UH Astronomy Director envisions search for life outside of Earth with TMT project

Local News

As the debate over the Thirty Meter Telescope project rolls on, many University of Hawai’i Astronomers still dream of the possibilities of their research if the project were to be completed.

The potential of TMT is described as the pinnacle of Astronomy, on what they refer to as the best location on earth to practice the science.

“That’s kind of the holy grail if you will of that area of Astronomy.” UH Institute for Astronomy Interim Director Dr. Robert McLaren said.

“Find another Earth around another star. And the Thirty Meter Telescope facilitates this in a way that is not possible with existing telescopes.”

Exoplanets are celestial bodies like Earth that orbit around a star. Planets are able to be found by existing telescopes, but TMT is different in it’s ability to get a close and clear enough image to determine if conditions are suitable for life.

“The exoplanets are very faint so you need a big telescope to see them at all. And also they’re close to their parent star, so you need a big telescope to be able to see the planet separate from the star.”

Mostly, this would be possible with the clarity that Mauna Kea lends to imaging from elite telescopes. The TMT secondary site, The Canary Islands, does not provide the altitude or clarity that is seen at the mountain’s 13,083 ft. peak.

“It’s main advantage though is that because it’s on a shield volcano out in the middle of a big flat ocean, the air flow up at the mountain is smooth.” Dr. McLaren said.

“It doesn’t become turbulent and that means that the sharpness of the images is much higher than you can get at other locations.”

Despite his passion, the concern over the alteration of terrain on Mauna Kea is not lost on Dr. McLaren.

“To reduce the overall impact of astronomy on Mauna Kea, it’s been agreed that a number [3] of observatories will be removed in the time frame that the TMT becomes operational. Those commitments were made as a form of mitigation in order to not continually increase the footprint of astronomy on Mauna Kea.”

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