TMT could break ground in October


A groundbreaking and blessing ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope could be a few months away, a project spokeswoman told education and business representatives Thursday.

Speaking during a panel discussion on expanding the astronomy-related workforce on the Big Island, Sandra Dawson said the event is tentatively slated to occur in October, with major construction beginning next spring.

Previously, construction was expected to begin last April. But the $1.3 billion project has run into delays.

Most recently, critics of placing the observatory — larger than any existing optical telescope — on Mauna Kea made requests for contested case hearings before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. That put the project’s sublease, needed for construction to begin, on hold.

How the board responds to the requests remains a variable for the project.

If the requests are dismissed, the project can proceed as Dawson described. If not, it would be delayed further while contested case hearings on the sublease are held, and the sublease itself would remain in question.

The new timeline also places operation of TMT, named for its 30-meter-wide primary mirror, starting in 2022, rather than 2021 as previously anticipated, Dawson told the Tribune-Herald.

But the meeting in Hilo was more about jobs than timelines.

Dawson said the telescope would provide between 120-140 jobs.

Like other observatories, though, about 80 percent of the workforce won’t be made up of astronomers. Many will be engineers or connected with information technology, she said.

Panelists — which included representatives of isle observatories, the University of Hawaii at Hilo and Hawaii Community College — noted the need to develop a local workforce to fill those jobs, positions at existing observatories and provide other services, including instrument construction.

“There are a lot of great jobs here filled with competent people,” said Jim Kennedy, Hawaii County Workforce Investment Board vice chair. “Not too many are kamaaina.”

Doug Simons, executive director for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, said there is high demand for locally-based contractors and staff.

“We’re eager,” he said. “You can call us desperate.”

Education and workforce development will play a major role in filling that demand, panelists said.

In regard to the TMT, Dawson noted it will contribute $1 million a year for science, technology, engineering and math education on the island.

Currently, it has three interns from the island working at its office in Pasadena, Calif., she said.

TMT partners include science institutions from the United States, Canada, Japan, China and India.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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