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Thirty Meter Telescope

Interview with Steve Key
Steve Key graduated with honors from California State Polytechnic University of Pomona on June 11, 2005, with a B.S. degree in architecture. The subject of Steve’s thesis was the support facility for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). He is currently working toward his architectural license in the State of California, and intends to continue his education in graduate school.

At the request of TMT staff, Steve answered a few questions about his thesis and his unusual perspective on the project.

Q: Why did you pick the TMT as the focus of your thesis project?

In the architecture program, we’re required to come up with our own idea on what we want to study for our thesis project, all the way through to its final design. As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to do something that involves an astronomical observatory, so I started searching for current or new observatories that might make a good thesis subject. Then I came upon the TMT project web site operated by Caltech.

I found the TMT to be a good candidate because it is a telescope that was still in the conceptual design phase, but it had the potential to not only be one of the most technologically advanced observatories, but also the largest to date.

I contacted the TMT office, and Project Manager Gary Sanders replied to my inquiry. Then from there we set up a meeting where I came to TMT, and sat in on one of the site testing meetings to see if TMT is something that I would be interested in using for my thesis project.

Then came the hard part. What could I do that would be helpful for the TMT project and also fulfill my thesis requirements? I came up with the idea of designing the support facilities for the project.

The TMT project proved to be a great fit with my thesis and allowed me to examine parts of the project that were not thought about very much yet. For my thesis, I designed the operational headquarters at the mountain summit that would go along with the telescope.

Q: What are your primary conclusions about the project?

The TMT is going to be one of the forerunners in the field of extremely large telescope observatories. I feel that it will showcase the awesome light-collecting power that a 30-meter telescope can bring to humankind, and help to advance the prospects for even larger observatories like the [proposed] OWL telescope.

When it comes to the design itself, making the telescope based around a large segmented mirror is interesting because it will allow astronomers to use it every night and never leave it out of commission, because it can be resurfaced segment by segment.

Projects like the TMT bring people closer together. I believe that it will help us start to answer all of the big questions that humans have asked forever about our beginnings and our existence.

I would not have been able to come up with a realistic program for this building without the expertise of the TMT team at Caltech.

What do you see as the project's biggest architectural challenges?

When it comes to actually building this telescope I think that there are a few areas that are going to be challenges. First, just getting to the site is going to be a bumpy journey. The trip from Antofagasta to one of the possible sites in northern Chile, for example, takes a little over one and a half hours. Most of this trip is on an old deteriorated dirt road. This I see as a potential problem for bringing parts of the project, like the mirrors and other fragile components, to the site.

Then there is the construction of the dome that will house this large telescope. This will be one of the biggest structures of its type that people have ever tried to make. The basic challenge of getting all the material and equipment will require the construction of a high quality road.

As for the dome itself, the natural lateral forces of wind and sandstorms and such demand that it be built of a material that is lightweight, but very strong, to counteract those forces. Other domes of this type and scale are starting to use squared-off designs. For example, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile uses a futuristic-looking boxy design rather than a traditional dome. However, I do think that a dome is the correct shape for this observatory, given its size and performance goals.

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Q: How much did the project evolve of the time span of your study?

The TMT went from conceptual design to really trying to sift through all the possible sites and pick the best one for locating the TMT. The only thing that I know is that more and more sites are being tested with all the equipment needed, and that TMT had started looking at sites in Northern Chile more closely. I concentrated more on my thesis and how it would support TMT.

In my mind, this building needed to do more than just facilitate a function. Yes, that is the main purpose, but the building that is going to support the most advanced piece of machinery for looking at our Universe needed to compliment the telescope dome. I came up with a building that fulfills all the primary needs of the project, for living, working and visiting the TMT in the middle of a remote area. This building will be somewhere exciting for the astronomers, workers, and visitors when they come to this facility.

Q: How does the TMT compare to other science facilities of a similar size or scale?

At this point, the TMT is one of the largest feasible projects of this scale that is currently under way. Of course, there are other large telescope projects that are being explored, but TMT is closer to reality with the actual size of a 30-meter diameter primary mirror housed within a 90-110 meter diameter dome. That is huge by itself. It is going to be a test to see if it is even possible to create something of this size.

I do believe that the general public is going to be greatly interested in what it is that TMT is discovering, and I am sure that there is going to be a desire for people to want to see the TMT itself in-person. The TMT is going to be the largest, most advanced telescope in the world for probably the next 20 or 30 years. In time, I believe that it is going to become the telescope that everyone knows about, like they know about the Hubble Space Telescope today. It will benefit humanity for generations to come.

Q: How has the project influenced you in your professional goals?

The TMT project has given me the chance to meet with some world-renowned scientists, engineers and astronomers. I had the opportunity to travel to Chile over the past spring break and visit the arid world of the Atacama Desert. I would never have had a reason to go there if not for this project.

This project has made me more aware of the lengthy timetable required when it comes to building something like this, which most people do not appreciate. The TMT project became a reality in just the past couple years, and to think that it is going to be 2015 before it is operational is astounding. When it comes to my career as an architect, I have a much greater respect for scientists and engineers than I had before studying it. I never realized how dedicated scientists and engineers, particularly on the TMT project, really are.

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