Facts vs. myths: Debunking oft-cited claims about TMT

  • Photo courtesy TMT An artist's rendering shows the position of the Thirty Meter Telescope, seen on the bottom-left, in comparison to the other telescopes on Maunakea's summit.

Some opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope is being fueled by prominent people — celebrities, musicians and politicians — who have offered their support to the Maunakea “protectors” via social media.

However, as opposing voices gain traction online, so do several misconceptions or untruths about the TMT project itself, making it hard for those unfamiliar with the issue to sort fact from fiction. Here is a collection of some of the myths versus the facts about the telescope.

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Myth: Dynamite will be used to prepare the TMT site for construction.

“We will not be using dynamite in the construction of TMT at all,” said Sandra Dawson, TMT’s manager of Hawaii community affairs. The use of blasting was decided against in the early planning phases out of concerns that it would seem offensive, although Dawson admitted the construction process will consequently be slower.

Myth: There remain culturally significant architectural sites or protected species at the TMT location.

Extensive environmental impact studies have identified no such areas on the five-acre site, Dawson said. The nearest site of cultural significance is located 200 yards away from the TMT location; Dawson said one of the first actions of the construction team will be to visibly cordon off that site so that there is no chance that it could be destroyed accidentally.

Similarly, the wekiu bug — an insect endemic to the region that is often considered threatened by the present development of the summit — nests in cinder cones that are not close to the TMT site and will not be disturbed during construction.

Myth: The construction process will feature extensive drilling, potentially thousands of feet downward.

Dawson said this misconception might have been fueled by a core-sample drilling survey performed four years ago in order to determine whether the TMT site is safe to build upon. Beyond this, Dawson said there will be no drilling beyond the excavation necessary to set the TMT foundation.

Myth: The telescope will draw water from nearby Lake Waiau, considered a spiritual place.

Dawson said fears about the summit observatories draining Lake Waiau have been common over the years, particularly several years ago when the lake shrank during a drought. Because the lake is fed only by rainwater, it would be unfeasible to use water from the lake at all, even if the lake were not more than a mile away from the site. Instead, TMT will rely on water transported to the site from elsewhere on the island, like the other observatories.

Myth: Contaminants from TMT — whether from construction or the observatory itself — will leach into the island’s groundwater.

Don Thomas, geochemist and director for the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaii Manoa Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, has previously said water infiltration from the summit would take more than 2,000 years to reach sea level, if it reaches sea level at all.

Dawson added that the construction process will be “by far the most careful construction project seen on Hawaii Island.” Oil pans will be placed under all construction vehicles at the summit and will be diligently checked and emptied, Dawson said and “there are no contaminants that haven’t been addressed.”

Gordon Squires, TMT’s vice president of external relations, added that mercury will not be used at TMT, and the observatory also will forbid use of any mirror-cleaning substance that is too caustic.

All wastewater will be transported down the mountain, not disposed of at the summit.

Myth: There are military applications for TMT, such as identifying and targeting foreign satellites or missiles.

None of the Maunakea observatories, Squires said, are suited for observing such near-Earth objects.

“These telescopes move slowly,” Squires said. “If we wanted to point TMT at an incoming missile, by the time we were pointed at it, it would be gone, it would be too late.”

Myth: TMT will be powered by a nuclear reactor.

Dawson said TMT will draw power from the island’s grid, provided by HELCO. The specific power-drain requirements have evolved over the years as technology becomes more energy-efficient.

Myth: TMT will be rendered obsolete by other telescopes elsewhere, or else does nothing that existing observatories cannot already do.

“We have 13 observatories on the mountain right now,” Squires said. “And they’re all involved in frontier studies, cutting-edge science. Pretty much every week, the Maunakea observatories discover something new. And some of them are 50 years old, so they don’t just become obsolete after a few years.”

Furthermore, the 30-meter mirror array that gives TMT its name allows for sharper images than any other telescope at Maunakea summit.

Myth: Couldn’t TMT be built in space, like the Hubble Space Telescope, to circumvent both the Maunakea controversy and any distortions caused by Earth’s atmosphere?

The Hubble’s mirror assembly is less than 3 meters wide, Squires said, with the full space telescope only 4 meters wide. TMT’s mirror array is 10 times the width of Hubble’s; Squires said no country currently has the capability to launch a telescope of TMT’s size into space, and likely will not in the lifetimes of anyone currently alive.

Myth: The jobs that TMT will bring to the island will largely be for haoles (Caucasians) with advanced science degrees.

Official TMT estimates indicate that the observatory will require about 140 full-time positions, 20% of which will be science positions.

Most of the positions — 40% — will be technical and engineering jobs, with software and IT jobs making up another 10%. Dawson said Maunakea observatories prefer to hire and train kama‘aina for these positions, as approximately 50% of mainland hires tend to seek new jobs off-island after two years.

Meanwhile, the construction process will employ 300 local and specialized construction jobs. Dawson said TMT signed a memorandum to hire union labor and pay union wages for the construction.

Myth: The TMT project does not have the $1.4 billion or more estimated to construct the project.

Squires said the existing TMT partners — the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, India’s Department of Science and Technology, Canada’s National Research Council, the University of California and the California Institute of Technology — have made a commitment to build the telescope, while opportunities remain open for additional partners to sign onto the project. The four governments among the partners jointly represent about half the planet’s population, “so they should be good for store credit,” Squires said.

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Myth: The primary purpose of the telescope is to seek out a new planet for humanity to live on after Earth is ravaged by climate change, pollution and war.

“There are many people in the astronomy community who are worried about planetary defense,” Squires said, conceding that discovering potentially habitable planets is a possible use of TMT. However, there will be other applications for TMT as well, while the construction of TMT will not mean that other efforts to combat the ecological degradation of the planet will end or be fruitless.

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