Will coronavirus change the fate of the Thirty Meter Telescope?

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is one of the most contested astronomy projects in history.

Since its initial proposal, the project has faced almost two decades of legal challenges. Although the telescope’s construction permits were finally approved in 2018, and construction began in the summer of last year, the project is not entirely out of the water yet. Protestors have not stopped their fight, consistently coming onto the project grounds to disrupt the construction and often finding success in their endeavors.

Many Native Hawaiians object to the telescope because of its location. TMT is being constructed on Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred in Hawaiian culture–where they sky god Wakea met with the earth goddess Papa Hanau Moku, leading to the creation of the islands. They have already experienced much unwanted destruction of the mountain from previous telescopes that have been constructed there, do not want to see it damaged any more, and do not trust promises that TMT will be the last one built.

As of last summer, there was no end in sight to the protests, and it seemed as though a significant number of Native Hawaiians–particularly the elders–would refuse to give in to the construction. It’s conceivable that if nothing could be done to convince the local community of the value of the telescope and the fight were to go on for too long, the TMT project might be forced to relocate to its alternative backup site in Spain.

In a sudden shift, however, the current COVID-19 pandemic might provide the perfect opportunity for the project to succeed.

One reason for this is that protests are now dangerous to public health, violating social distancing rules put in place. Protestors, many of whom are native elders, may choose to prioritize their health and safety over fighting the construction of the telescope and it could progress much further. There is already some evidence that this is happening.

Another reason the telescope’s future might shift significantly is that many more natives could be swayed to support it. COVID-19 is creating a huge economic crisis, with record unemployment–increasing every day–and countless business shutdowns. Hawaii, which relies significantly on tourism for its income, is also being hit hard due to drastic reductions in travel. TMT may become much more desirable as Hawaiians realize its potential impact on the state’s economy. TMT is projected to add 140 permanent jobs, 300 multi-year construction jobs, and $26 million a year into the economy once operational. Additionally, the project will give significant financial support for STEM education and academic outreach programs.

Tourism makes up more than 20% of Hawaii’s economy.

Just as how it happened at Kitt Peak, this economic promise during hard times may be just what the project needs to achieve final approval. Natives may have no choice but to abandon their cause and accept the construction.



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What if we could avoid mountaintop observatories altogether?

Mountaintops make great sites for observatories for a few different reasons.  Most importantly, starlight looks less distorted higher up in the atmosphere, so it is easier to get clear views of objects in space when observing from higher altitudes. Mountains are also sought after because they have unobstructed views of the horizon in all directions and are often located far away from cities, and therefore less subject to light pollution issues.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

Unfortunately, many of the best mountaintop sites for observatories are on Native American reservations. Taking these sights for astronomy purposes is often viewed as stealing land that is not ours. Even if a project gets an initial green light, the process of trying to get approved is incredibly long and challenging. Some fights over mountaintop observatories last for years and are filled with constant expensive and challenging legal battles that take huge amounts of effort to resolve.

What if there were a way to completely avoid all of these issues while gaining a lot of the same benefits (low light pollution, good seeing, and visibility in all directions)?

There might be an interesting solution. A couple of weeks ago, NASA produced a new round of grants for a cool upcoming project the agency is working on: a 1km radio telescope located inside a crater on the far side of the Moon. This telescope, known as the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, when built, would be able to avoid the seeing/distortion issues we get from Earth since it won’t be having to look through our atmosphere, would have no light pollution issues at all, and would have great visibility, since there are very few structures on the Moon’s surface that could block its view. It would also be able to measure certain wavelengths and frequencies that we can’t detect from Earth since it won’t be obstructed by any of the radio noise we create.

The telescope has huge potential for new discoveries. Due to the fact that the Moon is not populated and is just bare rock, we have very few limitations (other than engineering challenges) on how large Moon-based telescopes can be. As a result, this telescope is planned to be twice as big as the biggest radio telescope on Earth (the Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST)). And there are clearly none of the same issues with dealing with contested land. Astronomical observation is essentially the only reason we have right now for building on the moon, so if this project turns out to be successful, we might see a lot more similar telescopes popping up on the Moon in the future!

Of course, the downside of such a project is that people can’t physically go up to the telescopes in person and observe with their own eyes. But I don’t think that this will be a problem forever. Commercial space flight has already been proposed and projects to support it are in the works, so I wouldn’t be shocked if sometime in the next century, people can (relatively safely) take shuttles up to the moon and hang out at the new telescopes or observatories located there.

It’s hard to know now, but this project has a lot of potential, and could be our first look at the future of observing! If it’s successful, contested mountaintops may soon be a problem of the past.


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Previously important research now deemed “non-essential”

Before switching gears to contested mountains, I wanted to cover one last area of climate change (and general science) discussion that has come about since the arrival of COVID-19. That topic is “essential” scientific research.

Due to lockdowns and social distancing all around the world, the scientific research landscape has changed significantly. The focus has shifted almost entirely onto coronavirus research, with people working around the clock on developing treatments, testing methods, and vaccines, including some scientists who were not previously working on that specific area of work. Scientific research deemed “non-essential” has decreased significantly, since in many places it is not legal to congregate in a research lab for any reason other than coronavirus research. Closed borders have also made it impossible for researchers to travel internationally for work, a relatively common practice in the scientific world.

The unprecedented nature of our situation and the need for hyper-focus on COVID-19 means that research that would have been considered critically important a few months ago is no longer happening, since it is not immediately essential to the world at this moment. One important casualty is climate change research. Every year, 150 climate scientists fly deep into Greenland to bore into the island’s largest glacier in order to study sea level rise. This year, for the first time in a long time, the trip won’t be happening. Scientists were hoping to finally finish a hole that they have been drilling for the last five years that would give us new access to data, but they won’t be able to. When it is finally safe to return, it is likely that snow will have buried, and likely damaged, much of their equipment, which will take time and money to repair.

The Greenland ice drilling setup that won’t be operated this year

Up-and-coming young climate scientists will also be impacted. Many are working on research with short-term funding or trying to earn advanced academic degrees on a time limit, and they need to be able to do their research in person to build their careers. If these young scientists can’t find success quickly, it is possible that the next generation of climate scientists might be impacted.

Climate research’s new “non-essential” status could leave a big hole in our knowledge in the coming years, and that’s really scary to think about.



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While we’ve been distracted, environmental rules have been relaxed

Over the past month, COVID-19 has completely taken over our news cycle. Articles about the coronavirus fill the front pages of news sites and social media feeds. It is now almost impossible to have a conversation with friends or family without someone bringing the issue up.

While I think that it’s incredibly important for us all to be discussing the epidemic regularly, the level of focus on coronavirus is becoming dangerously distracting. A lot of things that would have made the front page of the news before are now slipping through the cracks, and it’s becoming difficult to stay informed.

While we’ve been focusing on coronavirus, President Trump has taken the opportunity to increase his rollbacks of environmental regulations in the US. He has already taken steps to weaken rules requiring companies to produce fuel-efficient vehicles, which will allow us to annually produce 1 billion more tons of CO2 (a 20% increase from current emissions).

Our streets may soon look like this, if rollbacks continue.

There are also plans to loosen controls on toxic ash from coal plants, relax restrictions on mercury emissions, and weaken the consideration of climate change in environmental reviews for many infrastructure planets (see this article for more).

Due to the fact that most Americans are hyper-focused on the epidemic, there has been very little pushback on these environmental rollbacks. When I asked my family, who is usually well informed about the news, whether they knew about the loosened restrictions, they had no idea.

We cannot let our government use this distraction as an opportunity to undo everything we’ve worked for. It’s not just damaging to the environment, but actually dangerous to our lives. We’re currently fighting a virus that attacks the respiratory system, which is much more dangerous to those with prior respiratory issues (including damage from smoking or excessive smoke inhalation). On top of being disastrous for the environment, tolling back regulations which protect our air quality could cost the lives of many Americans as we continue to fight COVID-19, or future similar viruses, over the coming months and years.

COVID-19’s positive impact on climate change

Scientists have been stating for years that climate change is real and a threat that needs to be handled immediately. Yet we never seem to take sufficient action to stop global warming from getting worse, often due to two key things:

  1. It is difficult for us to comprehend the scale of climate change and how it will affect us. Numbers stating 3mm annual rises in sea level don’t mean much to the average person, so it’s hard to make people care.
  2. Since climate change predictions often say that we won’t be in serious danger for a few decades, it’s easy to claim climate change as a problem that doesn’t need to be dealt with now (even though that’s not the case).

Before coronavirus, we had yet to make sufficient progress toward slowing climate change. But everything has changed within the last few months as people have shifted to social isolation and working from home:

  • Since India has been on lockdown, the country has seen a 70+% drop in PM 2.5 particles, microscopic air pollutants that are particularly dangerous due to their ability to lodge deep in the lungs and get into the bloodstream.
  • Over a two week period, China saw a 25% drop in energy use and emissions.

NO2 levels in China, Jan-Feb 2020

  • Carbon monoxide from cars has reduced by 50% in NYC, and CO2 has dropped by 5-10%.
  • Scientists say that by May, CO2 levels might be at their lowest since the 2008 financial crisis.

In some cities, the reduction in pollution is so significant that there are clear differences in how the sky looks. New opportunities seem to be arising for astronomers to study the sky in places they could not see it before.

No longer trafficked by motorboats, waterways have also become more clear.

Clear waterways in Venice

Wildlife has started emerging in cities. In my hometown of Austin, TX, residents have noted an increase in sightings of deer, opossums, and coyotes.

It is likely that we will be in quarantine for many more months, so if the trend of decreasing pollution continues as it has so far, it is likely that we will reach levels of pollution that we have not seen in decades. COVID-19, as terrible as it is, may have actually had a huge benefit of temporarily slowing our climate change trajectory. If we use this opportunity to act soon, the pollution relief that we are seeing now might actually give us enough time to work on effective climate protection solutions and save ourselves from what seemed before to be an almost inescapable doom.


For more on COVID-19 and climate change impacts, see the following links:

Changes to emissions/pollution around the world – BBC

Reduced pollution in China – CNN

Reduced pollution in India – CNN

Cleaner air and water worldwide – NBC

Animals returning to cities – The Guardian