hawaiian community, and that they are the only ones who should be responsible for defining what consent means within their own constituency.
  • CATAC awaits the full development of the guiding principles recommended by the LRP, which we hope and expect will be consistent with the previous point.
  • Recent developments have led to an opportunity for renewed dialogue within Hawai’i, that CATAC believes is consistent with the views expressed in our LRP, and the white papers on Indigeneous rights submitted to that process. These discussions are taking place among diverse groups, and involve not only TMT but all astronomy on Maunakea, as well as many broader issues of Hawaiian society. We describe some of these developments below, and note there are more details in our recent report to the CASCA Board, which is available on our website. It is vitally important to give these discussions the time and space they need. They are connected to concerns that are much broader than TMT, or astronomy.

Telescope Site, Partnership and Construction Timeline

On August 13, in response to the initial planning proposal for the US Extremely Large Telescope Program (ELTP), the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the initiation of an informal outreach process to engage people and groups interested in the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. Hawai’i House Speaker Saiki issued a press release about this on Aug 18. This outreach is a precursor to an NSF decision about whether or not to accept the ELTP proposal and formally join the project.

This engagement on the part of the NSF is welcomed by the TMT International Observatory (TIO) Partners, and brings a new opportunity for a Hawaiian consultation process and formal review, led by a widely respected body. It also establishes a timeline of events that will take place over the next 12-18 months, each of which will provide increasing clarity over the future viability of TMT:

  • The US Astro2020 process is anticipated to release their public report in mid-2021. A top ranking in this report is essential for NSF engagement and the viability of the project. The report may make other recommendations relevant to TMT.
  • Should the NSF accept the ELTP proposal, this will trigger a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will take about three years to complete. Included as part of this review would be the important Section 106 process of the National Historical Protection Act. This would have the significant effect of leading to a federally recognized record of the importance of Maunakea to Hawaiians. Information from the public consultation phase of this process will shed further light on the situation as the review progresses. We note that a federal EIS may also be required at La Palma if the NSF is a partner.
  • Upon acceptance of the proposal, NSF will also conduct an in-depth Preliminary Design Review, likely in late 2021. This is a comprehensive review of all aspects of the project, including operations and a detailed costing.

Assuming TMT construction cannot begin until the EIS has completed (which may not be the case), construction might not start before 2023. An estimate of seven years construction and three years commissioning would mean first science in 2033 or later. The main competition for TMT is the ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) project. The ELT is currently under construction, and current planning anticipates technical first light (TFL ) by the end of 2025, though the COVID-19 pandemic may add some delay. It is planned that all four first-light instruments would be commissioned within two to three years after TFL. Assuming no delays to that project, the gap to TMT science could be six years. But, at this point, there is enough uncertainty in the timeline of both projects that the gap could be larger, or smaller.

In parallel with these NSF-led consultations, there are several other important discussions and activities underway in Hawaii. These include:

  • In May, 2020, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) launched an independent review of the University of Hawaii (UH) management of Maunakea as part of the Master Lease renewal process. The independent Hawaiian consultation group Ku`iwalu, has been engaged to evaluate the effectiveness of the UH and the OMKM in its implementation of the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP). Some information about the process underway is available at their website. At the time of launch, the review was expected to conclude by the end of 2020, though this may be delayed.
  • An important part of Governor Ige’s proposed path forward for TMT on Maunakea is the decommissioning of “as many telescopes as possible”. This process is underway, through the OMKM. Decommissioning is a lengthy process, as it involves its own Environmental Assessment and DLNR permit preceding the physical removal of the facility and complete restoration of the site. Decommissioning of the UH-Hilo teaching telescope, Hoku Kea is expected to be completed in 2023. The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory decommissioning is anticipated to be completed in 2022.
  • Multiple groups in Hawaii are meeting to discuss broad issues such as housing, education and land ownership, including the role of astronomy. Among these groups are the Hawai’i Executive Collaborative and the ‘Aina Aloha Economic Futures. Participants in these meetings include TMT opponents. Canadians associated with TMT have also been invited to participate in some of these discussions, though the travel restrictions associated with the pandemic have significantly affected this effort.

Instrumentation Update

The TMT Exoplanet Roadmap Committee is considering the prioritization of desired exoplanet capabilities for planned second-generation TMT instruments: PSI, MICHI and HROS. The prioritization would be a function of the various instrument modes (imaging, spectroscopy, polarimetry) and their implementation (resolution, IFU, choice of wavelengths/bands). Input from the Canadian community is welcome, before mid-January. A short summary of proposed capabilities together with an Excel template for feedback are available on the CATAC web page.

Project Office Update

Dr. Gary Sanders, who has led the TMT Project as Project Manager with distinction since its inception, will retire at the start of 2021. Deputy Project Manager Fengchuan Liu, who has worked closely with Gary and co-directed the project for the last five years, will assume the Project Manager (acting) position while TMT searches for a permanent project manager.

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