Categorized | Featured, Sci-Tech

Thirty Meter Telescope months away from breaking ground

Roya Sabri | Hawaii 24/7 Reporter

Astronomers and laymen have little more than eight months to wait for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) groundbreaking — a day 12 years in the making. While others wait, Sandra Dawson, TMT Task Leader for site planning, is working through a 205 line item schedule to construction.

The TMT has recently taken notable strides. On July 25, officials announced the signing of a Master Agreement by all its scientific authorities. This document establishes coordination in project goals and establishes a governance structure. It also defines member party rights, obligations and benefits.

NAOJ & NAOC sign TMT Master Agreement (photo courtesy of Thirty Meter Telescope)

NAOJ & NAOC sign TMT Master Agreement (Photo courtesy of Thirty Meter Telescope)

Partners include the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, the California Institute of Technology, the Department of Science and Technology of India, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), and the University of California.

Recent approval of the site by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources brings the TMT to the next step: a geotechnical study. Those results will be available in December for the finalization of site design.

Construction is slated to start April 1, 2014. Six years later, the telescope will be under a roof. Eight years from the first shoveled soil, the telescope will begin viewing galaxies forming near the edge of the universe and the beginning of time.

However, a skeletal timeline does TMT no justice. This “Extremely Large Telescope” — the first of its kind in the world — will be pivotal for astronomy and Hawaii. Its mirror will extend to an unprecedented size and the telescope will be the first with integrated adaptive optics.

Dawson said the world has five major telescopes currently being planned or built. Four are in Chile, which was a candidate for TMT. Hawaii astronomers, however, will be happy to welcome a telescope with the latest advancements to their summit.

TMT partners from outside Hawaii will also benefit from the Mauna Kea site. For five years, the TMT team of scientists, engineers and project specialists tested the best mountains in the world. The Armazones mountain in Chile was something of a runner up. The European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) later claimed it.

“The mountains are equally good,” Dawson said, “but it depends on what science you want to do.”

TMTIllustration2011The team preferred Mauna Kea partly because the telescope would join a collaborative culture of astronomy on the tallest mountain on earth. Unlike the isolated Cerro Armazones, 80 miles from the nearest town, 12 telescopes already sit on Mauna Kea with much of the needed infrastructure — roads, electricity, water and fiber optics.

Synergy with other telescopes is vital. “It’s not a competition. It’s an addition,” Dawson said.

Astronomy is a truly collaborative science and TMT will be born into a happy family. The scientist who designed Keck’s mirror is TMT’s chief scientist. Scientists from Gemini, Keck and Canada-France are TMT board members. Partners with the NAOJ, who were the first to commit financially to TMT on May 15, have already started thinking about a partnership between TMT and the Subaru telescope.

Additionally, Mauna Kea has the advantage (and challenge) of being located at the center of an island with a population of almost 200,000. The telescope has the opportunity to contribute to Hawaii’s future and to gain from its industries.

While previous telescopes have allowed viewing time for University of Hawaii at Manoa students, TMT plans to contribute to the public welfare and local economy in more visible ways.

TMT has intimately involved the community in its planning, Dawson said, and they listened when residents voiced a strong sentiment supporting their kids’ education.

In response, TMT founded two programs to support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in Hawaii: Pipeline and THINK.

The Pipeline program was founded to help develop the right workforce for the telescope. Under Pipeline, the Akamai Internship Program welcomes a couple dozen interns to the Mauna Kea observatories each summer.

The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund supports educational initiatives as directed by a committee of community members. Each year over the lifetime of the telescope’s lease, THINK will dedicate $1 million to STEM education in Hawaii.

TMT will sign the first check April 1.

TMT already supports robotics tournaments, Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) and high school and community college mentorship programs.

The telescope will create 300 construction jobs and 120-140 jobs during its operation. But its legacy will extend farther than those numbered positions.

TMT team members are “experts in building and operating a telescope,” Dawson said.

The telescope therefore relies on others to build instruments and for information technology services. Currently, the Mauna Kea observatories rely on mainland companies to meet these needs, she said.

The island has untapped potential in its next generation, Dawson said, although few companies offer the opportunity for high-tech careers.

“There are a lot of smart high school kids on the island,” she said. “Hawaii needs to reach a critical mass where employers know there are qualified workers and kids know there is opportunity.”

She said she believes that in increasing the need for those industries and educating a workforce, TMT can act as a catalyst to attaining this critical mass.

— Learn more:

www.tmt.org/

One Response to “Thirty Meter Telescope months away from breaking ground”

  1. I feel a lot more people need to read this, very good info!

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