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Friday, December 27, 2019
Mauna Kea: Will the United States Lose the Universe?
By Selected News Articles @ 10:06 PM :: 1177 Views :: Hawaii County , Greenmail, Higher Education, OHA

Will the United States Lose the Universe?

New York Times, Dec. 24, 2019

 … In 1917, the 100-inch Hooker telescope went into operation on Mount Wilson in California, and Edwin Hubble eventually used it to discover that the universe is expanding. Until very recently, the mightiest telescopes on Earth have been on American mountaintops like Palomar, Kitt Peak and Mauna Kea. They revealed the Big Bang, black holes and quasars.

But no more. In 2025 the European Southern Observatory, a multinational treaty organization akin to CERN but looking outward instead of inward, will invite the first light into a telescope that will dwarf all others. The European Extremely Large Telescope on Cerro Paranal in Chile will have a primary light-gathering mirror 39 meters in diameter, making it 13 times more powerful than any telescope now working and more sharp-eyed than the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.

There are two American-led telescope projects that could compete with the European giant, if they are ever built: the Thirty Meter Telescope, slated for construction on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Giant Magellan on Cerro Las Campanas, in Chile. But both are mired in financial difficulties and political controversies, and their completion, if it happens, is at least a decade away.

Work on the Thirty Meter Telescope, or T.M.T., has been stalled for years by a protest movement arguing that decades of telescope building on Mauna Kea have polluted and desecrated a mountain that is sacred to Polynesian culture, and have violated the rights of native Hawaiians. The team behind the project has vowed to move it to the Canary Islands if it can’t go forward in Hawaii.

Both projects are hundreds of millions of dollars short of the financing they need to build their telescopes. Without them, American astronomers, accustomed to V.I.P. seating in observations of the universe, could be largely consigned to the cosmic bleachers in years to come. Early next year, probably in late February, representatives of the two telescope projects will appear before a blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences to plead for help.

The panel is part of the so-called Decadal Survey, in which the astronomy community ranks its priorities for spending federal money. Congress and agencies like the National Science Foundation traditionally take their cues from the survey’s recommendations. A high ranking could shake loose money from the National Science Foundation, which has traditionally funded ground-based observatories.

Without the National Academy’s endorsement, the telescopes face an uphill struggle to reach completion. Even with an endorsement, the way will be tough. The Trump Administration appears to be trying to eliminate the National Science Foundation’s funding for large facilities such as observatories. So much for successes like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which detected colliding black holes. Luckily for now, Congress has resisted these cuts….

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