Is TMT a military installation?

This lie is the favorite of the conspiracy theory crowd. It plays upon the fundamental distrust and enmity towards the US military that many segments of our island community hold. How can you have a giant structure on the mountain without the military being in charge? With lasers!

The Thirty Meter Telescope
An artist concept of TMT at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated.

Why does TMT think #MaunaKea is worth all this trouble vs. the Canary Islands?

Is it the subtle cloud cover difference, or the FACT that Hawaii is heavily militarized with all 4 branches nearby?

Spoiler: major weapon contractors reside in current telescopes.

Kaniela Ing‏ @KanielaIng on Twitter, 16July2019

There is even a military base positioned to protect it! Never mind that base is a training base that has no troops more than half the time.

As someone on the inside I know this to be false. How to prove that? A bit more difficult as none of my answers are going to be heard by the true believers.

There are some practical considerations that should make this clear. The largest telescopes are not capable of tracking something as fast as a low earth orbit satellite, where the spy satellites operate. These big telescopes simply can not move fast enough to follow these objects across the sky. I work on the drive systems, I know.

Aside from military satellites there is simply nothing else in the sky of any interest to the military. Why should they be interested in a large telescope? Answer… They are not.

The instruments and cameras on the telescope are designed for very specific purposes, and those designs are quite public. If there were nefarious military purposes behind the observatory the design specifications would not be quite so open.

There is a seed of truth here… The observatories do occasionally buy military technology from the usual defense contractors. Things like infrared detectors can be used for both tracking enemy vehicles or observing distant galaxies, what is called dual use technology. Such tech is not classified, but still is monitored by the US government to insure that it is not misused. This is really a case of turning military tech to peaceful purposes, swords into plowshares if you will.

There are several telescopes in the islands with military involvement. US Air Force Space command runs several small telescopes on Haleakala and a defense contractor has a part share in UKIRT on Mauna Kea. telescopes that are much smaller and more nimble, with drive systems purpose built to track satellites. These telescopes are used for a fairly mundane purpose, to track satellites and space debris, and to establish accurate orbits for all the stuff up there.

Aside from the expected military functions, like keeping track of the other side’s spy satellites, this has very practical civilian benefits. Knowing the orbits of everything in orbit, and there is a surprising amount, is necessary when launching the satellites we all depend on for weather, communications, and satellite television. Who does this? The US Air Force Space Command. They even publish this data for everyone to use.

The lasers? At one point we heard them described as “laser cannon” during the contested case hearing. Yes, they look impressive, but are really not that dangerous. The maximum power from the AO lasers is about 20-30 watts. To be a weapon you really need to be talking about kilowatts or more, several orders of magnitude more. I have stood in the full power beam from one of our lasers, with appropriate eye protection, it barely felt warm, sunlight is more powerful.

Another version of this claim that pops up on occasion is that the telescope could be used to spy on folks? Yes, that bad. The telescopes cannot aim below the horizontal and performance would be truly terrible if they could due to atmospheric distortion. If you suspect someone is spying on you I would suggest you look for a nondescript van at the end of your street rather than a telescope on top of the mountain.

Of course you really do not need to trust me on this one. The major telescopes atop Mauna Kea are pretty open about who is using them. You can go to the websites and see the telescope schedules yourself, or even wander through all of the data taken with the telescopes, the archives are public.

Result: Mostly False

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

9 thoughts on “Is TMT a military installation?”

  1. Andrew – just a point of clarification regarding UKIRT. Although a smaller and more nimble telescope than the larger telescopes on Maunakea and yes, it was used to track orbital debris but the telescope wasn’t used to observe anything in LEO – even UKIRT wasn’t designed to track that fast. The telescope was used to track and attempt to identify and understand the composition of debris threatening satellites in geosynchronous orbit, e.g., communication satellites. This was part of the Planetary Defense contract we had with NASA and included determining the structure, density and composition of potential Earth-threatening asteroids.

    Thank you for allowing me to make this clarification.


      1. No problem! We did actually try to track something at around 800 miles altitude if I remember correctly, but it was an utter failure. In theory we can slew that quickly but certainly can’t track at that rate!


  2. For TMT, I also like to point out that it is a collaboration of US universities, China, India, Japan, and Canada. These countries and entities usually work *against each other* on military issues. The TMT is really a place where countries that often have conflicts are coming together in peace.

  3. Andrew, you wrote, “Aside from military satellites there is simply nothing else in the sky of any interest to the military. Why should they be interested in a large telescope? Answer… They are not.”

    Are you aware of the brand new SIXTH branch of the United States Armed Forces? You’ll never guess the name lol SPACE FORCE. VP Pence is helping Trump secure 8 BILLION in funds from congress to initiate operations. This not a joke, the USSF is well under way, top brass is scheduled to meet Aug 29th to begin command center operations.

    I hope that answers your question. The TMT is actually a dual purpose project. It’s primary project is astronomy research. It’s secondary purpose is to serve in a more accurate GPS grid, enhanced by earth to satellite laser communications, that will allow the USSF a 3ft target accuracy, ANYWHERE ON THE SURFACE OF THE PLANET.

    So like you said, not a big laser used for blowing stuff up, just for GPS alignment accuracy. These lasers don’t need to move with the whole dome, they have independent drives that are much faster. The telescope itself is not a weapon, that is true. However, it may well become an important instrument in the accuracy of weapons being developed for USSF. Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond is up for being the USSF’s first commander.

    1. Thank you for providing another clear example of how these myths evolve and spread. Your comment is based on bits of truth, just enough to seem good to someone who does not understand the technology. Yes the military is creating a space force, not a surprise as the USAF has for many years had a space command. Yes the telescopes have lasers, and yes, the military uses GPS to target munitions.

      This is where the truth ends and the lies begin… GPS has no need for lasers, the accuracy is dependent on the atomic clocks carried by each satellite and knowing exactly where those satellites are. The Air Force maintains several of their own telescopes that can do just that. Telescopes designed for tracking satellites, which are rather different things, notably different design specifications than the big research telescopes. There are plenty of non-technical articles that describe GPS in detail, you might read them.

      The AO laser is steerable, for a small fraction of a degree, basically it points where the main telescope points, with just enough steering to place it where you want in the field of view of the big ‘scope.

      Anyone who thinks a ground based laser can be used for a precision position reference in high orbit has no idea what the atmosphere does to a laser beam passing through.

      I wonder who writes this stuff, they have to know they are writing a lie. They carefully craft the lie to be believable to a non-technical audience, just good enough to be shared and spread on social media. They write something that is deliberately intended to smear the TMT project with the taint of military, or ecological damage, anything they need to stir up hate and fear.

    2. Even if there was a semblance of truth to the use of observatory lasers to communicate with satellites (hint: there isn’t), what would be the point of building a 30-meter telescope to make it happen?

  4. There is another area where the military has interest and involvement in astronomy. The Air Force has a long history of supporting solar research mostly in the area of Space Weather for obvious self serving reasons – they operate in an environment heavily impacted by space weather. Fortunately, much of their funded research is publicly available and a resource to all of us.

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