If you build it......

By Bret Yager West Hawaii Today
KAILUA-KONA - It wasn't about protests and legal battles.

Instead, the design, engineering and potential capabilities of the Thirty Meter Telescope were front and center Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. Telescope system scientist Warren Skidmore walked about two dozen people through the technical aspects of the 180-foot tall, $1.4 billion project, which, if built, would be the second largest telescope on Earth, behind a 39- meter scope being constructed by European interests in Chile. The TMT project on Mauna Kea is being opposed by Native Hawaiians who say the project desecrates Mauna Kea's sacred ground.

In terms of footprint on the ground, the TMT would be the smallest of the three largest scopes in the world, Skidmore said.

"It's the biggest scope in the smallest enclosure, which is important if you are building on Mauna Kea and worried about impacts to the environment," said Skidmore, who has been employed with TMT for 14 years, helped scout potential sites for the telescope and has helped to design some of the optics control systems.

The 492 mirror segments that will make up the TMT array are currently being produced in Japan, Skidmore said at the talk story sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce.

"We are starting to polish the segments," he said.

In India, much of the hardware that supports the glass is now being manufactured, he said. The mirror array will be adjusted in tiny amounts to clear up distortion caused by the atmosphere.

"Building the TMT is a real technical challenge, and the tent pole of those challenges is controlling the primary mirror," Skidmore said.

The payoff will be a general purpose observatory that will be 200 times more sensitive than the eight-meter Gemini scope, able to resolve individual stars which might otherwise be a blur, "a big leap forward in studying populations of stars in different galaxies," Skidmore said. "You start to be able to really slice and dice the makeup of these galaxies which are very far away and back in time."

TMT will be able to test the theory of relativity by tracking stars as they pass near black holes, and will be able to peer into nebula, detect the formation of planets and test accepted notions of how they are formed, Skidmore said.

Personally, Skidmore said that after eight years of construction are past, he is most excited about the TMT's potential to learn a lot more about exoplanets and for study of the early universe.

The project has been delayed after The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled last December that the Board of Land and Natural Resources was in error when it issued TMT a land use permit before a contested case hearing was held. The contested case hearing has started back up, the timeline or outcome of which could put the project in jeopardy as far as it being built on Hawaii.

Skidmore told the newspaper his evaluations of potential alternate sites include India, but that no decision has been made.

"Hawaii remains our preferred site," he said.

The Thirty Meter Telescope Project has been developed as collaboration among Caltech, UC, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), and the national institutes of Japan, China, and India with the goal to design, develop, construct, and operate a thirty-meter class telescope and observatory on Mauna Kea in cooperation with the University of Hawaii (TMT Project). The TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO), a non-profit organization, was established in May 2014 to carry out the construction and operation phases of the TMT Project. The Members of TIO are Caltech, UC, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India, and the National Research Council (Canada); the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a TIO Associate. Major funding has been provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

For more information about the TMT project, visit tmt.org, www.facebook.com/TMTHawaii or follow @TMTHawaii.


Sandra Dawson

TMT Manager, Hawaii Community Affairs