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Why Hawaiians are protesting construction of the world's second-largest telescope

A rendering of the new telescope — which may or may not get built.
A rendering of the new telescope — which may or may not get built.
(Thirty Meter Telescope Corporation)

For years, astronomers have been planning a new telescope in Hawaii, larger than any in human history, that would help us explore distant new corners of the universe. But the project has triggered a massive controversy with locals — and might never be built.

The instrument is the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT): a gigantic instrument with a mirror nearly three times as wide as any telescope in existence (another telescope, currently being built in Chile, will be larger). Once it's finished in 2024, astronomers plan to use the TMT to observe objects billions of light years away to better understand the processes that occurred just after the formation of the universe.

But there's a hitch: the telescope is being built on Mauna Kea, which is one of the most sacred sites in the world for many Native Hawaiians and is covered with hundreds of ancient shrines.

Already, 13 other telescopes have been built on the mountain. For those who consider Mauna Kea sacred, the new TMT is the final straw — and in April, the protests they've staged on the mountain forced the state governor to put construction on hold. Work on the telescope has been halted for nearly a month now, without any obvious resolution imminent.

Astronomers have already built lots of telescopes on Mauna Kea...

mauna kea

There are 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea so far. (Subaru Telescope)

Scientists first recognized the astronomical potential of the Hawaiian islands back in the 1940s, when astronomer Grote Reber put a radio antenna at the summit of the island of Maui because of its high altitude, dry air, dark night sky, and consistently clear weather year-round.

Later, during the 1960s, other astronomers discovered that Mauna Kea — a dormant volcano and the summit of Hawaii's "Big Island" — was an even better site for observation, because its higher altitude meant it was virtually always above cloud level.

In 1968, the state leased land on the mountain to the University of Hawaii, with the hopes of stimulating astronomy-related economic activity. That year, the Air Force built a small telescope on Mauna Kea, and it was soon followed by successively larger ones built by many international groups and universities. As Buzzfeed's Azeen Ghorayshi reports, these groups had to pay the university just $1 per year for the land rights.

Opposition soon followed. As far back as the 1990s, groups of Native Hawaiians began to protest construction of the telescopes on the grounds that the land is sacred. Although the state began to require environmental impact assessments for all new telescopes, it hasn't done nearly as much to take into account the wishes or cultural needs of local residents.

But now astronomers want an even bigger telescope

thirty meter telescope

(Thirty Meter Telescope Corporation)

Then, in 2000, a group of US universities (including Caltech and the University of California) embarked on a plan to build what would be the world's largest telescope — one with a 30-meter-wide composite mirror.

There's a simple reason astronomers want a bigger telescope: the bigger the mirror, the more light a telescope can collect. And the more light collected, the farther astronomers can see. Giant telescopes have allowed people to observe galaxies so far away that the light took billions of years to travel between them and Earth — in effect, revealing distant regions of space as they were billions of years ago.

The TMT's even more massive mirror would let astronomers see farther than any optical telescope currently on Earth: about 13 billion light years away.

Because the universe is believed to be 13.8 billion years old, this means the TMT would allow astronomers to look all the way back to a few hundred million years after the Big Bang — to the so-called "dark ages," when light first began to travel freely through space. Observations of this era could help us better understand the exotic processes that allowed this to occur and the universe to form.

A giant telescope like the TMT would also allow astronomers to look at objects closer to us in greater detail. Along with a similarly huge telescope being built in Chile (which will look at a different part of the sky), the TMT could let scientists analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets, and perhaps even find signs of life.

For all these reasons, the California universities joined with a number of other scientific organizations to build the TMT, at a total cost of $1.4 billion. The groups considered sites in Chile and Mexico, as well as Mauna Kea, and eventually decided on the latter. In 2011, they got permission to build.

Why some Hawaiians are protesting the TMT

The protestors consider the new telescope a desecration. "For Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians], Mauna Kea calls us to be faithful to our ancestral connections to her, to defend our beliefs, values and practices and to demonstrate aloha ʻāina," Jon Osorio, a professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, recently told Wired.

Traditionally for Hawaiians, the mountain is the home of several deities, and a place only to be visited for special ceremonies. Locals have prayed, built shrines, and, in some cases, buried ancestors on Mauna Kea for generations. The fact that the TMT will be much taller (18 stories) and take up much more space on the mountain (1.44 acres) than any previous telescope makes it an especially big problem.

The colonial history of the Hawaiian islands is also important here. In 1893, a small group of US-supported businessmen overthrew Hawaii's queen, leading to the breakup of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the eventual annexation of the islands by the US. Americans have since flooded the islands, and today Native Hawaiians have significantly higher rates of poverty than whites. Against this backdrop, the TMT — and astronomy's takeover of Mauna Kea — looks like the latest advance of Western colonialism in Hawaii.

Finally, some environmentalists are concerned about the ecological impact of yet another telescope. Though an environmental impact assessment was conducted, groups like Mauna Kea Hui say it wasn't sufficient, and are worried that waste produced by the increased amount of activity on Mauna Kea facility could damage the island's aquifer.

Backers of the telescope note that they undertook a voluntary seven-year public review process that included 20 or so public hearings. "The TMT site was selected with great care and respect," project manager Gary Sanders said in a statement. "There are no archaeological shrines or burial sites within TMT’s project site."

Defenders of the project also say the TMT will be the first telescope to actually pay to lease the land, at a rate of $1 million per year. Since the protests began, the project's backers have agreed to give another $1 million for local science and technology education annually. For protestors, however, the growing number of telescopes on a sacred site can't be justified by any amount of money.

While it's easy to cast all this as a scientists vs. Hawaiians fight, that's not entirely accurate, either. Lots of Hawaiians (including the Native Hawaiian council Kahu Ku Mauna) support the TMT. And on the flip side, there are increasing numbers of astronomers who have expressed doubts about the project as the protests have continued.

How protestors brought construction to a halt

A L O H A ʻĀ I N A DLNR arrests made at the Northern Plateau #TMTshutdown

A photo posted by Protect Mauna a Wākea (@protectmaunakea) on

Many protesters had opposed earlier telescopes, and they began protesting the TMT during the public review process: an activist group called Mauna Kea Ohana, for instance, sued in 2011 but was unable to stop construction.

However, their protests during the October 2014 groundbreaking were the first to occur directly on the mountain, and they brought the ceremony to a stop. Unlike before, news of their protests spread on social media and garnered support far beyond the islands.

Tensions peaked during March and April, as protestors camped on the mountain and blocked the access road, with police arresting some of them. On April 7, Hawaii governor David Ige called for a one-week halt to construction. More than a month later — after several successive weeklong delays — it still hasn't started back up.

Meanwhile, the University of Hawaii continues to host hearings on the issue. It's still unclear what's going to happen, but construction might eventually proceed with a few key points of compromise — perhaps older telescopes will be removed, or maybe the university will commit to the TMT being the last telescope to be built on the island.

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