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TMT's Newsletter, the Scope Dec. 2022

December 23rd, 2022

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It has been more than six months since I started at the Thirty Meter Telescope. Despite many significant milestones, working with all of you, with our partners, our board, and funding agencies, it has gone by in a flash. As I said in May, “I am not taking this job because it is easy… We have a steep path ahead.”

We are climbing that path. 

On the funding front, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is taking preliminary steps that are required for a funding decision. This month, they began conducting a Preliminary Design Review of our project, to be completed early next year. NSF has also initiated an important environmental and cultural review process in Hawai‘i. Because Maunakea is a special place of great significance to many in Hawai‘i, a thorough assessment of TMT’s effects on the mountain's cultural, biological, visual and geological resources is essential. The ongoing federal review will ensure the community has the opportunity to share their views and to fully inform the NSF of the potential effects of the TMT Project.

In the last two years we have been taking a new direction and focused on improving our relations with the local community, especially Native Hawaiian communities. The State of Hawai‘i has created a new Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (MKSOA) that includes wide representation of stakeholders, including a representative of the Mauna Kea Observatories, representatives of Native Hawaiian communities and cultural practitioners. Our task in the coming months and years will be to work in a constructive way with MKSOA. 

Our Project Manager Fengchuan Liu moved to Hilo in June of 2021 and has been listening to both supporters and past opponents to build genuine trust. He is listening to learn how the science community can build long-term, genuine and respectful relationships with the indigenous people, culture, and lands. 

We are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Yuko Kakazu and Leinani Lozi joining our Education and Outreach team in Hilo. They are passionate about indigenous culture, working with the community, tutoring students, giving presentations on the wonders of astronomy, providing hands-on learning opportunities, and partnering with community organizations to create programs that broaden learning opportunities and career development for all children in Hawai‘i. Some of their recent activities were featured in a recent article in Physics Today headlined, “Giant telescopes take small but significant steps toward realization.”

We look forward to continuing our ascent, creating a model for astronomy that upholds the values of respect, collaboration, and inclusion. We understand that building relationships in Hawai‘i will take time. We remain grateful to our supporters and we welcome the opportunity to listen to others so we can become the best partner possible with communities in Hawai‘i. 


Progress in understanding the Universe has its roots in improved technology of telescope and detectors. Over the past centuries, the diameter of the biggest telescopes has doubled about every 40 years. When I began as a graduate student at Caltech, the Palomar 200-inch (5 meters) that started operation about 1950 was in its prime, having succeeded the previous generation of large telescopes at Mount Wilson led by the 100-inch (2.5m) that George Ellery Hale had built in the first decades of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the Keck 10m telescopes pioneered segmented mirrors as a path forward to more powerful and sensitive telescopes and now it’s our turn to push the frontier yet further with the TMT that will operate in the 2030s. 

When you build a bigger telescope, you collect more light that is measured by the area of the mirror. That increases as the square of the diameter. Once you master the art of compensating for the wiggles of the Earth atmosphere through adaptive optics, the images produced by a telescope get sharper, making it easier to see detail and easier to detect a faint source. The area of the image gets better as the telescope grows larger, again by the square of the diameter. TMT partners have learned to do this at Keck and TMT is going to have an adaptive optics system when the TMT first comes into operation. TMT is 3 times the diameter of Keck, so putting together the increase in area and the sharper images means TMT will have an advantage of 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 81 for some kinds of observations. We’ve all been amazed by the improvements that JWST has brought compared to the Hubble Space Telescope through its improved resolution. TMT is over 12 times as large as the James Webb Space Telescope, so in situations where light collecting power and pin-point images matter, TMT will be able to extend beyond JWST’s astonishing discoveries.

Our own scientific community in the TMT partnership has generated many ideas for using the TMT on some of the most interesting problems in all of science. Astronomers have shown that the ordinary material of the world around us, made up of the familiar elements of the periodic table like hydrogen and helium and oxygen and carbon and nitrogen, is a small part of the matter and energy in the Universe. In fact, ordinary matter only makes up about 5%. The other 95% is made of dark matter (whose nature we do not know) and the mysterious dark energy (whose nature we do not know) that is making cosmic expansion accelerate. Observations with TMT can help us with these mysteries, providing clues from the motions of stars we can see to and the warping effects of gravity on distant galaxies to learn more about the invisible material that governs these effects. We will peer deeply into our own galaxy and observe other galaxies going back to the very first galaxies to form to study how galaxies, stars, and planets form. We will understand how we got here and what the past and future of the Galaxy and the universe likely are. 

Similarly, TMT will be a powerful tool for tracing the motions of stars near black holes, including the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This can lead to deeper understanding of how galaxies form and provide tests for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Astronomers will be able to use TMT’s technical advances to look for signs of life as evidenced by the composition of the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy.  Life on Earth (plants!) freed up the oxygen in the atmosphere of Earth that we animals breathe. On the planets around other stars, Nature has conducted billions of experiments about the origin of life—running far beyond the capability of our laboratory science or even the imagination of our most creative scientists. TMT will be a way to see how those have turned out. This will be a way to know if we are alone in the Universe.

What we will learn will be tremendously exciting not just for the field of astronomy, but also for fundamental physics, chemistry, and planetary science for sure. Perhaps we will also have the opportunity to study biology.
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