The Universe Tonight

Feb 6, 2010 6:00pm
The Thirty Meter Telescope, Sandra Dawson

TMT Thirty Meter Telescope

TMT on Hawai'i Island

By Sandra Dawson, Task Leader and Hawai'i Site Planning representative

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will be the most capable and advanced observatory on Earth. Maunakea, as one of the world’s premier sites for astronomy, was selected as the future home for TMT. This is welcome news to most of the people we have met in Hawai‘i. And we have met a lot of people. In addition to our fourteen Environmental Impact Statement public meetings, which attracted hundreds of participants, we have had more than 200 one-on-one and small group “talk story” sessions with people from all walks of life in Hawai‘i.

TMT will help extend our vision further into space and our understanding further back in time. This exciting project is eagerly anticipated by scientists, educators, students, amateur astronomers, and astronomy enthusiast around the world. TMT will be particularly valuable in detecting and studying planets in other solar systems, understanding the mysterious “dark energy,” which appears to be accelerating the expansion of the Universe, and black holes, which are objects with such strong gravity that not even light can escape their grasp.

With such an ambitious research agenda, it’s heartening to note that TMT is making significant progress toward construction. A review by an external review panel stated: “The TMT project has made outstanding progress during its design and development phase and is poised to begin construction. The TMT team is top notch in both technical and managerial skills, leaving them well-qualified to address the remaining challenges ahead.” This extremely positive review is coupled with the fact that TMT is also developing many of the components and technologies that are vital to the telescope.

Technology development and scientific planning, however, are evolving hand-in-hand with TMT’s efforts to being a good partner in Hawai‘i. One aspect of that partnership will be TMT’s funding of local education on this island. TMT has committed to providing $1 million per year for the life of the telescope for educational programs that are selected and managed locally. We also have an agreement with the University of Hawai ‘i whereby TMT will provide both observing time to UH and an annual payment of $2.5 million to assist in the management of Maunakea and ongoing UH Hilo education programs.

We also are committed to training and hiring as many local people as possible for our staff of approximately 140astronomers, wide range of engineers and engineering technicians (mechanical, electrical, and optical), software and information technology engineers, staff to maintain and direct equipment at the observatory, scientific support, public outreach, and management and administrative personnel, including cultural and education outreach specialists.

In addition to the direct employment through these jobs, the project will result in the creation of additional employment opportunities by contracting for work and services with local companies for a variety of services ranging from precision machine shop work to website design.

The project also will generate direct revenues associated with payments for electricity, communication infrastructure, and local and state taxes. The annual labor budget for the project is estimated to be $13 million, with a non-labor annual budget of about $12.8 million, for a total annual operating cost of $25.8 million, which will contribute significantly to the state and local economies.

TMT also plans to locate its Instrument Development Office in Hawai‘i, which would manage and coordinate the construction of new instruments, which are estimated to be worth $20 million per year. This would offer additional employment opportunities and experience with on-going astronomical development projects.

The goal now is to move from planning and early construction to on-site work. We plan to complete and publish our Final Environmental Impact Statement in February. If the Governor approves it, we have a mandated 60-day waiting period, after which we will apply for a Conservation District Use Permit. We hope to have the permit early in 2011, and would begin construction later that year.

We hope that the support from the educators, students, unions, business community, and citizens of the state of Hawai‘i, and Hawai‘i Island will continue, and that we can continue our productive partnership.

Speaker Bio

Sandra Dawson is the Task Leader for TMT Site Master Planning and the project representative in Hawaii for the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope Project. Dawson has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and a Master's Degree in International Studies from Claremont Graduate University. She is an employee of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and for 20 years worked at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She worked on some of JPLs largest projects for NASA, including the Galileo, Cassini and Mars missions, and received numerous group and individual awards. She retired from Caltech in December and is now on the staff of the TMT Observatory Corporation.

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