Scientific American’s August issue had an article titled, Almost Heaven: Landing the Thirty Meter Telescope Fortifies Mauna Kea's Position as Earth's Eye on the Sky. I don’t know about the telescope claim, but those of us lucky enough to live here can almost certainly verify the “Almost Heaven” lead-in.
Actually, just this past July 21st the Big Island was selected as the site for one of the world’s biggest telescopes – the 30 meter telescope (TMT). The project is expected to cost about $754 million in 2006 dollars, and could be operational by 2018.
This has not proven to be a non-controversial issue. For one thing, Native Hawaiian tradition believes that the high altitudes are sacred. And Mona Kea is also home to at least one confirmed burial site. Some also say that the telescope would require leveling the last pristine plateau on the mountaintop. The opposition from Native Hawaiian and environmental groups could constitute a lengthy blog of its own, and I hope some of my new Hawaiian friends will contribute such a piece.
Why Mauna Kea…..? For one thing, Mauna Kea already has 13 international telescopes so it must have something going for it. Nonetheless, other sites were considered, for instance in Chile's Atacama Desert and in Baja California, Mexico.
I learned from Chris Bailey’s article in Hawaii Magazine that astronomers love Mauna Kea because its summit sits above the clouds at 13,796 feet, offering a clear view of the sky for almost 300 days each year.
Also, Hawaii’s position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means the area is relatively free of air pollution. And the mountain’s relatively isolated location from Big Island cities Hilo and Kailua-Kona leaves the summit largely devoid of man-made light to disrupt observations.
Richard Ellis, astronomy professor the California Institute of Technology and a Thirty Meter Telescope board member, told reporters (Audrey Mcavoy, July 21st, 2009) that Mauna Kea is at a higher elevation, has drier air and its average temperature fluctuates less during the course of the day — all helpful factors for those using the new telescope.
Scientific American pointed out Site evaluations for the TMT began in 2001 with a team of scientists trekking to some of the most remote places on Earth. In the end, Mauna Kea, actually the summit of a dormant volcano that rises 9,750 meters off the ocean floor—the highest island mountain in the world – edged out the Atacama Desert for several reasons. One, it is higher by over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), it has less water vapor (than a desert (?)), and the temperature rarely varies from 32 degrees Fahrenheit making it easier to control the expansion and contraction of the mirror and telescope.
Credit TMT Project
The telescope’s mirror — stretching almost 100 feet in diameter— will be so large that it hopes to gather light that has spent 13 billion years traveling to earth! This means astronomers looking into the telescope will be able to see images of the first stars and galaxies forming — just 400 million years after the Big Bang.
We will be trekking ourselves to the top of Mauna Kea next month and are highly anticipating the adventure.