Early this month, a group of native Hawaiians laid down in the road that led to the groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope, claiming that another telescope on Mauna Kea would further desecrate a sacred site. I got the news first from a Facebook post by my former graduate student Adam Smith, who is now a science operations specialist at the Gemini Observatory, nearby on the same peak.
Astronomers seek the best sites in the world for new, large telescopes that will extend the frontier of science. High and dry sites in Hawaii and Chile are where we put these huge, internationally sponsored projects. The $1.4 billion TMT will have a mirror almost 100 feet across, composed of closely spaced hexagonal components. The protests of the dedication, in spite of its including a native blessing ceremony, is tied up in old issues of sovereignty and legal agreements.
Smith was hired at Gemini about a year ago and briefly overlapped there with my first student to work at Gemini – Brian Walls of Concord. Walls went on to join the Giant Magellan Telescope project as a senior systems engineer. The GMT will be composed of seven 28-foot mirrors. These are one-piece, round mirrors. They’re the largest mirrors that can be made at the Steward Mirror Lab, located under the seats of the University of Arizona football stadium. The GMT will be in Chile, where the installations do not face the spiritual challenges of the Hawaii project.
Similar sacred-site issues were encountered at Kitt Peak, southwest of Tucson, Ariz., where the United States built its first national telescopes. The interaction could have been better handled there, with a similar blessing ceremony as in Hawaii. (Sadly, many Kitt Peak scopes are being closed or put up for takeover by a consortium of universities as the National Science Foundation builds bigger ones.)
I recall the protests by environmentalists over the construction of telescopes on Mount Graham, northeast of Tucson. In that case, it was about protection of the red squirrel. The observatory site was outlined with police tape, and the University of Arizona police began guarding the entry gate. In a twist of faiths, the Mount Graham site includes the Vatican Observatory’s Advanced Technology Telescope. Yes, the pope has a scope!
The march to larger scopes will continue. I joke that eventually we will build the Great Ultimate Telescope. The GUT will have a mirror 1,000 meters across, consume the entire world’s astronomy budget and produce one research paper per year with 10,000 co-authors.
Let’s hope not.
Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.