A key decision on whether to place a $1.4 billion telescope in Hawaii to further astronomy research has been delayed, leaving open the possibility the project may be moved to Spain, a panel said Friday.
The board of governors for the project dubbed the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory still wants to build the telescope on its preferred site of Mauna Kea, a mountain in Hawaii.
But an alternative location in Spain's Canary Islands remains under consideration, the board said in a statement after meeting this week to discuss legal and regulatory challenges to the Hawaii telescope plan that could last years.
"We continue to assess the ongoing situation as we work toward a decision," said Ed Stone, the executive director of the observatory.
He said no decision can be made on where to put the telescope "until we have a place to go, and we don't decide when we have a place to go — that's decided by the courts and agencies."
The 30-meter (98 feet) diameter telescope would be placed on one side of Mauna Kea and is far more advanced than the world's largest current telescopes that measure 10 meters (32 feet) in diameter. The new telescope could potentially allow scientists to make groundbreaking discoveries about black holes, exoplanets, celestial bodies, and even detect indications of life on other planets.
Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and Hawaii's tallest mountain, was selected in July 2009 as the target location for the telescope after a five-year search.
Scientists called it the best site in the world for astronomy, given a stable, dry, and cold, climate, which allows for sharp images. The atmosphere over the mountain also provides favorable conditions for astronomical measurements, according to the TMT website.
The island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, which already has an astronomical observatory, is considered a viable alternative. But scientists have said the telescope's design would have to be altered for more adaptive optics given the mountain site's lower altitude and different climate. That means it would take scientists more time to achieve the same discoveries they could make at Mauna Kea, Stone said.
The Hawaii site has been subject to years of public debate and legal challenges. Researchers say it will help usher in scientific and economic developments, while opponents maintain it will hurt the environment and desecrate land considered sacred by some Native Hawaiians. Mauna Kea already houses a number of high-powered telescopes at its summit.
"Thirty years of astronomy development has resulted in adverse significant impact to the natural and cultural resources of Mauna Kea," said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, an indigenous, Native Hawaiian group that works on environmental issues. "Trying to build more would have added to the cumulative impact."
On Thursday, the Hawaii Senate approved a bill to ban new construction atop Mauna Kea, and included a series of audits and other requirements before the ban could be lifted. But House leaders said they don't have plans to advance the bill. Democratic House Speaker Scott Saiki told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the "bill is dead on arrival in the House."
There are also two appeals before the Hawaii Supreme Court. One challenges the sublease and land use permit issued by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources. The other has been brought by a Native Hawaiian man who says use of the land interferes with his right to exercise cultural practices and is thus entitled to a case hearing.
The telescope project is a collaboration among universities in the U.S. and California, including the University of Hawaii and national science and research institutes of Japan, China, and India.
"It's a privilege to practice astronomy on Mauna Kea and we're not satisfied with where we're at right now," Dan Meisenzahl, a spokesperson for the University of Hawaii, said in a statement. "We will continue to push ourselves to improve our stewardship of the mountain."