An artist's rendering of plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope perched atop Manua Kea, or "White Mountain." Image: TMT Observatory Corporation.

North America and Asia Embark upon an “Astronomical” Collaboration

Japan China India

Scientists from the US, Canada, China, India, and Japan are joining forces to realize one of the most ambitious collaborations in astrophysics history. On October 7, the multinational team broke ground in Manua Kea, Hawai‘i, launching the construction of a $1.47 billion telescope that will become the largest on Earth to date.

The aptly-named Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) boasts a thirty meter-wide mirror comprised of nearly 500 reflective glass plates. With twelve times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope and an imaging range of 13 billion light years, the TMT will afford researchers unprecedented opportunities to plumb the Universe’s depths. Cosmologists hope that the telescope will yield insights into the aftermath of the Big Bang, the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and the existence of life-bearing exoplanets; but they note that the TMT’s most significant contributions will likely come as surprises.

The TMT is notable not only for its colossal size but also for its international scope. Spearheaded in 2003 by Caltech, the University of California, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, the idea quickly piqued the interest of scientists worldwide. The Chinese Academy of Sciences officially pledged its support in November 2009, becoming a 12% partner in the undertaking. The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, in conjunction with the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences and the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, joined the project as a 10% partner in June 2010, pledging 12.998 billion rupees (US $212 million) over the next decade. In May 2013, Tokyo approved Japan’s participation as a 25% collaborator under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Each partner nation will be entitled to a share of viewing time proportional to its investment in the project.

Dr. Gary Sanders of Caltech was the primary impetus behind this ambitious international alliance. He began his career in nuclear high energy physics, a field whose prodigious technical challenges and steep instrumentation costs demand a high degree of teamwork; thus, Sanders is well-versed in the mechanics of what he calls “scientific diplomacy.” In his capacity as TMT Project Manager, his aim is to leverage the joint capabilities and resources of the five partner nations with an eye towards “domestic industrial return,” ensuring that each country’s contribution is aligned with its national strengths: for example, the famous Japanese optics company Canon will be lending its lenscrafting expertise to the team.

The Manua Kea volcano – which already hosts twelve smaller telescopes – is highly prized by astrophysicists for its high altitude, dry air, and low light pollution, but it also has deep spiritual significance for local Hawaiians. Protesters object to the scientific use of land deemed too sacred even for human footprints. As a result, steps are being taken to honor environmental and cultural sensitivities and to minimize the telescope’s impact, including situating the equipment on a discrete part of the mountain only visible to a small percentage of the island.

The TMT was legally incorporated into a nonprofit limited liability company last May. Dr. Sanders notes with pride that this event marked the inauguration of a uniquely inclusive scientific institution: “The Thirty Meter Telescope is not an observatory for the developed world [alone],” he states, “but a global asset,” uniting all corners of our own little planet in the joint pursuit of more celestial spheres.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.