Lā 363: Hunting for alternate site? TMT mum after board members visit Canary Islands.



Thirty Meter Telescope project manager and board members visit an observatory in the Canary Islands last weekend. Photo from TMT’s Facebook page

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The Thirty Meter Telescope’s leaders don’t appear to be wasting much time finding an alternative site for the next-generation observatory, if a recent post on social media is any indication.

On Monday, photos showing TMT’s board members and project leader visiting observatories on the Canary Islands were posted on the telescope’s Facebook page, helping stir speculation about where they might look to if they give up on building on Mauna Kea.

“Beautiful site!” the post said, after identifying the observatory leaders at the island of La Palma last weekend.

That prompted a few comments from supporters hoping to see the observatory built in Hawaii.

“TMT belongs in Hawaii!” said one commenter. “Don’t do it,” said another.

Even though the visit was announced on social media, a TMT spokesman said he couldn’t comment about why they traveled to the Spanish islands, off the northwest coast of Africa.

“TMT is looking at a number of sites, both those that were previously considered as well as some new ones,” said Scott Ishikawa in an emailed statement. “The specific sites are not being disclosed at this time.”

The TMT board selected Mauna Kea as its preferred site in 2009 instead of another location in Chile, but the project remains in limbo after losing its Conservation District land use permit in a legal challenge last December. The project also has faced protests from mostly Native Hawaiian opponents of the project, which stalled construction almost a year ago.

The project is waiting to go through a contested case hearing again to renew the permit, and a TMT official announced last month that alternative sites are being considered in case the permit is not secured by the end of this year or early next year.



Meanwhile, the project’s sublease also is being remanded to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

While declining to speculate about other potential sites, Bob McLaren, associate director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, noted Mauna Kea is a superior location for the telescope.

“It’s a very good location, but it doesn’t have the qualities that Mauna Kea and the Chilean sites have,” he said about the Canary Islands. “I presume that’s why it was not on their list in the first place.”

Before selecting Mauna Kea, the TMT board also looked at three spots in Chile and one in Mexico.

Two other next-generation telescopes are planned for Chile. Other than TMT, no giant observatories are planned for the northern hemisphere.

La Palma is home to a dozen telescopes, located about 7,800 feet above sea level.

The TMT site on Mauna Kea, where it still holds a sublease from UH, is located at 13,100 feet.

TMT’s partners include Caltech, University of California, Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, and national institutes in Japan, China and India.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.