TMT Update – March 2016

By/par Ray Carlberg
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2016)

TMT planned to have first light in 2017, which would have been wonderful. However, like virtually all major observatories (recall HST, JWST, ALMA) TMT has suffered some (completely novel) bumps in the road. We first lost five years with a funding problem when AURA was removed from the project. Since then we put together a new partnership, collected over a billion dollars and made the decision to release it for construction in April 2015.

The following is my assessment of about where we are, which is largely factual but includes my views of some of the risks and issues that the project must face.

On Dec 2, 2015 the Hawaii Supreme Court (HSC) struck down the Conservation District Use Permit from the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources to the University of Hawaii. TMT itself was not directly involved (the parties were the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the University of Hawaii), although the decision terminates TMT site activity in Hawaii. The HSC identified a process error; in that the permit was granted before a contested case procedure was allowed. The full decision also notes that Conservation Districts have a number of considerations for use and Native Hawaiian consultations that were not clearly followed in the permit process. Independent of the legal situation, the statewide opposition is about 25%, with roughly 60% Native Hawaiians opposed. Canadians would expect to build a major science facility where the local population shares in our excitement of science and views the facility as an item of local pride. Even when TMT had a legal permit, political protest was more than sufficient to prevent site access.

We were invited by a wide ranging group of Hawaiians to consider Mauna Kea as a site. What happened to that support? The concerns about over-use of Mauna Kea arose in the 1990’s and led to the defeat of the Keck outrigger telescope project. A response in Hawaii was to create the Master Plan of 2000, which provided a way forward for astronomy, but at the same time laid out a plan to better regulate the mountain. The MP2000 identified a site for a future giant telescope, which has turned into the TMT site. One aspect of MP2000 is that the TMT site was to be the last site to be developed, leading one US astronomy leader to state that “American astronomy has no long term future in Hawaii”, since in the course of time any astronomy program will inevitably want to build larger, more powerful facilities, which cannot be done under the MP2000. Many, including the Governor of the State, see the Master Plan as not achieving its goals, with Mauna Kea continuing to be over-developed for tourism and insufficient access control. TMT has also become a rallying point for a range of environmental and Native Hawaiian issues, united around stopping TMT. Unless there is a resolution of the Hawaiian situation soon, there will be no support in Canada to continue in Hawaii.

What now? TMT has publicly stated that it plans to restart construction in April 2018 or sooner. To allow the partners to have their resources ready requires that there be a site for which the legal and all other aspects of site access are clearly resolved mid-2017. A good thing is that key Canadian deliverables are not significantly site dependent. We are supplying the enclosure, with Canadian work deliverable items being installed above a base ring and foundation which are costs shared across the project. The Mauna Kea enclosure design can withstand ice-storms and hurricanes, which as a by-product ensure that it can withstand massive earthquakes. The enclosure could be built to the current design and installed almost anywhere. The first light AO system does take into account Mauna Kea atmospheric conditions, but much of what makes AO work is software control which can be modified for a new site.

As of March 1, representatives of the TMT partners have started to travel to various countries and sites that might be suitable sites to host TMT. At the moment this is a fairly wide ranging initiative including sites in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere. Wherever TMT is built it will need to have scientific opportunities that do not simply replicate those available through E-ELT or GMT. Moreover, the decade long delay in getting going means that TMT will need to think carefully about instruments beyond the few initial workhorses to develop powerful competitive instruments that address science, likely in a post-JWST world. So, the good news is that we again have a feasible baseline plan and can be excited about scientific and technical engagement in this great project.

Clearly we would never have selected Hawaii as our preferred site if we had known that we would fail. Given the investment in Hawaii and the many people there who have supported TMT, we need to continue to give Hawaii a chance. It is important to emphasize that a number of people, some associated with TMT, many others in Hawaii, are working hard to help Hawaii be a viable TMT site. However, the pace of activity in Hawaii is not encouraging given our schedule needs. The site permit decision took nearly three months to be remanded back from the courts to the BLNR for them to take action on revising their process to one that could be legally acceptable. Typically the legal steps in getting a permit take about a year, after which the court challenges will start. Although there is ongoing discussion in Hawaii, the opponents remain opposed and are generally believed to have gone from essentially no professional legal support, to potentially very effective and seasoned legal representation. Beyond the law, of course people need to welcome TMT sufficiently that construction can proceed unimpeded. There is also the issue of extending the master lease beyond 2033, which would be essential for TMT and of great interest to a number of other observatories. Some in Hawaii would like to see the summit gradually cleared of all observatories. The Governor’s ten point plan to require that 25% of existing telescopes be removed before TMT is operational is a development that some will see as an encouraging first step in that direction. At the moment the situation does not look all that promising. But, it is not over until it is over and the stakes are fairly high for issues well beyond TMT and astronomy. In the end it is an issue for Hawaiians to solve and they will not be rushed. That is why alternative sites are being assessed with action to be taken soon to maintain schedule.

We very much need to bear in mind that ESO has begun construction of the E-ELT. The ESO finance committee recently approved the procurement of the dome and telescope of the E-ELT, so they are now well on the way. Their plan is to have first light in 2027 under a conservative plan with the existing ESO members. If Brazil joins then they anticipate first light in 2024. GMT continues to move forward with its first light 4 mirror plan (sort-of a double LBT) which gathers a lot more light than an 8m and can do interesting AO work. We need a very good site soon.

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