Technology & Science

Thirty Meter Telescope team eyes Canary Islands if Hawaii legal issues insurmountable

The team behind a project to build one of the world's largest telescopes said on Monday it has chosen Spain's Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean as a possible alternative to Hawaii.

TMT chair says overcoming challenges on the Big Island of Hawaii remains the group's focus

In this June 24, 2015 file photo, Thirty Meter Telescope protesters walk on a road during the first of many blockades that started at the Mauna Kea visitors center, stopping Thirty Meter Telescope construction vehicles from driving up to the summit of the mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. (Holly Johnson/Hawaii Tribune-Herald via AP)

The team behind a project to build one of the world's largest telescopes said on Monday it has chosen Spain's Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean as a possible alternative to Hawaii.

The decision follows opposition from Native Hawaiians and environmentalists to plans for constructing the so-called Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which would cost $1.4 billion US, at the Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island.

Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, said in a statement the board explored a number of alternative sites for the telescope.

Ultimately, the board selected La Palma, the most westerly of the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco, as the primary alternative to Hawaii, Yang said.

His statement did not say what made that particular site ideal for the project.
This undated file artist rendering made available by the TMT Observatory Corporation shows the proposed Thirty Meter Telescopec atop Mauna Kea, a large dormant volcano in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. (TMT Observatory Corporation via AP)

The designation of the Canary Islands as an alternative comes nearly a year after the Hawaii Supreme Court blocked construction of the telescope on the Big Island.

The court found state officials acted improperly when they issued a building permit without holding a process known as a contested case hearing where opponents could speak out.

On Oct. 20, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources opened a new set of hearings on the project, with a retired judge overseeing those proceedings.

Dry atmosphere, low density ideal

The New York Times reported a decision on the latest application to build the telescope in Hawaii could be made next year.

Yang said the Big Island continues to be the preferred choice of the team behind the telescope and the group will continue "intensive efforts to gain approval" for it in Hawaii.

The area around the summit of Mauna Kea, the volcano, already has 13 working telescopes, according to the website of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

Astronomers consider the site ideal for observing outer space because of the dry atmosphere above the volcano and because of its distance from urban lights.

Native Hawaiians who oppose the project have said the proposed site for the new telescope on the Big Island is considered a spiritual temple and also is a burial ground, adding the project could harm those sacred lands.

The project has involved contributions from an international team. Coquitlam, B.C.-based Dynamic Structures Ltd. was involved in the design of the structure and was recently awarded the contract to build its enclosure.