Articles

TMT: The World’s Most Controversial Telescope


{♫Intro♫} The Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT for short, might just be the most famous—and infamous—observatory
on the planet. Which is impressive, considering it hasn’t
been built yet. But what is it? Well, the TMT is just one
of several ambitious telescope projects in the works that promise to help
astronomers probe the secrets of the universe in ways
that were no more than a pipe dream a few short decades
ago. But the choice of site for this project—Maunakea, on the Big Island of Hawai`i—has stirred
up a storm of controversy. Now, you might think, hey, you’re SciShow,
I know where you’re going to come down on this debate! You want TELESCOPES! And yes, yes…we want telescopes. But, look, our goal here isn’t to come down
on any side, but instead to show some of the reasons why
this is complicated, and share some of the difficult questions
it brings up. Let’s start with the telescope itself. Thanks to some twenty-first century improvements
in technology, the race is on to design and build the world’s
biggest telescope. These projects are collectively called Extremely
Large Telescopes, or ELTs. The University of California and California
Institute of Technology were quick to begin making plans for an especially
ambitious one: a thirty meter telescope. It’s called, get this The Thirty Meter Telescope,
or TMT. So the “Thirty Meter” in the name refers
to the size of the observatory’s aperture— in other words, the diameter of the part of
the telescope that collects light. And that’s… big. About three times as
big as the biggest operational telescope of its kind today. You see, the TMT is a reflecting telescope. It uses curved mirrors to reflect light onto
a focal point, where the image is obtained. The aperture is the diameter of the primary
mirror it uses to do that— which may be one single mirror in smaller
telescopes, or in the case of big ones like the TMT, a
whole lot of little-er mirrors that work as one. And bigger is better when it comes to seeing
deep into the universe around us, because the amount of light a telescope mirror
can gather is proportional to the size of its aperture. Like this part isn’t complicated…the more
light-collecting area, the more… light is collected. Bigger scopes mean we might actually be able
to detect the faintest of distant objects. And that thirty-meter mirror will have nine
times the light-collecting area of any telescope in use today. There aren’t any ELTs in operation yet, but once there are, we’ll be able to use
them to study some of astronomy’s biggest questions. They will have the power to peer into the
so-called dark ages of the universe…when the first heavy elements
formed. They’ll reveal the large-scale structure
of the universe when it was young, including the formation
of the first stars. They’ll be able to examine black holes over
time and explore exoplanets with detail and resolution
we can only dream of today. Indeed, they’ll be our best shot at finding
truly Earth-like, perhaps even inhabited worlds. In other words, this is big stuff…ELTs have
the potential to do amazing science. But there are downsides to being a really
big telescope, too— like, the overall field of view becomes smaller. And, more importantly here, bigger scopes
are very sensitive to, well, everything. You need the clearest, most ideal conditions
to get good images. That’s where location comes into play. You can’t just stick a thirty-meter telescope
anywhere. The light from big cities would totally swamp
its sensors. And the nearer it is to sea level, the more atmosphere there is between the scope
and the universe— atmosphere that’s full of turbulent air,
water vapor, dust, and other stuff which interferes with the
light the telescope is trying to collect. And to minimize interference, you also want somewhere super cold, so there’s no thermal interference. In some ways, the most ideal place for a telescope
like the TMT is not on Earth at all. In space, you don’t have all that pesky
atmosphere to deal with, and it’s super cold, as long as you can
find a shadow to hide in.. like the shadow of the Earth, which is where
the James Webb Space Telescope will be hiding. But we don’t have the engineering capability to build a thirty-meter telescope in space. The Webb will have an aperture of 8 meters.
Still hefty, but not 30! So, once they knew they wanted to build a
really big telescope on Earth, the TMT team went about deciding where would
be best. They had a list of five options at one point, but the top two were Cerro Armazones in Chile’s
Atacama Desert Either could have worked, but two others ELTs
already had their eyes on Chile— the Giant Magellan Telescope with its twenty
four point five-meter mirror, and Europe’s Extremely Large Telescope, which will have a mirror that’s about nine
meters bigger than the TMT’s. A FORTY METER TELESCOPE ! Lord this is exciting. But! Having all of the world’s ELTs in the
same hemisphere would mean that we’d be missing out on studying
a big hunk of the sky. So scientists decided the TMT should be somewhere
in the northern hemisphere to balance things out. And so, in July of 2009, the TMT board announced that it wanted the
telescope to be built on Maunakea. And then the questions started popping up. So, first, in Native Hawaiian culture, Maunakea isn’t just a mountain. I’m not qualified to teach you native Hawai’ian
tradition, but for a necessarily imperfect metaphor, imagine someone told a bunch of Catholics that the best place for a telescope would
be on the current site of the Sistine Chapel. Mauna Kea is a natural temple and a sacred
place of worship. And it’s not just integral to their spirituality—it’s
culturally important, too. Chiefs and priests were buried high up on
the mountain, and it remains a key place for cultural practice. So why is it possible for us to build a bunch
of telescopes on it? Well, I mean, this is SciShow, not history
show, but we’ll do our best. In 1893, the US Minister to the Kingdom of
Hawai`i conspired with US citizens and a bunch of other non-native people to
overthrow the Native Hawaiians’ sovereign government, which, yes, was a direct violation of international treaties. Then, when Hawai`i became a state in 1959, more than seven thousand two hundred [7,200]
square kilometers of land were “ceded” to the US. That included Maunakea. In 1968, the state, in turn, gave management
of about forty-five square kilometers of the mountain’s
summit to the University of Hawai`i and its Institute
for Astronomy, under the oversight of the State Board of
Land and Natural Resources or BLNR. Since then, the University has been granting
subleases to various observatories for telescopes. The university has faced opposition all the
way along— though in the past, much of the focus was
on the environmental impacts of the construction projects. Maunakea is the highest peak in the Hawaiian
islands and home to numerous endemic species …species
found nowhere else on Earth. Even on the summit—a dry, volcanic landscape— you can find life unique to the mountain,
like the hardy wēkiu bug. And there are also non-living natural resources
to consider. The mountain plays a key role in replenishing
the island’s fresh water, for example. All of that is why the summit is designated
the Maunakea Science Reserve— state-owned conservation lands. Not helping matters is that, initially, the University did build telescopes without
conducting proper surveys to understand how those projects would impact
the mountain’s ecology, geology, and hydrology, let alone
anything to do with culture or history. They built five telescopes in less than a
decade before any kind of management plan for the
mountain top was drawn up. The first proper environmental impact statement
and comprehensive management plan didn’t happen until the 1980s, after starting
construction on a sixth telescope. As 14 more telescopes were added, environmental organizations and Hawaiian cultural
communities banded together. And in 1998 a state audit determined that
the university and BLNR hadn’t held up their end of the bargain, and had neglected the summit’s cultural,
historical, and natural resources to build telescopes. So, in 2000, the university responded with
the Maunakea Science Reserve Master Plan. It sought to make reforms, including ensuring that any new projects properly
assess how they would impact the summit. Except, then,
in 2006, a judge revoked the Outrigger Telescopes Project’s permit because the university hadn’t properly assessed the damage that would be caused by construction,
which probably didn’t help in building trust. And that brings us to 2009, when the TMT board
announced that it wanted to put their telescope on Maunakea. So, the university filed yet another comprehensive
management plan, and the TMT board filed an environmental impact
statement. The board said that they’ve worked hard
to ensure the telescope won’t have any substantial negative impacts while groups like The Hawaiian-Environmental
Alliance KAHEA, disputed those claims in court. And then court battles continued for about
nine years. Native Hawaiian elders and others who say
the mountain needs protection blocked roads to prevent construction, and in 2015 Hawai’ian governor David Ige pledged that this would be the last telescope
built on the summit. Legal battles continued until finally, in October 2018, the Hawai`i Supreme Court
allowed the permit and sublease to stand— and construction was scheduled to restart
in July 2019. For clarity, we’re glossing over a LOT of
details here. But the point is, it’s complicated, there are a lot of good reasons to want this
telescope built, and a lot of good reasons to not want it built. Or… to have it built somewhere else. Yes, Maunakea is the preferred site of the
TMT board, but it’s not the only one. They have a backup location on La Palma in
Spain’s Canary Islands all lined up. Much like Maunakea, La Palma already boasts several world-class
telescopes. Why not go there from the start? Well, the site is about 1800 meters lower
in elevation, which could impact the telescope’s resolution
a little. Some scientists have said switching to La
Palma wouldn’t really impact the science the TMT
could conduct, while others disagree. The TMT’s own assessment of the site says
it would be an “excellent” location that has the “full capacity” to carry
out the telescope’s core scientific objectives. Spain and the government of the Canary Islands have made it clear they’d welcome the state-of-the-art
scope and help ensure it’s fully funded— plus, the site already has a lot of the infrastructure
in place to build it. In fact, the process of obtaining a building
permit has already begun. But, though the mountain on La Palma is not
a site of current religious practice or considered sacred by indigenous groups, there is some local opposition from an environmental
group, which claims the site contains archeological
artifacts and construction would harm native species. And there’s even a back-up to this back-up— there’s a site in Baja California that TMT
scientists have said would also work, and it doesn’t have the same historical or
archaeological problems of the other two sites. Then there are also non-scientific reasons
to build the telescope in Hawai`i. Many residents of the islands, including some
locals and Native Hawaiians, would welcome the prestige the TMT would bring
the state’s astronomy program and the hundreds of millions of dollars that
will be spent on the telescope won’t hurt the local economy either. But clearly, the ongoing encampment and demonstrations
show that some remain unconvinced. They say the university has been mismanaging
Maunakea for decades, and they don’t trust the institution to
just suddenly start doing better. And yes, multiple audits and court cases have
found that the university has failed its charge to take
care of the mountain. Sometimes we like to think that science is
clear. Gather data, find the truth…but science
has to exist in the world, and the world is complicated. These Extremely Large Telescopes are going
to be amazing scientific tools, wherever they end up. Thanks for watching. And thanks to our Patreon supporters, and
especially to President of Space SR Foxley, for your support. Without you, SciShow couldn’t take on tough,
complex topics like this one. And we love being able to help people understand what’s
going on in the world. If you want to help SciShow do that too, check
out patreon.com/scishow. {♫Outro♫}

100
Comments
  • Bunch of stupid Hawaiian snowflakes crying over a bunch of bugs, bones, & dirt. I grew up there & love both Hawaii & Astronomy. Build the damn telescope!

  • So I have a question, can you link optical telescopes the same way you can link radio telescopes?

    Edit* you can but it is new and still being researched

  • Don't hurt the bug. They don't do anything for the ecology, but theyre important for annoying tourists which drive bug spray sales.

  • They should just go to the Canary Islands and leave the poor Hawaiian people alone, instead of being so apathetic and cruel.

  • I'm torn on this. I absolutely want newer better telescopes. But I also understand that we've been trampling on Hawaiians' land for a long time now, and should actually take their wishes in to account. But alternatively, there are already a bunch of telescopes up there already, what's one or two more?

  • Thank you for explaining this very complicated situation so well. I wish I could give this to everyone who tries to tell me how simple the situation is.

  • Honestly. I think if humanity only ever considered "Cultural/Religious" things, we'd get bloody nowhere. The wild life concern is legitimate, but I imagine if done right we can avoid a lot of that harm.
    The value of this telescope can't even be estimated. What if this telescope finds the next earth? What if it finds aliens? What if it spots an asteroid heading out way and gives up proper warning? That to me is a little more valuable. Since it effects every Human rather than a small group.

  • a good video for more context was made by
    Rebecca Watson, you nerds should check it out

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwMVSokHAJQ

  • Once again irrational nature of religions blocks the light of science. No, I don't respect religion no matter who's it is because it hates humanity's ability to be curious.

  • This is a great example of how hypersensitive woke "progressivism" ruins science. To hell with your sacred cows.

  • This is not about religion or environment. One thing i found out when i spent time in Hawaii is that native Hawaiians while they want all the Money, Jobs, and Protection brought by the USA they do not want to be a part of the USA.

  • I think saying that it is not possible to build a 30m telescope in space is not true, it is just not affordable/worth the cost. That said, due to the increased performance in space, a telescope a fraction of that size in space would still be very useful.

  • ok, we got it – few people who wear feathers and palm leafs to show everyone that they are "special" and little cockroach hiding in the rocks can easily stop, be that temporary, progress of humanity, well, that says a lot about island governing bodies, or is it all about the usual – the piece of the pie 😀

  • The new telescopes are a bunch of little mirrors, send them to the moon for assembly. Would be one of the reasons to start a colony on the moon to build the spaceships of the future without worrying about insects or animals getting in or condensation forming from the atmosphere leaking out during/after launch from Earth.
    Plus they could start harvesting H3, water, hydrogen, oxygen and other materials from the moon's surface… REALLY wish we had a colony up there now, exploration and explotation would explode up there… sighs sadly I was born a few centuries too soon, body breaking down and no cyborg bodies available yet (-_-)

  • I'm honestly curious about what impact even a bunch of telescopes would have on an entire mountain. My gut feeling is that even the number of telescopes they have would take up a very minimal amount of space and do a minimal amount of harm even without the managing that they failed to do. The issues would be obvious, for instance, for logging or suburbs development. Though even if the environmental impact is small, the cultural impact is a shame and I would have to side with the indigenous people. I'm not religious at all, but I'm not for defacing extremely important religious places. As for Spain being able to carry out what they intend the telescope to do: why wouldn't you want the telescope to be better even if it can still carry out its duty in a degraded state? The Mars landers were only "supposed" to be on the surface working for the short term, but we were lucky that they built them way over spec and enjoyed many years of interesting discoveries because of it.

  • Why not Northern Canada? Build it in the Rockies in Northern BC, or in Alaska. There's almost nobody living out there, it's high altitude, it's cold. Meets all the requirements without risking being on top of a sacred volcano.

  • I don't see the problem. It's an amazing site to build the telescope and the only problem with the site are some cranky old locals and nutcase environmentalists. Why hasn't construction started years ago?

  • 1) The aperture of Webb is 6.5 meters.
    2) The TMT site is 1 mile away from the summit and over a mile away from lake Waiau so it is like saying the best place to build a telescope is a mile away from the Sistine Chapel.
    3) The University has not "faced opposition all along." After the tsunami that devastated Hilo, the University was asked to build telescopes on Mauna Kea as part of an economic recovery plan for Hilo.
    4) "As 14 new telescopes were added….." There are only 13 telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea. The math here doesn't check out.
    There are a lot more errors here….

    I know that you tried to do a good job here. Usually you do. There is a lot of misinformation out about the TMT.

  • Sheesh, just guard it with the Marines, it is far too important, it is something that is more important than all of us. Yet another reason why I am utilitarian…

  • If they succeed in blocking TMT than by natural conclusion they can start demanding all existing telescopes there be dismantled.

  • The James Webb telescope will do all this and more if it ever gets up there I for one am tired of waiting maybe soon

  • Since they make up everything they think they see anyway, I don't think the choice of location will affect their paychecks.

  • The only arguments against these telescopes that hold any weight are those from an environmental standpoint. Someone's ancestors being buried somewhere or land being considered sacred is literally irrelevant. There are dead people buried all over the world, someone probably died near where you're standing at some point throughout the entirety of human history.

  • Unfortunately the 30 meter telescope is at risk because of the broken promises that we were given decades ago. If those promises were kept, we (Native Hawaiians) would be open to discussion. Our land was blatantly stolen from the Queen after she believed the promises told to her by the US Government. Again broken promises by the University of Hawai’i and department of land and natural resources. Now TMT has to suffer. When will you learn?

  • Better analogy would be imagine England invaded Italy and spent 100 years bulldozing most of the important Catholic sites to build RAF bases and clearing out scenic Italian villages to make cash crop plantations and English Holiday Resorts. And after all that the now 2nd class citizen Italians are being told by the English run government "I know you chaps are rather fond of your Catholic doodads and what not but the Royal Society is rather keen on building a telescope on something called the Sistine Chapel".

    I understand that SciShow is a business and that your audience is overwhelmingly pro settler colonialism. But you all, as a learned people with a conscience, can't really believe that it is morally acceptable to take one more grain of sand from indigenous people can you? That you would declare "we're not taking side" makes you all at SciShow seem…well…let's just say our invertebrate ancestors spent a long team evolving a certain kind of anatomy that might help SciShow find the strength to take a principled stand for indigenous rights.

  • Um.. Guys ? @SciShow, what about the Max Plank Institute of Radioastronomy ? Ours is 100m in diameter… and even the US Built one with a diameter of 101 after one of their crushed to ground.
    LOL

  • All the problems they are having trying to construct the thirty meter telescope, I have to wonder if we're starting to run into the practical size limit for terrestrial telescopes? Couldn't something like the thirty meter telescope and the forty meter telescope be constructed in space; free of atmospheric interference?

  • Am I the only one here who thinks that building the telescope in Hawai'i is obviously wrong? Like, if they were wanting to build the telescope in a place that would interfere with the Sistine chapel, it wouldn't even be up for debate, it just wouldn't be done. This is just straight-up racism hiding under the guise of science

  • Why don't you build it on McKinley in Alaska? You want it high, it's 50% higher than Maunakea. You want it cold, really .. Hawaii is nowhere as cold as Alaska. You want it far from city, Alaska is far more sparsely populated than Hawaii. You want north, Alaska is several thousand kilometers north of Hawaii.

  • There is another aspect of TMT The Mammon Telescope controversy. For centuries native Hawaiians have
    worshiped on Mauna Kea for religious reasons. The Hawaii State Government, the US Government and the
    County of Hawaii government FORBID access to the
    native Hawaiians to worship. All of you in organised
    religions know the pain and suffering incurred just to have the right to worship. The US Constitution guarantees
    freedom of religion. Yet only the Hawaiians were forcibly kept from worshiping. Hawaiians are ignored in their
    own land. How would you feel if your government prevent you from worshipping?

  • ditch the university, brings in the best partners -wcs etc, incorporate those local groups into management and get the best architect – turn the whole thing into a showcase

  • Easy solution: bring the indigenous people in on it, and give them credit and mutual ownership of the telescope. And any money made from it would go partially to them.

  • Some dude farted on the mountain hundreds of years ago. Thus it is now a super sacred place and you are no longer even allowed to look in its general direction.
    Perhaps that's why those people are so crazy. They have a fart for a brain.

  • can you make a video about that thing maybe? there's quite a few channels talking about it with different point of views so maybe you could compile what's reliable about the concept?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgOTZe07eHA

  • Why not build it in Spain after all and build it on a bit of an extra artificial elevation, 18 metres is not that much, we build blocks of flats 3 times as tall en masse – I could easily imagine that you could build such a tall block and include in it extra stuff, possibly even accommodations for the scientists to live in? Maybe even arrange a small village in a large building around the telescope being on the roof of that building.

  • This is typical of the insane Political Liberal policies that stifle an explosion of science for the betterment of man, to save a bug on a mountaintop. Insane.

  • Why not in the same mountain chain as Mt. Erebus in Antarctica? Is the Antarctican climate too inhospitable for something that big and you can't get above the winds and storms? If those challenges could be overcome, though, it seems like it could fit…it's high, cold, and (believe it or not) dry…Antarctica is actually one of the world's biggest deserts! AND of course the whole continent is set aside for science and has no native people.

  • Sorry;; but if Mauna Kea is such a religious place to the Hawaiians why did they allow the instruments in place to be installed in the first place. And with the success of SpaceX….design the telescope …Elon Musk'll put the builders in space …AND BACK.

  • The indigenous Hawaiian people have been given shabby treatment by the US for decades. Their Queen overthrown, their culture suppressed and their lands stolen. The 'protectors' are not against science or TMT, they just don't think it should be built on their sacred mountain.

    Build it on La Palma, all it' s scientific goals can be met there, TMT' s own research says so.

    NB: I must confess that I am writing this from outside a bar on La Palma and I now live here!

  • My question is this.

    Why do we even want an observatory there?

    Like seriously, we can network satellites together to effectively make a telescope the size of the earth, why do we insist upon building expensive telescopes when we are guaranteed to get worse performance out of them than what we have floating in orbit?

    I'm all for scientists getting fancy toys, but this feels like a "Daddy I want a 2nd pony" situation to me.

  • Science trumps arbitrary and meaningless cultural appropriations. As for the environmental concerns, those are way overblown and should take a back seat to the tremendous advancements in human knowledge the TMT would allow. Priorities people.

  • Middle of Australia ticks a lot of boxes, however its below sea level. That far in shouldn't be an issue. Unless it doesn't face in the right direction in the night sky.

  • Damn – now that's a light bucket. High and cold – sounds like Mt. Everest would be perfect – so why are we hassling the Hawaii natives?

  • This research has led me to some conclusions. First, there are indeed places on Mauna Kea that are sacred. These are places where Hawaiians have continuously participated in traditional and customary practices; so there are unquestionably specific geo-cultural sites on Mauna Kea that are protected, and the practices that are associated with these sites meet all the defining criteria of being traditional and customary.

    But the extension of sacredness to the entire mountain and the air column above it gives rise to questions about how much cultural validation there is for the idea that this pre-empts any and all other uses of the mountain.

    I found no documentation indicating that Mauna Kea, as a whole, is sacred. I could not find any reference to any blanket of sacredness over the entire mountain and the air column in any of the usual sources of validation — not even in the Kumulipo Hawaiian creation-origin chant, or in the writings of Native Hawaiian historians of the 19th century like Samuel Kamakau, David Malo, John Papa ‘I‘i and Kepelino.

    Beyond the blanket-of-sacredness claim, there is nothing else on record to suggest any validated sacred places would be disturbed by the construction or operation of the TMT.

    Validated sacred places include the peaks of Pu‘u o Kūkahau‘ula, Pu‘u Poli‘ahu and Pu‘u Lilinoe, Lake Waiau, and various heiau (temples), ‘ahu (altars), ana (caves), lua kā ko‘i (quarries), and ilina (burials).

    In fact, I believe the decision about the TMT’s location was made to ensure that no sacred site was violated, nor access to any sacred site impeded. The telescope was also sited below the summit to minimize its visual obtrusiveness.


    “The TMT presents probably the greatest opportunity – the greatest cultural opportunity, religious opportunity – that we will ever have to do the one thing that is at the center of every cultural group. That is, search for the ancestors. Our story of creation begins with the night of Pō, with the darkness. I’m assuming that at some point in time, with projects like the TMT, we will actually be able to go back and find the Night of Pō. I cannot think of anything more significant than that.”

    -Peter Apo, Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee

  • It is nice that the E-ELT will be located in a cold deserted area that hardly anyone wants to be except astronomers. The more ambitiously sized telescope will be making big discoveries years before TMT.

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