July 22, 2009

Hawaii Chosen As Home For World’s Largest Telescope

A consortium of U.S. and Canadian universities on Tuesday announced it has decided to build the world's largest telescope in Hawaii.

The telescope, costing $1.2 billion, should allow scientists to see some 13 billion light years away. This is a distance so great, and so far back in time, that researchers should be able to watch the first stars and galaxies as they form.

Its mirror will stretch almost 100-feet in diameter (30-meters), which is about three times the diameter of the current world's largest telescopes that are also located atop Mauna Kea.

Being 100-feet, the telescope would be able to collect 10 times more light than existing telescopes, assisting researchers in seeing objects more clearly that might appear faint with current devices.

The plan is to offer routine views of hundreds of planets as they orbit around other stars and stars near the sun. Up to this point, it has been a rare occurrence for a telescope to be capable of showing such images.

"It will sort of give us the history of the universe," spokesman Charles Blue said.

The dormant Mauna Kea volcano already hosts 12 other telescopes. It is the astronomer's place of choice with its summit sitting well above the clouds at 13,796 feet, providing an unobstructed view of the sky for 300 days of the year.

Hawaii is relatively free of air pollution, given its isolated position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There are very few cities on the Big Island, so there are not many manmade lights that could disturb observations.

Richard Ellis, astronomy professor the California Institute of Technology and member of the "ËœThirty Meter Telescope' board, told reporters that Mauna Kea has a number of important elements that would help those using the new telescope, including a higher elevation, drier air, and temperatures that do not fluctuate as much during the course of the day.

The University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities will build the telescope for Research in Astronomy.

The current world's largest telescopes also are located atop Mauna Kea, but the size of their diameters are about three times smaller than the Thirty Meter Telescope. They also do not routinely offer views of hundreds of planets orbiting around other stars and stars that are near the sun like the new telescope will.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is only the first of several massive telescopes universities plan to build, so it may not hold the world's largest title for long.

A group of European countries have partnered together with plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, which would boast a 138-foot mirror. The group is currently considering sites in Argentina, Chile, Morocco, and Spain. It plans to decide on a location by next year and to able to host its first observation in 2018.

Another group of universities is working on the Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas, Chile, which has an 80-foot mirror. They also plan to be finished around 2018.

Director of Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii Rolf Kudritzki says that Hawaii's location in the northern hemisphere will cause the Thirty Meter Telescope to complement other large telescopes planned for Chile in the southern hemisphere.

"I think all of the astronomers in the world can be happy because in principle now the two largest telescopes will be able to cover the whole sky. And for research that's an important decision," he said.

It will also be the delight of Hawaiian astronomers, who will be given a share of the TMT's observation time. Kudritzki said his colleagues had a celebration on Tuesday.

However, not everyone was as excited about the prospect of the new telescope. The decision has attracted protests from some Native Hawaiian and environmental groups.

The high altitudes are considered to be sacred and a gateway to heaven, according to native Hawaiian tradition. Before, only high chiefs and priests had permission to approach the summit of Mauna Kea. Environmentalists also oppose the telescope with claims that it would hurt some endangered species.


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