Giant telescope backers to seek permit for alternative site

The director of a Spanish research center says the international consortium that wants to build a giant telescope on Hawaii’s tallest peak despite protests from Native Hawaiians has decided to seek a building permit for an alternative site in the Canary Islands.

Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute Director Rafael Rebolo told The Associated Press on Monday that he received a letter from the head of the Thirty Meter Telescope project saying its board recently decided “to proceed with the request to seek a building permit” for the island of La Palma.

However, Rebolo insisted the consortium that already obtained a permit in Hawaii still plans to put the $1.4 billion telescope on the top of Mauna Kea.

Some Native Hawaiians believe the Big Island mountain is sacred, and protesters are in their fourth week of blocking access to Mauna Kea’s summit to prevent construction.

“We are observing what is happening in Hawaii with the maximum respect,” Rebolo, the point man for the alternative site in Spain’s Canary Islands, said.

“Our position is that we are here if the TMT project needs us,” he said by phone from the institute’s headquarters on the island of Tenerife.

Scientists selected Mauna Kea’s summit for the giant telescope because the weather and air conditions there are among the best in the world for viewing the skies.

The Hawaii Supreme Court last year ruled the international consortium behind the telescope lawfully obtained a permit to build the telescope, clearing the way for the construction to proceed.

Separately, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources granted a two-year extension to the deadline for starting construction. The new deadline is Sept. 26, 2021.

Given the opposition of some local residents, the international consortium announced in October 2016 that a backup location in the Canary Island’s — Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma had been chosen.

Rebolo said local officials who would have jurisdiction over a La Palma building permit solidly back the project and the observatory site already passed environmental impact evaluations.

“Our mountains are not sacred,” he said.

Last week, Spain’s science minister, Pedro Duque, reiterated the government’s full support for the Canary Islands serving as Plan B for building the telescope.

“We have all the necessary plans at all levels – the people, the speed, the systems, absolutely everything is ready if they want to come,” Duque said.

The Canary Islands archipelago, located west of Morocco in the eastern Atlantic, is already home to several powerful telescopes. The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory hosts more than 20.