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Penn State involved in Thirty Meter Telescope project

Photo By: www.tmt.org


Jeramiah Hassel, News Editor

In recent years, developments on the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project – to be built on the Native Hawaiian sacred ground atop Mauna Kea – have sparked national debate regarding the moral justification of its construction. The facility would allow astronomers a deeper glance into the cosmos with the capability of viewing wavelengths on both ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Thousands of protestors have flocked to the base of Mauna Kea since 2014 to prevent construction on the project and have since garnered international support from a number of prominent figures. Over 30 individuals have been arrested as of July, a result of the demonstrations.

The controversy stemmed from the religious nature of the proposed construction site, which already houses 13 other astrological observatories. Protestors have justified demonstrations with arguments of religious desecration of the site, which they hope to end.

Despite the uproar, the TMT project is still sponsored and funded by a multitude of organizations, including the Association for Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), of which Penn State University is a member. But could Penn State, as a diverse and inclusive organization, be involved in such a controversial project?

Penn State is recognized as third in the country in astronomy by the National Research Council (NRC). The University offers two majors and two minors on the subject as well as a few graduate programs related to the Eberly College of Science at University Park.

Research was conducted by Penn State astronomy students on adaptive optics technology for the telescope. Such high-resolution imagery would provide photos up to 12 times the resolution of those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Other studies have been conducted by AURA and the various sponsors of the telescope. Contributions from Penn State studies have been incorporated as well. The research will ensure the most prominent features available in the modern age become aspects of the facility.

TMT project advocates are also dedicated to garnering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) support within research committees and in fostering a desire for advancement in the field. Project leads and sponsors created The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which grants scholarships and higher educational opportunities to those invested in STEM research.

Funding has been awarded to 83 local Hawaiian students, who have gone on to pursue careers and studies in over 20 different fields.

A Behrend professor – Dr. Steven Nozaki, assistant teaching professor of engineering and mechanical engineering technology – received THINK funding to attend the Ohio State University for both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in civil engineering, and later for a Ph.D. in STEM education.

As protests in Hawaii continue, the TMT project leaders are continuing to push their timeline, though delays have occurred because of the protests. Construction on various parts of the facility began in June, with structural components assembled in Canada and shipped to the United States for utilization in the project.

Official construction on the site was due to begin in mid-July, though protestors blocked construction vehicles and officials from entering the sacred grounds of Mauna Kea. Parts will continue to be assembled in the coming months and year to eventually be assembled at the site when protests allow.

The Supreme Court of Hawaii as well as international powers – including Japan, China, India, and Canada – have already authorized the $1.4 billion-dollar project, including the organization to which Penn State is a member. Civilian opinion was not factored into the decision to break ground, though several member organizations under the larger umbrella organizations account for a large number of individuals.

The protests and demonstrations will continue to delay the process until a resolution is reached, which could take anywhere from weeks to years. All demonstrations have remained peaceful, though a number of Native Hawaiian elders deemed responsible for the organized protests and the obstruction of government operations were arrested – a total of 34 individuals. Some elders were even related to the officers who arrested them.

The final completion date for the TMT is set for July of 2027, though continuing disparity between the federal government, natives, and protestors may push the date back indefinitely. Only time will tell how the situation will play out and to what extent Penn State will become involved in further project goals.