Losing Telescope Could Mean Billions in Research Funds

Abandoning the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project could hinder the University of Hawaii's ability to attract research dollars.

In this July 14, 2019, file photo, the sun sets behind telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea.
In this July 14, 2019, file photo, the sun sets behind telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea.
AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File

HONOLULU (AP) β€” Losing the Thirty Meter Telescope could mean losing billions of dollars in research funding over the next few decades, a senior University of Hawaii official said.

Vassilis Syrmos, the school's vice president for research and innovation, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser not building the advanced telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island could impair the school's ability to attract research dollars.

Some Native Hawaiians oppose building the observatory on Mauna Kea because they believe its summit is sacred. Protesters have been blocking the road to the summit since mid-July to prevent construction from getting under way.

The university was expecting to be in a good position to receive billions for TMT-related astronomy research and instrumentation development from the National Science Foundation but the funding will go elsewhere if the telescope isn't built in Hawaii, Syrmos said.

The university's Institute for Astronomy is among the top three programs at the school in terms of the amount of research dollars generated.

Overall, the university brought in $430 million in research money this year, a 10% increase over the previous year. Syrmos said he's working to move that number closer to a half-billion in the next three to four years.

But it may not be possible without the TMT.

"Right now our reputation is excellent," Syrmos said. "We're going to be good enough in astronomy for years to come without the Thirty Meter Telescope. But we're not going to be a center of excellence like we are now. We need to push the needle for our science and research. And the TMT is the opportunity."

An international consortium of universities and national observatories is spearheading the telescope project. It has spent the past decade winning the necessary permits from the state of Hawaii to build the $1.4 billion observatory.

The University of Hawaii will receive at least 7.5% of the observation time on the telescope if it's built on Mauna Kea, one of the world's best spots for viewing the skies.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is one of three next-generation extremely large telescopes planned around the world. The other two are being built in Chile. TMT has said it will build in Spain's Canary Islands if it's unable to build in Hawaii.

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