When starlight flies through the universe billions of years ago and is finally pointed at Earth, astronomers want their telescopes to be in the best possible locations to see what's out there. Despite years of litigation and protests bythe international coalition that wants to build the world's largest telescope in Hawaii insists that the island's highest peak is the best place for their $ 1.4 billion instrument.
But only just.
Officials of the 30-meter telescope acknowledge that their backup site on a summit on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma is a comparable observatory and that this is not the case It does not cost more money and it does not cost more Time to build it there.
There is also no significant opposition to placing the telescope on La Palma, as is the case in Hawaii, where some native Hawaiians consider the mountain sacred and prevent trucks from carrying out construction equipment for more than a month to the summit from Mauna Kea.
But Hawaii has advantages that scientists claim are better: higher altitudes, cooler temperatures, and rare moments when the innovative telescope can unleash its full potential.
"Every now and then in Mauna Kea there is one of those magical nights," said Michael Bolte, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a board member of Thirty Meter Telescope. "If the air above the location is super stable, you'll get images that you would not find anywhere else."
Bolte, who has used existing Mauna Kea telescopes, said these "magical" nights in Hawaii could include discoveries that may be missed in La Palma.
"Suppose one of your great scientific cases is to search for life on planets orbiting other stars," he said. "The star is so much brighter than the planet you want to observe, it's really difficult."
The advanced look and enormous size of the 30-meter telescope, especially when built in Mauna Kea's higher elevation, Scientists can more easily detect potentially living planets, Bolte said.
To see distant planets near bright stars, astronomers use telescopes to capture infrared light emanating from space objects.
But John Mather, an astrophysicist who won According to the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006 for his work on the big bang theory, there are other ways to get at this data.
Mather, senior project scientist for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, is scheduled to launch space in 2021. said the new instrument will be extremely effective in collecting infrared light. The atmosphere will not affect the imaging capabilities of the telescope because it is not on Earth.
Data from the Webb telescope can be combined with information from other terrestrial telescopes to compensate for the infrared advantage of Mauna Kea has defeated La Palma, Mather said.
He said Webb will open "new territory that you can never tackle from scratch".
Mather is also working on a longer-term solution to the problem of seeing earth-like planets orbiting distant stars, comparing them to a "Firefly by a Spotlight" telescopes on Earth to see the planets orbiting them ,
These advances could balance the field between places like Mauna Kea and La Palma, said astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who heads the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University.
"One thing you have to keep It's obvious that people can change the system to compensate for the slightly worse conditions in Spain," Loeb said. "In the end it could be just as good or even better."
Loeb agreed that Mauna Kea is a slightly better place for infrared observations. But La Palma was "an excellent place, so there would be extraordinary science there."
The Hawaiian opponents call themselves "protectors" of Mauna Kea and are not worried about the benefits of their mountain for astronomers. They just want the telescope group to leave Hawaii.
That would be "a win for all," said protest leader Kealoha Pisciotta, shortly after officials of the 30-meter telescope had announced to submit a building permit application for the La Palma location a a few weeks ago.
"There is a lot to do in the Canary Islands," said Pisciotta.
Not all native Hawaiians are against the telescope. Some praise the educational and economic opportunities this would bring on the big island. Others have compared modern astronomers with their Polynesian ancestors, who navigated the Pacific using stars with their wooden outriggers and discovered new lands – including Hawaii.
Mauna Kea is almost 4300 meters above sea level, more than twice as high As a Spanish site, it already houses the largest optical telescope in the world. Like Hawaii's Big Island, Spain also has good weather, a stable atmosphere and very little light pollution.
The 30-meter telescope is a next-generation model designed to transform ground-based astronomy, allowing scientists to look deeper into space. Its large mirror produces sharper, more detailed images of space.
"You can get pictures that are 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope," Bolte said.
And most of the science planned for Hawaii would still be done in Spain – it would only take longer.
"Depending on the type of science you want to do, it will be a 10% hit to a 50% hit in speed," Bolte said. "To get the same quality data, you have to watch it on La Palma much longer."
José Manuel Vilchez, astronomer at the Spanish Supreme Council for Scientific Research and former member of the scientific committee of the Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands said that the construction of the telescope on La Palma would not be a downgrade.
"We're talking about the best of the best, one is a 10, the other is a 9.9," Vilchez said. "We're talking about decimals."
For astronomers, decimals can make the difference between seeing something extraordinary and the lack of something.
"Mauna Kea, as it is higher, would have a thinner atmospheric layer and would observe more in certain infrared ranges," Vilchez said. "The ability to take a picture is lower" on La Palma.
Vilchez also said that the telescope in Spain is more strongly supported by the public and that the cost of operating at a lower altitude would be better.
On Mauna Kea "You are further from the base and costs are rising," Vilchez said institutional support is 100% in the Canary Islands, and 99% of citizens support astronomy work. "
This lack of opposition can not be asserted by the officials for Mauna Kea.
The Bolts of the Telescope Group said what as Opposition began The project has become "the focus of the entire Hawaiian movement for sovereignty and self-determination" and reflects how native Hawaiian he has been "driven out of their own country" for more than a century.
Everyone's attention by holding this telescope. How can this be used to take a few steps forward for the well-being of local Hawaiians? "he asked.