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When it comes to observing the stars from the ground or in space, the United States has been on the cutting edge of technology and astronomical discoveries since the early 1900s. The U.S. is also home to some of the biggest and most advanced telescopes in the world, including the Palomar Observatory in California and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaii.

Another U.S.-backed telescope is NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which has made numerous discoveries of the universe.

If the Thirty Meter Telescope is built in Hawaii, it will be the most powerful telescope in the world. Equipped with a 30-meter primary mirror, the TMT will have 144 times the light collecting area of the Hubble and have spatial resolution at near-infrared and wavelengths 10 times that of Hubble’s.

TMT has pledged to pay a lease on the land starting in 2014. For the first three years, TMT will pay $300,000 followed by $400,000 for the fourth and fifth years, $600,000 when the structure is built, $700,000 when the instruments and mirrors are placed, and $900,000 in the 10th year of construction. After that, TMT will pay $1 million a year while the telescope is in operation.

Eighty percent of the lease rent goes to the Office of Mauna Kea Management to steward the mountain and the remaining twenty percent goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

All TMT employees, along with contractors and subcontractors associated with the TMT construction project take part in an annual program to gain an understanding and respect for Hawaiian cultural and religious practices. Training conducted by the Office of Maunakea Management not only incorporates the best ways in which to honor cultural practices, but also instills sensitivity to any potential negative impact on cultural and natural resources on the mountain.

As detailed in the Final EIS, TMT is being designed to leave zero waste on the mountain. It is a total closed wastewater system, meaning all waste will be collected and transported down the mountain for treatment and/or disposal at a proper facility elsewhere. No wastewater will be released in the summit area. TMT will also recycle and reuse solid and non-hazardous water materials as much as possible.TMT has also eliminated the use of mercury project-wide. Adding further safety measures, the observatory’s fuel storage area and piping will be double-walled and equipped with leak monitors.

Several archaeological inventory surveys conducted in the area confirm there are no known burial sites or other historic features on or near the planned telescope location on Maunakea.

TMT’s location is also a reasonable distance from several cultural practice areas, with the nearest worship site being almost a mile away.

Once built, TMT will not interfere with views of the sunrise, sunset, or shadow of Maunakea. And, given the telescope’s location below the summit and its reflective aluminum-like exterior, TMT will also not be visible from the Maunakea summit or Lake Waiau.

A scientific poll taken this summer showed an overwhelming majority of Hawaii Island residents believe that astronomy observatories/facilities and Hawaiian cultural practices can take place concurrently on Maunakea.

Throughout the planning process for the Thirty Meter Telescope, TMT officials have made a concerted effort to ensure that TMT’s operations are respectful to traditional cultural practices in the area. This includes:

Meeting with Native Hawaiians to gather their feedback on the planned telescope’s design and location to minimize potential impacts.
Locating the planned telescope a reasonable distance away from traditional cultural practice areas on the mountain, with the facility being at least one mile away from the nearest religious site.

Scheduling TMT observatory operations to minimize daytime activities up to four days annually in observance of Native Hawaiian cultural practices. TMT will work with the Office of Mauna Kea Management and Kahu Ku Mauna to determine days for such observances.

Many Hawaiian leaders and groups have come forward to show their support for the Thirty Meter Telescope. These include:

PUEO (Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities) – this group is based on Hawaii Island and believes that Hawaiian culture, science and technology can work together to build a future for Native Hawaiians and all Hawaii residents.
Chad Kalepa Baybayan, captain and navigator of the Hawaiian voyaging canoes Hokulea, Hawaiiloa and Hokualakai – testified earlier this month at the contested case hearings in support of the TMT project. Baybayan said the Thirty Meter Telescope and the astronomers of today are a natural extension of the ancient Hawaiians who studied the stars while navigating across the Pacific Ocean.
In addition, a scientific poll conducted earlier this year on Hawaii Island found that support for TMT’s construction is split among Hawaiians/part Hawaiians on Hawaii Island, with 46 percent of those polled in support of the project and 45 percent opposed. Eighty-nine percent of all residents also agreed there should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture to co-exist on Maunakea.

TMT launched The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund in 2014 to help prepare Big Island students to master math and science curriculum and to become the workforce in Hawaii’s 21st century economy. With an annual contribution of $1 million to educational programs, the THINK Fund has provided over 70 scholarships, over $100,000 in grants to teachers for classroom projects, and funds for major STEM programs in public, charter, and private schools and nonprofit educational organizations. Two Hawaii foundations – Hawaii Community Foundation and Pauahi Foundation – were selected to administer THINK Fund distribution in scholarship and grant-making platforms. To date, TMT has distributed $2.5 million: $1,875,000 to THINK at HCF and $625,000 to the Pauahi Foundation.

Although groundwater is the primary source of drinking water in Hawaii, there are no wells extracting groundwater near the summit of Maunakea.

The nearest wells are located approximately 12 miles away in Waikii Ranch along Saddle Road. TMT will install a zero-discharge wastewater system, with all wastewater collected and transported off the mountain for proper treatment and disposal.

As such, hydrologists have determined there is no reasonable prospect of adverse impact on groundwater.

Great care was taken in identifying a location for TMT to have minimal impact archaeologically and environmentally. Several archaeological inventory surveys done in the area confirm there are no known burial sites or other historic features on or near the planned telescope location. Located on a lava plain below the summit, TMT will not be visible from culturally sensitive locations, such as the summit of Kukahauula, Lake Waiau, and Puu Lilinoe. It is also located a considerable distance from recognized customary and traditional cultural practice areas.

A botanical survey of the TMT project site conducted in December 2015 found that there are no endangered or threatened species of flora at the TMT project site. No plant species that are state or federally listed as threatened, endangered or candidates for listing, nor any rare native Hawaiian plant species, were observed. The plant community at the project site is described as alpine stone desert with a naturally low abundance of plants.

The Thirty Meter Telescope will be located on a lava plain below the Maunakea summit to minimize its visual impact. It will not be visible from the summit of Maunakea or from Lake Waiau but will be visible from the northern ridge of Kukahau’ula, where other astronomical facilities are located. The TMT will be built at a lower elevation and various design elements have been incorporated to minimize its visibility. For example, a special reflective aluminum-like coating on the telescope’s dome exterior will reflect the sky and ground. In all, TMT will be only vaguely visible from 14% of Hawaii Island, or where 15% of the island population resides.

The permit application for the TMT project is consistent with the purpose of Conservation District rules, which is to regulate and manage activity on conservation land, not prohibit or restrict land use. The Thirty Meter Telescope would be situated within the Maunakea area already sub-zoned for astronomy-related purposes, and will not cause substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources within the surrounding area. To learn more about the eight major criteria met by the TMT project, read our blog covering the ongoing contested case hearings in Hilo.