HONOLULU — The University of Hawaii on Thursday approved a plan to lease land at the summit of Mauna Kea for construction of the world's largest optical telescope.
The Board of Regents voted 15 to 1 to approve subleasing the land atop the Big Island volcano for the Thirty Meter Telescope. The university leases summit land, which hosts about a dozen telescopes in total, from the state.
The only opposing vote came from the board's student representative, Jeffrey Acido.
The telescope will pay over $1 million a year for use of the land when the telescope is fully functional, University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney told the board.
Of this, $870,000, or 80 percent, will go to the Office of Mauna Kea Management, which preserves the natural, cultural and recreational resources of the mountain while providing a center for astronomy, research and education. The remainder goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
The telescope will pay rent that starts at $300,000 during the construction period, Straney said. This will increase as construction passes certain benchmarks.
The rent will be tied to increases in the consumer price index.
Officials hope to begin construction of the $1.3 billion telescope later this year and start operations in 2021.
The telescope would be used to observe planets that orbit stars other than the sun and would enable astronomers to watch new planets and stars being formed. It should help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.
The project was initiated by the University of California, California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. Observatories and institutions in China, India and Japan later signed on as partners.
Some Native Hawaiians oppose the project because they believe it would defile the summit that they consider sacred. Environmentalists say the telescope would harm the rare wekiu bug.
The Board of Regents unanimously voted to support the project nearly four years ago.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources issued a permit in April to build the observatory at the summit, an area classified as conservation lands. That decision cleared the way for backers off the telescope to negotiate a sublease with the university.
Opponents challenged the permit with an appeal to the Third Circuit Court in Hilo. They want to force the state land board to uphold its public trust duties to protect natural and cultural resources involved in traditional Hawaiian practices.
The telescope's segmented primary mirror would be nearly 100 feet, or 30 meters, in diameter.
If built, the telescope isn't likely to hold the title for the world's largest telescope for long. A group of European countries plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will have a mirror that is 138 feet (or 42 meters) in diameter.