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Canary Islands Selected as Alternative Spot for the Thirty Meter Telescope

This alternate fate could help smooth tensions over the embattled instrument

An artist's rendering of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope atop the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea. (Thirty Meter Telescope)
smithsonian.com

For years, astronomers and native Hawaiians have waged a bitter war over the placement of a massive telescope, which was originally planned to sit atop the Big Island's volcano Mauna Kea. An end to the fight, however, could be in sight as an alternative location for the giant telescope has been identified on Spain’s Canary Islands, Dennis Overbye reports for The New York Times.

Named after the diameter of its primary light-collecting mirror, the Thirty Meter Telescope is far from the first on Mauna Kea. The snowcapped volcano is already home to 13 telescopes and the astronomy community has long praised the locale as having some of the world's clearest views of the night sky, Overbye reports. But Mauna Kea is also an important religious site, and the planned 18-story, $1.4-billion telescope has rankled local communities. Crowds have even gathered to physically block construction crews from trying to begin work at the site. 

Their voices are slowly gaining traction. Last December the Hawaiian Supreme Court canceled the project's work permits in light of a lawsuit filed to block it, Maddie Stone reports for Gizmodo. Now, faced with serious challenges on the ground and in court, the organization responsible for building the telescope has chosen an alternative location: La Palma, the westernmost of the Canary Islands that sit just off Morocco’s coast.

As on Mauna Kea, the Spanish-owned Canary Islands are no stranger to telescopes. In fact, one of the world’s current largest telescopes, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, is already operating on the island, Reuters reports. If the courts rule against the Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction, its Board of Governors will shift their focus to these islands on the far side of the Atlantic. However, they haven’t given up hope for the original site on Mauna Kea quite yet.

"Mauna Kea continues to be the preferred choice for the location of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the [Board of Governors] will continue intensive efforts to gain approval for TMT in Hawaii,” Henry Yang, Chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, says in a statement. “[We are] very grateful to all of our supporters and friends throughout Hawaii, and we deeply appreciate their continued support."

While the Canary Islands are a good spot for optical and infrared astronomy, the new locale would mean giving up more than a mile of elevation, which reduces resolution of future imagery compared to those taken at Mauna Kea, Stone reports. Even so, it would mean a victory for proponents of native Hawaiian culture and traditions after decades of telescopes advancing on their sacred mountain.

A final ruling on the Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction in Hawaii will be made next year.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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