The picturesque summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The exceptionally dry Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Ask any occasional follower of astronomy what these two locations have and common, and they’ll know. Each location is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. But, there’s another place you might not have heard much about. And it’s in the news after the Thirty Meter Telescope picked it as an alternative site. La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) trading The Big Island for La Palma?

It could happen. Last week, the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors met to hash out possible alternative sites for the telescope. Henry Yang, Chair of the Board, announced the members settled on La Palma in the Canary Islands as the primary alternative site.

“After careful deliberation, the Board of Governors has identified Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain as the primary alternative to Hawaii,” said Yang.

“Maunakea continues to be the preferred choice for the location of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the TIO Board will continue intensive efforts to gain approval for TMT in Hawaii. TIO is very grateful to all of our supporters and friends throughout Hawaii, and we deeply appreciate their continued support.”

Haven’t been following the Thirty Meter Telescope saga? The telescope is facing stiff resistance from environmental and native Hawaiian groups. They argue the natural beauty and cultural resources of Mauna Kea is being jeopardized by the high number of telescopes already on its summit. Mauna Kea is seen as the most sacred mountain on the island. Adding more telescopes would be continued desecration of the mountain in the eyes of native Hawaiians. Especially, an 18-story telescope dome.

thirty meter telescope concept

Thirty Meter Telescope concept.

Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope was set to begin last year. Protests blocked access to roads leading to the construction site. That was followed by the Hawaiian Supreme Court stripping the telescope’s building permit on procedural grounds. Both sides began making their cases for and against the telescope in a new set of hearings last month. A decision is expected next year.

In the meantime, the people behind the telescope decided to nail down an alternative site in case the court rules against them.

Observing the Universe from La Palma

La Palma might not be known to you, but it’s another popular destination for astronomers. The same reasons that make Mauna Kea an attractive place to build a telescope apply for La Palma.

la palma telescopes

Various telescopes at ORM. Credit: Bob Tubbs/Wikipedia

The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) is one of the best places in the world to observe the night sky. It sits more than 7,800 feet above sea level, putting it above the inversion layer where clouds usually form. Combine clear skies, perfect weather and near zero light pollution, and you get one of the premiere locations to build telescopes.

It ranks just behind Mauna Kea as the best location for optical and infrared observation in the Northern Hemisphere.

GTC la palma

Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC)

ORM is already home to one of the world’s best optical and infrared telescopes in the world. Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) primary mirror is made up of 36 individual hexagonal segments that work together as a single mirror. The light collecting surface area is equivalent to a telescope with a 10.4-meter single mirror.

M64 as seen by GTC

M64 as seen by the GTC.

Using its powerful mirror, GTC studies important questions in astrophysics ranging from the very nature of black holes to the physics of exoplanets far from our solar system.

If the Thirty Meter Telescope doesn’t end up calling Mauna Kea home, La Palma is an excellent second choice.

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