UC will take part in Hawaii telescope project with Caltech

SAN FRANCISCO — The University of California took a big step Thursday toward what astronomers predict will be vastly improved exploration of the solar system and universe.

The UC regents approved the university’s participation in the construction and operation of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, a scientifically ambitious project shared by Caltech and astronomy groups from Canada, Japan, India and China.

The $1.4-billion telescope was described as the most advanced optical telescope in the world, with extra power and improved clarity to see distant planets and older stars than is possible now. Construction is scheduled to start this year and the telescope would be in operation in 2022, officials said.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, established by the Intel co-founder and his wife, has pledged $250 million on behalf of UC and Caltech, divided equally, for the schools to become major players in the design and operation of the telescope. Each of those universities must raise $50 million more in donations, said UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang, who is chairman of the board overseeing the project. He expressed confidence that the funds will be found and said that no tax money or tuition revenue will be used for construction.

The Thirty Meter Telescope will share the same Mauna Kea mountaintop on the island of Hawaii as the much smaller twin telescopes opened in the 1990s at the W.M. Keck Observatory. UC and Caltech, which jointly run Keck, will each receive about 12% of time available at the new telescope for their researchers.


Some critics in Hawaii had tried to block construction, saying it would cause too much environmental damage and violate ground that is sacred to Hawaiian natives. Permits and land leases have been approved, although a court challenge remains.

The UC regents, meeting in San Francisco, agreed Thursday to allow UC to join a nonprofit company to construct and operate the new telescope and authorized UC President Janet Napolitano to make future decisions needed to ensure the plan moves forward.

Thirty meters in diameter, the telescope will be composed of 492 hexagonal segments that are controlled by computer and operate in effect as a single enormous piece of reflective glass. It will use technology, also used at Keck, that removes the visual distortions and star twinkling created by the atmosphere, enabling scientists to see things as if from a telescope in outer space, researchers said.

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal, an astronomer and astrophysicist who is vice chairman of the board overseeing Keck, said that the new telescope will permit scientists to see much older stars and better understand the structure of the universe. “That’s very exciting,” he said.

Plans are underway for a larger telescope in Chile, a 39-meter one, to be built by a European consortium.