The proposed world's-largest optical telescope, designed in Canada, is one step closer to construction after the University of Hawaii approved a plan to lease land at the summit of the island's Mauna Kea volcano.

The university's Board of Regents voted Thursday 15 to 1 to approve subleasing the land atop the dormant volcano for the Canadian-designed Thirty Meter Telescope, also called TMT. The university leases summit land, which hosts about a dozen telescopes in total, from the state.

The only opposing vote came from the board's student representative, Jeffrey Acido.

Officials hope to begin construction of the $1.3-billion telescope later this year and start operations in 2021.

Observing other solar systems

The telescope would be used to observe planets that orbit stars outside our own solar system and would enable astronomers to watch new planets and stars being formed. It should help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.

The project was initiated by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. Observatories and institutions in China, India and Japan later signed on as partners.

The telescope was designed by Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based firm Dynamic Structures Ltd., which will also construct the device before shipping it to the Mauna Kea site, if all goes according to plan.

The telescope's segmented primary mirror would be nearly 30 metres in diameter. The world's current largest optical telescope, the Gran Telescopio Canarias located on Spain's Canary Islands, is a 10.4-metre telescope with a segmented primary mirror.

Compared to smaller scopes, the TMT's large aperture will collect more light, allowing images of fainter objects. It will be able to reach further into the universe and see more clearly by a factor of 10 to 100 depending on the observation, according the project's website.

If built, however, the TMT isn't likely to hold the title for the world's largest telescope for long. A group of European countries plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will have a mirror that is 42 metres in diameter. 

Environmental opposition

Some Native Hawaiians oppose the project because they believe it would defile the summit that they consider sacred. Environmentalists say the telescope would harm the rare wekiu bug.

The telescope will pay over $1 million a year for use of the land when the telescope is fully functional, University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney told the board.

Of this, $870,000, or 80 per cent, will go to the Office of Mauna Kea Management, which preserves the natural, cultural and recreational resources of the mountain while providing a centre for astronomy, research and education. The remainder will go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The telescope will pay rent that starts at $300,000 during the construction period, Straney said. This will increase as construction passes certain benchmarks. The rent will be tied to increases in the consumer price index.

The board of regents unanimously voted to support the project almost four years ago.

The state board of land and natural resources issued a permit in April to build the observatory at the summit, an area classified as conservation lands. That decision cleared the way for backers of the telescope to negotiate a sublease with the university.

Opponents challenged the permit with an appeal to the Third Circuit Court in Hilo. They want to force the state land board to uphold its public trust duties to protect natural and cultural resources involved in traditional Hawaiian practices.


  • This story initially reported that the new telescope's segmented primary mirror would be nearly 30 metres in diameter, three times the size of the current largest optical telescope, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, which has a 10.4m segmented mirror. To clarify, this would give the new telescope about nine times the light-gathering capacity of the Gran Telescopio Canarias.
    Feb 24, 2014 11:28 AM ET
With files from CBC