Hawaii Lands the Thirty Meter Telescope

The summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, home to many telescopes big and small, will be the site for what would be the biggest of them all: the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), astronomers announced this afternoon. The instrument, to be built by a consortium led by the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, will cost upward of $1 billion. The consortium plans to start on-site construction in 2011.

The building of the telescope is not a done deal. So far, the consortium has received funding and pledges of funding totaling $300 million—less than a third of the money required. The consortium is hoping that the U.S. government, private foundations, and new foreign partners will come up with the remaining funds.

TMT is not the only large telescope that astronomers are hoping to build in the next decade. Another U.S. consortium, led by the Carnegie Observatories and the University of Arizona, plans to build the $700 million, 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) at Las Campanas in Chile.

TMT's architects spent the last year studying two candidate sites: Mauna Kea and Cerro Armazones in Chile's Atacama desert. "They were both excellent sites, but we had to make a decision," Henry Yang, TMT board chair and chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said today. He refused to spell out the specific reasons why Mauna Kea won out.

By most accounts, the Chilean site had started out as the favorite, partly because of growing environmental and cultural opposition from Hawaii residents, who in recent years have grown increasingly weary of new telescopes being added to Mauna Kea. At the conference today, Yang said that the consortium plans to invest in education and other efforts to benefit the Hawaiian community.