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With project at risk, Canary Islands vow to fight for giant telescope

After legal ruling, the massive TMT project could still be built on Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea

As administrative and other problems on the Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea mounted over recent years, it looked as though the largest telescope in the northern hemisphere would be sited on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. But last week, a US hearings officer’s report recommended granting a land use permit after examining local opposition to constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the extinct volcano, which is considered the most sacred site in the indigenous Hawaiian religion.

An artist’s rendition of the Thirty Meter Telescope as it would look atop the Mauna Kea. Ampliar foto
An artist’s rendition of the Thirty Meter Telescope as it would look atop the Mauna Kea.

Since the plan to build on Mauna Kea was halted in 2014, the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma has been seen as an exceptional alternative. In recent months, there have been several visits to the site, run by the Canaries Astrophysics Institute (IAC), by US astronomers and technicians linked to the TMT project. All of them expressed surprise at the quality of the conditions at Roque de los Muchachos.

In late 2016, the TMT team officially recommended La Palma as its second choice for the giant telescope.

The fact the US reports were so favorable has dispelled certain myths and has been an extraordinary opportunity for us

Rafael Rebolo, Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands

At the end of June, during a trip to La Palma, Gary Sanders, the project manager of the TMT, said: “If we keep on encountering obstacles to placing it on Hawaii we would be very happy to build it in the Canaries. With the TMT on La Palma we could do marvelous astronomy.”

There have been a series of contested case hearings in Hawaii in recent months at which detractors of constructing the TMT on Mauna Kea have laid out their case. Courts had said that Mauna Kea was a sacred site with cultural and environmental protection, and so the case was put in the hands of a retired judge to weigh the facts.

But there are still other legal hurdles to overcome before work on the TMT can begin on Mauna Kea, as Rafael Rebolo, head of the IAC, explains: “I have been working with the TMT and they point out that a Supreme Court ruling is still required over land use rights, adding: “The situation is still open, and I have been asked to continue with procedures because the court cases in Hawaii are not over.”

There are still other legal hurdles to overcome before work on the TMT can begin on Mauna Kea

The IAC says it won’t be throwing in the towel and will continue to deal with the permits required to build the TMT. It has called on the regional government to appoint somebody to coordinate the legal and administrative issues on La Palma, if at the last moment Mauna Kea is ruled out. Time might just be on Spain’s side. If there are further legal moves in the United States, Hawaii could find itself relegated: the board members of the TMT, which includes India, China, Canada and Japan, have said that construction must begin on the project by April 2018 no matter what.

Whatever the outcome, the episode has highlighted Spain’s scientific potential. “The fact the US reports were so favorable and positive has dispelled certain myths and has been an extraordinary opportunity for us,” says the IAC’s Rebolo.

“In the near future, other large telescopes will be up for grabs, such as those the Russians and the Chinese each want to build, and so all this has been very good. We are already talking to them, obviously. It has been a huge effort, but it has been worth it,” concludes Rebolo.

In the meantime, the European Solar Telescope is to be built at Roque de los Muchachos, while construction on the first of 20 devices that are part of the Cherenkov telescope network has already begun there.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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