The University of Hawaii Board of Regents unanimously approved a plan Monday to build the world's largest telescope at Mauna Kea's summit.
The decision clears the way for managers of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope to seek a permit from the state to build the facility on conservation land. TMT managers aim to begin construction late next year and finish by 2018 if they can get a permit.
Some Native Hawaiians have opposed the telescope on the grounds it would defile Mauna Kea's summit, which they consider sacred. Environmentalists say the telescope would harm the rare wekiu bug.
But the board was moved by the potential it offered for advancing science, providing jobs and helping the economy. The university's board must vote on the project because it owns the lease for the land on which the telescope would be built.
"I think it would be almost unthinkable not to approve this project for what it would mean for scientific research and astronomy, what it would mean for education, and the answers it may provide to unlock the mysteries of the universe," said board member Chuck Gee.
Seven members of the public testified in favor of the telescope at the board's meeting. No opponents spoke, though critics have been vocal about their arguments against the telescope in the past.
Of those who submitted written testimony, 30 were in favor and 10 were against.
The University of California system, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy are spearheading the project.
The telescope's segmented primary mirror, which is nearly 100 feet long, will give it nine times the collecting area of the largest optical telescopes in use today. Its images will also be three times sharper.
The telescope would be able to observe planets that orbit stars other than the sun and enable astronomers to watch new planets and stars being formed. It should also help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.
"TMT is going to take us on an exciting journey of discovery. We will find our way into the deep history of the universe," said UH President M.R.C. Greenwood.
The consortium picked Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island after a five year search. Astronomers value Mauna Kea because its summit sits well above the clouds at 13,796 feet, offering a clear view of the sky for more than 300 days a year.
A lack of major cities on the Big Island also means there's little light pollution to interfere with observations.
Astronomers and observatories in Japan, China and India have signed on to participate in the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Jean-Lou Chameau, president of California Institute of Technology, said the telescope was one of the world's most important projects in science over the next 20 years.
Only the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest atom smasher built at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Switzerland, was in the same league, he said.
"It will be a really big deal. Hawaii will be a center of science and technology for many years to come," Chameau said.
If built, the telescope isn't likely to hold the title for the world's largest telescope for long. A group of European countries plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will have a 138-foot-long mirror.
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