Space telescopes are better?

Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope attack the telescope in any way possible. Any argument is fodder in social media and newspaper editorials. Many of these arguments depend on a superficial level of knowledge about astronomy, this claim is a good example of this.

The Thirty Meter Telescope
The TMT with a laser guide star adaptive optics system
James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope

The claim is that a ground based telescope like TMT is not needed as a space telescope is more capable. Why spend the money? Why build TMT on Mauna Kea?

Given the stunning accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope this sounds plausible. This argument also ignores a number of fundamental realities in telescope design and use. Both have their limitations and we will discuss some of the more important ones here.

Certainly a telescope in space has a number of advantages over a ground based telescope. Not having an atmosphere to look through helps, it helps a lot. This is countered by the way ground based telescopes have developed solutions to overcome those limitations. The limitations on a space telescope are not created by the atmosphere and as such are far more practical and daunting.

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Will TMT be obsolete before completion?

Among the claims made against the observatories this is probably another on the top three list… That TMT will be obsolete before it is complete, that the telescope is simply a waste of money.

TMT Cross Section
A cross section rendering of the TMT observatory

This claim draws on the public perception that technology is advancing at a breakneck pace and that many devices we use in out daily lives are quickly obsolete in the face of new tech. What many people do not understand is that this does not apply to telescopes, or rather it does, but not in the way you might think.

The telescope itself is simply a light collector, a large mirror that collects the light from distant sources and focuses it for use by an instrument.

The basic optical design of one of the large telescopes atop Mauna Kea has not really changed that much since Laurent Cassegrain sketched it out in 1672. Sure the design has been refined, and made a bit bigger, but totally recognizable as the same in those original drawings from more than three centuries ago.

If the basic design of the telescope has served for centuries one can understand why it will not be obsolete in a few mere decades. The real technology in an observatory is found elsewhere.

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Are there TMT jobs for locals?

Among the claims made against the observatories this is probably on the top three list… The observatories do not hire local people. As you can guess this is also quite wrong.

IRTF, CFHT, and Gemini
Looking from the top of the keck 2 dome towards IRTF, CFHT, and Gemini

For those who do not work on the mountain it is easy to be skeptical of job claims. Too many think that you need to be an astronomer to work at an observatory, or need to have some advanced degree.

What so many folks do not realize is that observatories hire relatively few astronomers. Maintaining a large observatory is the job of a wide range of people, a few scientists and engineers, and a lot of skilled workers that get the job done.

Astronomers do not fix telescopes, guys who know what wrench to use fix telescopes. The summit crews are largely mechanics, technicians, welders, electricians, and similar. By and large these guys are local, with most having grown up in the islands.

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A Compendium of Anti-TMT Myths

When the Thirty Meter Telescope issue began I would have described myself as quite sympathetic to the cause of Native Hawaiians due to my normal political leanings and my own personal heritage. Over the years I have often become quite bitter about the continued use of lies, smears, and insults used against the telescopes by opponents.

TMT Rendering
An overhead view of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, credit TMT Observatory Corporation

Can we have an honest dialog here?

Apparently not. The issues has become something akin to a religious crusade among people who have devoted their lives to the cause. When this happens little things like truth seem to lose.

I am going to be blunt here, we know much of the anti-TMT argument is either false or gross exaggeration. Project supporters have patiently corrected these arguments time and time again, documented the issues during the hearings, and yet we continue to hear these false arguments repeated.  They are repeated online in social media, in newspaper editorials, even under oath in official proceedings.

Certainly some people repeat this misinformation in an honest belief that it is true, maybe they hear it from a source they trust, perhaps from a leader in the protest movement. We are now well over a decade into the controversy and we have been over and over the issues so many times, those more involved with the controversy should know the difference.

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Will access to the mauna be closed permanently?

This one is a new one, at least to me, this bit of misinformation started showing up just after Governor Ige’s press conference that announced the access road closure to allow construction equipment to be moved.

Loading Snow
Loading pickup trucks with snow for export from the mauna.

Why do I get the feeling shit will go down on Mauna Kea with TMT, which will give the authorities the excuse to execute their plan of shutting down the summit road to the public for good? Mountain access stolen….
(Isn’t that part of the new plan? Reducing public’s access? All they need is an excuse to do it sooner than later. What then?)

Demian Barrios, Facebook post, July 11, 2019

Having a good understanding of management to the mauna I know this one to be false. One need only read the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, Public Access Subplan to know where the official stance on access is. These are the binding management plans for the mauna, and nowhere do these plans permit permanent restrictions on the public’s use of Mauna Kea. Quite the opposite, public and cultural access is to be specifically permitted.

Changing these plans, and changing the access rules requires a full rule making process and public hearings.

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Remove the abandoned telescopes?

One of the most pervasive claims surrounding the summit is that there are obsolete and abandoned telescopes littering the summit region. The claim seems to be pushed to show that there is no need for a new telescope or that the university’s management of the summit is negligent.

The CalTech Submillimeter Observatory under the stars

There are currently thirteen telescope facilities. All of these telescopes are functional, or were usable scientific instruments prior to shutdown, none have been abandoned in any sense.

Two of the telescopes are currently shutdown, in many ways victims of the current controversy rather than obsolescence. Both could be brought back on-line to perform useful science if allowed.

The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, or CSO, was shutdown and is now awaiting dismantling and site restoration. An environmental assessment and a conservation district use permit are in process to allow this to happen.

Even while CSO has been shut down the reasons were budgetary, not so much obsolescence. The telescope itself is planned to be dismantled, moved, and reassembled on another site elsewhere in the world.

The University of Hawaii Hoku Kea telescope was due to be recommissioned with a new telescope installed in the recently renovated dome. This is on hold due to the TMT issues and the dome is likely to be dismantled as part of the deal to allow TMT. Loss of this telescope is unfortunate as this was a student telescope for university astronomy students.

Given the actual status of these two shutdown telescopes it is clear they are not abandoned as per the usual claim. All of the other facilities on the summit are operational and doing science.

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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.

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Will TMT be the biggest building on the island?

You see this claim bandied about routinely in newspaper comment sections and Facebook, It has several variations, from biggest, tallest, to largest, to most area. This has been repeated since the beginning of the controversy and continues to the present as a protester staple.

TMT Rendering
An overhead view of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, credit TMT Observatory Corporation

This particular myth is easily disproved as there are any number of buildings on the island that are much larger in several respects. All you need is some elementary school math.

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Mauna Kea Rules Hearing

This evening was the local hearing for the proposed Mauna Kea Public Access Rules. As the hearing took place at Waikoloa School I had no excuse not to go, it is practically at the end of our street. Of course I was going to attend even if I had to drive across island, this is an issue that directly affects me.

An ancient ahu atop Mauna Kea
An ancient ahu atop Mauna Kea

And yes, I testified, attempting to summarize my three pages of written testimony in three minutes. I suspect I got the gist across in a clear fashion, I will submit my written testimony as well.

Other than myself the testifiers were completely drawn from the anti-telescope community. It is unfortunate that the issue has become so polarized that no other members of the community attended. Access to the mauna affects more than just the astronomy and anti-astronomy folks, this should be of interest to anyone who calls the island home.

As such many of the testifiers paid scant attention to the contents of the rules, instead of providing constructive input so much testimony was simply another protest against the Thirty Meter Telescope. Some form of rules need to be put in place with or without the new telescope.

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Public Access to Mauna Kea… Round 3

It is now round three for the Mauna Kea public access rules. The first versions of the rules were simply bad and rightly faced unanimous criticism from the community. Virtually nobody testified in support of the first version at the public meetings.

A crowd of tourists watching sunrise atop Mauna Kea
A crowd of tourists watching sunrise atop Mauna Kea

This latest version of the rules is much better, at least someone properly edited the rules and there are no complete blunders in the language.

There are still some items in the rules that are problematic. In general the university is attempting to regulate public activity on the mauna far beyond their mandate in the lease or in the comprehensive management plan.

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