(BIVN) – During a University of California Regents meeting held over videoconference on Thursday, the Thirty Meter Telescope’s preferred location on Maunakea was compared and contrasted to the alternative site that has been identified in La Palma. It was part of the greater discussion among the UC Regents concerning the stalled observatory project.
Opponents of the project in Hawaiʻi would like to see the observatory go elsewhere, but astronomers caution that the alternative site in La Palma does not compare with the stargazing conditions on Maunakea.
In a presentation to the UC Regents, TMT associate director Michael Bolte said that La Palma is an “excellent site, although not quite at the Maunakea standard.” He also cautioned that “a site change would require unanimous agreement among TMT partners,” which besides the University of California include Canada, Japan, India and China.
“From a science point of view, there are science cases that can’t simply can’t be done,” said astronomer Andrea Ghez, who is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA. “It’s not that there isn’t a tremendous amount of science that you can achieve on La Palma, but there are some specifics. I just happen to be an example with my program of one that will suffer.”
Ghez explained that one problem is the latitude of La Palma. “On Maunakea, you get all the way up to the top, all the way north, and further south,” she explained, whereas on La Palma, “you lose some of the south. So in other words, you have a shrinking view of the sky. This is why most telescopes are built sort of either plus or minus a little bit from the equator.”
“The other piece,” Ghez said, is “the site itself is simply not as good, and that will hinder some cases from going forward.”
Some regents expressed concern that a move to La Palma would result in the dissolution of the TMT International Observatory as its currently constituted, and also worried about what the possible withdrawal of the University of California from the observatory partnership would do for the university’s reputation.
“Not doing TMT would be crushing to the University of California Astronomy,” said Ghez. In terms of moving the project from Maunakea to La Palma, Ghez said “there’s some loss, but it wouldn’t be devastating.”
This is part one of a planned three-part video series. Part one focused on the TMT proposal to the National Science Foundation to help bolster the project. Part three will feature the discussion on moving forward with the proposal in Hawaiʻi, and the opposition that TMT faces, and will include comments from some of the kiaʻi who participated in the meeting, as well as some of the Hawaiʻi-based supporters of the project.