It's not every day a billion-dollar project comes to Hawaii. After all, whatever you produce there has to be transported everywhere else. But the 50th state is part of a very select global club of locations whose conditions produce a rare commodity: transporting views of our planet and of the known universe it occupies.
Rising nearly 14,000 feet (4,200 m.) above the dry and stable air of the Pacific Ocean, the volcanic peak of Mauna Kea is home to a unique 11,288-acre (4,568-hectare) "astronomy precinct" leased by the University of Hawaii that currently hosts 13 optical, infrared and submillimeter telescopes operated by coalitions of scientific organizations from around the world. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) aims to be the 14th, and to reach further into deep space than any previous optical instrument.
Along with prime project movers Caltech, the University of California, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), national observatory teams from China, India and Japan are partners. In June 2012, India committed to spending at least $100 million towards the project, becoming the first government to make such a commitment. The project office is in Pasadena, Calif.
The TMT gets its name from its primary mirror or "eye," measuring 30 meters (98 ft.) in diameter and comprising 492 individual mirror segments operating as one. Shuffle that big number's digits and you get 294: the number of pages in the University of Hawaii's Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) application, submitted in September 2010, and approved in February 2011 by a vote of 6-0 by the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).
However, at the same meeting the BLNR also granted a contested case at the request of six petitioners who oppose the project on cultural and environmental grounds. (A seventh petition was filed in the name of Mo'oinanea, a guardian spirit who is part reptile, but a hearings officer denied standing.)
A year and a half later, all parties in the heavens and on Earth are still waiting for a decision. Whether the TMT will see first light (when the first photons strike a telescope's mirrors) hangs in the balance.
"The project is currently on hold pending the outcome of a contested case hearing," says Clifford Inn of the BLNR's public information office.
Mauna Kea is like another world. Hence the reverence. But it's resolutely a part of this world. Hence the reverence. The feelings aroused by the mountain often cross the stereotypical lines allegedly dividing scientist from religious practitioner, or environmentalist from developer. Hence the bundle of issues bound up in the delayed decision — questions involving everything from the resourceful Wekiu bug, indigenous spiritual practices and the sound of the wind to the relative values of an unobstructed view of the mountain vs. that mountain's view of the outer reaches of the universe.
More Than A Little Respect
Gary Sanders, project manager for TMT, says his team expects the hearing office in Hawaii to issue a recommendation one way or the other, followed by a public comment period and a follow-up meeting, by the end of 2012.
Sanders, knows whereof he speaks when it comes to scientific megaprojects and their siting issues. He's worked at Fermilab in Illinois, where an entire rural village was relocated in the 1960s, and at Brookhaven on Long Island, which took shape on a former military base whose history went back to before World War I. He was witness to the site selection for the superconducting supercollider that never got built in Texas. And he was the project manager for both locations that comprise the laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory (LIGO) sited at the national laboratory in Hanford, Wash., and at near Livingston, La., outside Baton Rouge.
The National Science Foundation selected those two sites after a nationwide open competition, which included a thorough evaluation of 19 proposed LIGO sites in 17 states, with six finalist pairs considered according to, among other unique criteria, the need for the two spots to accommodate a structure with arms two and a half miles (4 km.) long, and the need for those locations to be at least 2,000 miles (3,218 km.) apart in order to accurately detect gravitational waves. They were built in 1999 and began operations in 2001.
The TMT team, which Sanders joined in 2004, chose Mauna Kea after a multi-year study of six finalist sites around the world, including four in Chile and one in Mexico. Full instrumentation was installed at five sites between 2003 and 2005, measuring such factors as air clarity, winds and humidity, as well as access infrastructure for getting to and from the high-altitude sites. Sanders chose to drop one Chilean site from the list because of the mountain's sacredness to the Atacama tribe. Data was collected through 2008, and after thorough review the TMT board chose Mauna Kea in July 2009.
The site was chosen for a number of reasons, says Sanders, one being high quality for adaptive optics-assisted viewing, especially in the infrared spectrum. At 14,000 ft., it was among the highest candidate sites, and its extremely dry air made for excellent viewing, as attested by the family of scopes already in place on the mountainside. Then the TMT team began an unprecedented full-court press of engagement with the community, meeting with cultural practitioners and project opponents as well as educational institutions and other stakeholders. The TMT EIS was approved by then-Gov. Linda Lingle in May 2010, beginning the sequence that led to the CDUP's approval in February 2011 and the subsequent contested case.
"We're quite hopeful and positive the permit will be issued," says Sanders, noting TMT's continuing community engagement, primarily via the presence of Sandra Dawson, TMT's Manager of Hawaii Community Affairs. "Over the years I think we've learned how to better engage, and join, the communities we're in," he says of the scientific community's past mega-facility sitings. And he says he's come to welcome the environmental impact statement (EIS) process itself.
"People view them as an obstacle course you have to do, but in fact they're very comprehensive planning processes," he says. "You have to think through how to do it, and do it in a benign way. You learn a lot about your project."
You also learn a lot about some very special points on the planet.
"I feel like I'm pulsing," says Sanders of his visits to such sites.
In addition to Mauna Kea, they include Cerro Amarzones in Chile where blasts earlier this year prepared the site for the billion-dollar-plus "Extremely Large Telescope" at the existing 50-year-old site of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, operated by a consortium of 15 European Union countries. They also include the Chajnantor plateau in Chile, home to the world's largest radiotelescope, named ALMA, an acronym that conveniently works out to be Spanish for "soul."
"You stand there and you realize you're standing on the places where the eyes of the earth are," says Sanders, "and you can see all the way out to the edge of the visible universe. Light is coming from almost 13.5 billion light years away. These are magical places where the light actually gets through. It's very exciting, but one has to be respectful of these places. In some sense you have to wonder whether humans in the past somehow sensed the special nature of these places. We're very aware of their power."
Inch by Inch
For a bunch of stargazers, astronomers throughout history have been among the most intrepid explorers across the surface of their own planet. And telescopes have been messing with ancient cosmologies at least since Galileo turned Aristotle and Ptolemy upside down 400 years ago by stating that the heavens did indeed undergo change.
The names of such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley and Cassini, among others, have been involved in such ventures as the literal walking of the earth's surface in order to determine the exact width of a meridian by triangulation. And they've traipsed over the Andes in South America in order to help determine the earth's circumference.
Why the Andes? Because they needed to measure near the equator to test Newton's idea that the globe was not perfectly spherical, and because they thought the mountains would provide good sightlines, recounts Bill Bryson in his engaging but ponderously titled "A Short History of Nearly Everything." They've even tried to weigh mountains in order to devise proofs of Newton's gravitational theories. And along the way they've come up with such inventions as topographical contour lines and the deep-sea diving bell (Halley).
Indeed, navigating the seas was just as connected to the heavens as measuring the land. Mathematician Richard Norwood not only walked from the Tower of London to York (208 miles) to determine one degree of Earth's meridian, he also put that measurement into his 1637 work "The Seaman's Practice." Star-based navigation was practiced by sky-watching, seafaring peoples from the Vikings to the Polynesians. And Captain James Cook was among the diaspora of global observers of the 1769 transit of Venus to make a successful measurement from Tahiti, thus enabling French astronomer Joseph Lalande to calculate the mean distance from Earth to the Sun at approximately 150 million kilometers (93,225,606 miles).
Polynesians … Captain Cook … it's only appropriate that millennia of astronomy history continue to play out on the Hawaiian archipelago.
"As people have moved to more and more advanced and expensive telescopes, they want to put them at absolutely the best observing sites they can on earth," says Jim Ulvestad, director of the division of astronomical sciences at the National Science Foundation. " 'High and dry' is basically the mantra. Any place with a lot of greenery is probably not a good place for a telescope. Mauna Kea has turned out to be one very good site," he says, in part because clouds and humidity get trapped by a 2,000-ft.-thick (610-m.) inversion layer part way up the mountain. That makes for stable air and good seeing. "The stars don't twinkle much," says Ulvestad. They simply shine. "Mauna Kea is probably the best site in the 50 states that people know about," he says. California was 100 years ago, and the desert Southwest has been a good place for viewing too, he says, though light pollution from its growing cities now has invaded the viewfinder.
Ulvestad is quick to point out that the NSF is not involved in the TMT project at this point, though an August report referenced that it "may or may not be involved in it in the fairly distant future."
As for the unique nature of Hawaiian geology and culture, "all of the high mountains are sacred places to the native Hawaiians, and they're also very environmentally special places," observes Ulvestad, more so than in Chile where mining has been the primary activity. "Islands are isolated, and these high mountains are even more isolated. It makes for a challenging permitting process … There's nothing wrong with that. People are trying to make sure the mountain is treated respectfully, spiritually and environmentally. These are important prices astronomers have to pay."
But the astronomy legacy counts for something too.
"Tops of any mountains are pretty special, and places where there are big telescopes become important for astronomers' heritage," says Ulvestad, who's personally paid four visits to Mauna Kea. "It's kind of cool to start out driving from sea level and one and a half hours later you're at 13,000 feet and you still see the ocean from there," he says. "It's pretty spectacular."
Ulvestad mentions the strong meaning to astronomers of the 100-year-old Mt. Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, as well as the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, which played an important part, along with instruments in Chile, in the discovery of the accelerating universe that won the Nobel Prize in physics last year.
"It's no more or less important a heritage than any other," says Ulvestad. That said, he says, "It's fair to say that the understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds has evolved over the years." The location of the Keck telescopes was notable for some communications and consultation blunders. The TMT effort, by contrast, has featured a high number of trips to the island by chancellors and presidents at the University of California and Cal Tech, led by Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara and chairman of the TMT Collaborative Board.
"That kind of thing wasn't typically done 30 or 40 years ago," says Ulvestad. "Those are busy people with prestige and universities to run. But they understand the need for this sort of thing."
The modern astronomy legacy of Hawaii owes its existence to University of Hawaii pioneers John Jefferies and Walter Steiger, who was one of the leaders in attracting a satellite tracking station to the islands during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, when a mere five satellites were coasting around the planet. Steiger, who lost his life last year in a moped accident at the age of 87, built a research program in solar physics and an observatory on Haleakala, while Jefferies expanded the program first dreamed up by famous astronomer Gerard Kuiper in the 1950s to include planetary, stellar and extragalactic astronomy, and oversaw the building of the first telescopes on Mauna Kea.
How does the need for a mega-telescope measure up to other needs in today's economic headlines? Ulvestad is all too aware of the context.
"One thing about building very big telescopes in very remote sites is it's expensive, and the economy of the U.S. and the world is not robust," he says. "We're talking about billion-dollar telescopes, and that's a lot of money."
Some might quibble with TMT's billion-dollar price tag. Then again, that price, involving national and international funds, is about the same as the rapidly ballooning cost of a proposed new pro football stadium in Atlanta. Would you rather discover new stars on the gridiron or new stars and exoplanets in the cosmos?
A quarter of the projected cost, or $250 million, has been pledged by the California-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Gordon Moore is the co-founder of Intel — a company known for putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to facility investments. In this case, the foundation named for him and his wife aims to put money into an increasingly rare endeavor: pure research.
Cynthia Atherton, a program director for the Foundation's Science Program since 2010, is a former investigator at Lawrence Livermore National Lab who leads the Foundation's $300-million Caltech and $250-million TMT commitments. She says the Foundation has already paid out $110 million and she's in the middle of writing the grants for the early construction phase.
"We certainly intend to honor our $250-million commitment, even during a down economy," she says. While NSF funding is up in the air, the 2010 decadal survey from the National Academies recommended funding 25 percent of the project. Atherton says the level of international interest means "we're not worried about there not being enough interest to fund the difference."
The Foundation is the largest non-biomedical private funder of basic fundamental research in the United States, she explains. "One thing I really like about the foundation is we're encouraged to fund science just for the discovery and new knowledge that might come out of it."
With a Ph.D. in atmospheric science, Atherton also has a special appreciation for Mauna Kea, likening it to other unique spots like the Grand Canyon and White Sands, N.M.
"Some places in the world are just very different from the rest of the world," she says. "I'd read that it kind of looks like a moonscape. But it's beautiful, it's quiet, and you can hear a little bit of the wind. The atmospheric scientist in me is delighted to see the clouds from above — it's fascinating when geography creates its own weather. When you're going up, there's a point at which the vegetation drops away, and it's a very different landscape. It's also inspiring to see some of the other instruments up there, and to realize just how important Mauna Kea has been to the field of astronomy. There was almost a reverence for the entire mountain."
Whereas a company's R&D is nearly always oriented toward a product, the foundation reflects its namesakes' reverence for scientific knowledge. When you do basic science, Atherton explains, you often achieve serendipity.
"That's why they're called discoveries," she says. With the TMT that means being able to look back toward nearly the beginning of time, toward the first galaxies and the true nature of dark energy and dark matter. "We wanted to help enable that," she says. And while fundamental scientific inquiry is the Foundation's primary criterion, bonus discoveries are bound to occur in such areas as optics, control assemblies and computer algorithms required to drive such a large facility. "One of the things we've found from the U.S. space program," she observes, "is that when you do fundamental research, the payoff is always much, much greater than the research itself."
Atherton echoes Sanders in emphasizing the TMT team's understanding of how important the site is to the Hawaiian culture. "It's their most sacred ground. Because of that, we've tried to be really, really careful and thoughtful as we've gone through the planning and design, and respectful." She notes that Hawaiian culture has long been associated with discovery, via centuries of star navigation. "They're students of the stars and sky," she says.
Atherton says the international partnership of the project is compelling as well, starting with the active participation of scientific organizations in Canada, China, India and Japan. After all, each nation that makes monetary and in-kind commitments buys itself some viewing time on the telescope. But the global network also extends to specialized companies around the world that will be looking to supply such components as laser glass, optics, the telescope enclosure and segment support assemblies.
Environmentalists are frequently accused of overzealousness. But Hawaii is a special case, having been home at one time to 8,800 unique species of animals and plants, including a number of birds that were shot into extinction by overzealous collectors. Bill Bryson calls Hawaii "perhaps the most temptingly vulnerable environment Earth has yet produced."
Several opponents of the TMT project contacted by email either did not respond or declined to respond on the record. But one, Deborah Jean Ward, referred to her public-record testimony delivered last year.
Ward, retired from the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources/Natural Resources and Environmental Management Dept. and active in the Sierra Club since the early 1980s, is not to be confused (but often is) with Deborah Lee Ward, who happens to work in the DLNR. She has lived in Hawaii for more than 45 years. In her 35 pages of testimony and closing statement, she criticizes the DLNR for dereliction of duty in enforcing conservation district regulations; decries the noise created by the mini-industrial complex surrounding the telescopes already on the mountain; and presents a detailed laundry list of violations and environmental disturbances, some of which she's had personal experience in either discovering or investigating.
Ward's first trek up the mountain was in the company of her father, an astronomer and physicist, in the 1970s, when there was only one large telescope installation.
"The vast wilderness vistas from the highest peak in the Pacific, was awe-inspiring, breath-taking, and serene," she stated. "The sound of silence remains with me today." But it has become a memory, as she's witnessed what TMT opponents view as degradation in the name of progress.
"The proposition that an 18-story, five-acre industrial structure, proposed to be built in a National Natural Landmark, would have no significant impact boggles the imagination," she stated, referring to the project's CDUP application.
"The cumulative impact of intensified industrial land use at the summit has impacted my recreational enjoyment and spiritual practice," said Ward. "The cumulative impact of the destruction of habitat, widespread waste accumulation, obstruction of viewplane, constant sound, alteration of the geology, and negative impact to the cultural practice of my colleagues is a source of personal grief."
In her final statement last September, she painted a dire picture in dramatic terms:
"If I believed that my efforts had led to appropriate management, I would not be sitting before you today. Instead, I have suffered as I observed the cumulative industrialization of the wild panorama of the summit. My best efforts have not remedied the habitat loss, the repeated pollution accidents, the introduction of multiple alien predators and weeds, the permanent and irreversible alteration of the geologic terrain. The summit landscape, once breathtakingly beautiful, has becoming more akin to a cityscape, in my eyes."
"The island opposition to TMT concerns local land use issues, not the scientific value of astronomy, which is generally regarded here as important to society," said Nelson Ho, Co-ChairMauna Kea Issues CommitteeHawaii Chapter of Sierra Club, in a letter to the NSF earlier this year. "Indeed, I myself am a lifelong astronomy fan who believes a giant telescope — located more sensitively in Chile — will yield wonderful research discoveries that will deepen our understanding of the universe."
Clarence Kūkauakahi Ching (Uncle Kū, or "the old man of the mountain"), a cultural practitioner and petitioner to the BLNR, put it this way last fall in a blog, as he cited the intangible aspects of cultural practice that often go unrecognized by land use regulators:
"Part of my individual cultural practice on Mauna Kea — and on the rest of the island — is to be able to walk in the footsteps of the ancestors. By stepping into their footsteps, one can almost literally connect to one's genetic and cultural roots. To be able to do so is an amazing experience."
Ruining that experience, from the practitioners' perspective, has been the steady incursion of telescope structures into the literal views from the summit. "Because the proposed TMT Project is projected to continue beyond the expiration date of the master lease (2033)," said Ching of the university's lease of the Mauna Kea Science Park, "these views will be lost for perhaps as long as 50 years. This is unacceptable … What a TMT building permit will amount to, is really a taking, an unreasonable taking of the rights and resources of us all - that is - of our rights to fully enjoy these resources including that of the view planes and open space resources, and the natural beauty of Mauna Kea."
"I hike to experience the wilderness, the ecosystems and habitats for native species, the constantly changing weather, the play of light on the landscape, the serenity of silence, the revelation of ancestral and spiritual wisdom, and numerous intangible aspects," said Deborah Ward in her statement. "This steady deterioration [of] the natural landscape, including the intrusion of visual distractions, noise, trash, traffic, and access limitations has had a shattering impact on my recreational experience on the summit."
Work Force Promise
While recreational and spiritual practitioners may see nothing but disturbance, Hawaiian work force developers, while acknowledging the changes to a serene environment, see nothing but new opportunity in a territory whose serene isolation spawns few.
"Work force development is really the backbone of what we hope to do," says Sanders. "The vision is that on Mauna Kea, because it is sacred, there should be fewer observatories, but they should be the best." He equates TMT to an anchor store at a mall, becoming the focal point for the "excitement of science and technology."
Robert McLaren, associate director of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, notes that accommodations have been made for shrines, as well as for habitat for the Wekiu bug, a flightless insect that burrows into the cinders and feeds on the frozen carcasses of other insects not so well adapted to the cold. Proposed changes to lessen visual impact include plantings and proper coloring of the structure to better blend into the landscape. And all has been planned according to a master plan created by the university in 2000. The thing that excites him the most is professional opportunities for the young people of Hawaii.
"The appealing factor for me is it's a source of good quality technical jobs for young people with technical skills and talents, and they can stay in Hawaii," he says. "People with those skills often have to go to the mainland to find suitable work, or go to school there and never come back. Anything we can do to make that type of job available is all to the good."
The direct employment potential at TMT is only around 140 jobs, but vendor, service, spin-off and construction employment could multiply that number significantly.
"The actual astronomers are a small minority and getting smaller all the time," says McLaren.
McLaren, who's been on the islands since 1982, notes that recruiting skilled talent from away to work and live in Hawaii can be a risky endeavor, as recruits "never really know until they come here" if they can adapt to the geographical isolation and cultural differences, despite their best research beforehand. "Other things being equal, you'd far rather have someone living here who has roots, but they have to have these skills. Work force development is a very important component of this industry, and TMT already has started to put emphasis on that. Developing these kinds of skills with local kids is a big deal."
Heading up TMT's efforts in this arena is Sandra Dawson, who worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 20 years before joining the TMT team just over six years ago. She and her husband moved to the islands four years ago in order to give Hawaii the fairest shake possible in the TMT site selection process, and she works out of an office located in Japan's Subaru telescope headquarters in Hilo. She says one of the first things the TMT board promised to do after hearing from community leaders was to pledge $1 million a year to education on the island from the time construction commences.
"We also committed to training and hiring as many local people as we could," she says, with the full realization that the training would extend beyond TMT's own hiring needs. Additional pledges were made in the EIS and conservation district use permit application to supporting K-12 education (and STEM education in particular) through internships, mentoring and scholarships. The requirement to begin that support hasn't kicked in yet, "but we weren't waiting to start," says Dawson. "I call it putting your money where your mouth is."
Initiatives well under way include support for the Akamai Work Force Initiative, which puts college student interns (and now some high schoolers) into observatories and other high-tech businesses, and Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS). The Journey Through the Universe program brings scientists and engineers into classrooms for a week at a time. But the fastest-growing program in terms of both activity and excitement is robotics, with TMT backing pilot programs and tournament participation.
"Last year we supported a brushbot tournament of intermediate school students," says Dawson. "There were a lot of girls there. I was thrilled. I love it as work force development for STEM, because kids learn problem solving, math, physics, and they're excited about it."
A prominent participant in the EIS process, Dawson notes that instead of the usual seven public meetings that other EIS processes had dutifully held, the TMT team hosted 14 meetings. And she personally has taken part in more than 300 "talk story" sessions, including one she was preparing to attend earlier this week with a technology center entrepreneur, and one next week at the local power plant. She can't stress enough, she says, how important it is in Hawaii to foster relationships.
"You have to have someone who lives here," she says. "It's essential."
Dawson says among the biggest supporters of TMT are the unions. And she's seen no signs of worry from the project's international partners, including visitors from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology who chose to visit over Labor Day weekend. Dawson was able to convince directors of multiple Mauna Kea telescopes to spend time with the Chinese delegation.
Dawson also says her public meeting experience reveals a 50-50 split among those for and against the project. She calls this remarkable, as the usual ratio at such events is 10-to-1 against any new island development.
Asked about her experience of the mountain, Dawson says she was born seeing mountains in West Virginia. And she's seen the view from Cerro Armazones. But her first visit to Mauna Kea was something else.
"A board member and I were taken up by Ed Stevens, a member of the council that advises people on what to do on Mauna Kea," she says, referring to the Chair of the Kahu Ku Mauna committee, a group of Native Hawaiians who advise the Office of Mauna Kea Management. Stevens brought white roses, placed them at shrines along the way where particular spirits of the mountain are believed to reside, and the trio made offerings. "Ed talked to each of the spirits, and introduced Mike and I to them. That was a very special way to be introduced to Mauna Kea," says Dawson. The Office has stated it does not object to the TMT.
Dawson also attests to the sense of awe one feels during an insider's tour of one of the big scopes.
"They turn the mirror around toward you, and the dome is moving around, and sometimes they open the dome," she says. "You expect to hear 'Thus Spake Zarathustra.' That's the only thing missing. It's incredibly awesome, and I don't use that word easily. I'm not an astronomer. But I'm intrigued with the science we're going to do. Where did we come from? How did we get there? Big questions. I do the more mundane things, and I'm still awe inspired."
After 15 years of germination, and building on half a century of telescopic exploration from the islands, officials hope the TMT project might attain final approval six months from now. That's nearly 3 trillion miles in light-years. If allowed to stick to its schedule, the TMT is scheduled to open its eyes in 2021.
In the meantime, the eyes of the Earth — both those looking out and those looking around — continue their vigil.