The Controversy Behind the World's Next Great Telescope

The is 3 times bigger than it's already oversized neighbors on Mauna Kea. Thirty Meter Telescope

Mauna Kea is a sacred summit, a home of deities. It's also an astronomical Eden where 13 telescopes peer into the heavens with little light or air pollution to obscure the view.

The mountain is a popular tourist destination with snow atop and surf below. And it has been the site of hundreds of native Hawaiian protests aimed at stopping construction of the $1.5 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the largest and most powerful telescope on the mountain. The site makes sense from a scientific perspective — its location above the clouds will allow scientists to understand more about star and planet formation, far beyond what we can do with current telescopes. But the choice makes less sense from a cultural perspective.

Blocking construction

When construction was set to begin July 15, throngs of protesters prevented it from starting. Kaho'okahi Kanuha — a leader of the group who prefer to call themselves protectors — told CNN that they believe more than 2,000 people have assembled so far.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed an emergency proclamation to give law enforcement increased authority to manage the situation. He told reports he wouldn't call in National Guard troops and had never considered using tear gas to break up the crowds. CNN reports that 33 people have been arrested for forming a line to block the road. They were given the choice of a citation, but chose to be arrested. They were immediately released.

Although Ige told the media the camp is disorganized, Kanuha said otherwise.

"What we have here is not an image of dysfunction and not an image of a crumbling society," he said. "We have images of, basically, people uniting, people coming together, and each and every day we get bigger and bigger and become more organized and get stronger and stronger."

There may be an alternate location, too. In late August, Thirty Meter Telescope officials acknowledged there is a Plan B with considerably less opposition: putting the telescope on a peak in the Spanish Canary island of La Palma instead. There's no significant opposition to this site, and it would take roughly the same amount of money and time to build it there.

Astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who chairs Harvard University's astronomy department, thinks it's a good compromise. "One thing that you need to keep in mind is that humans can change the system as to compensate for the slightly worse conditions" in Spain, he said. "In the end, it might perform as well or maybe even better."

The long battle for approval

Last September, the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the permit with certain conditions including the dismantling of three current telescopes and no additional telescopes to be built in the future. The board made this ruling after a state judge in July 2017 recommended the state approve the permit. Several Native Hawaiian groups vehemently disapproved of the board's decision, which is why the state's supreme court was asked to weigh in.

"The Mauna Kea issue is really simple," says Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime opponent of the telescope. "Any land on the mountain without an existing telescope is considered a cultural and natural preserve, and requires a permit from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) for development. The DLNR's mandate is to protect Hawaii's cultural and natural resources, but it’s not. Therein lies the problem."

In 1968, the DLNR granted the University of Hawaii a 65-year lease for a science reserve atop the mountain. The reserve includes a 525-acre astronomy precinct and an additional 10,763 acres for natural and cultural preservation. Though the DLNR is the overarching authority for the science reserve, the university is managing these lands until the lease expires in 2033.

Complaints about the university’s stewardship of Mauna Kea are not new. A state audit in 1998 found that little had been done to protect the mountain’s delicate ecosystem or to preserve its historical significance.

In April 2015, early protests on social media and across the state brought construction of the massive 18-story telescope to a halt. And in December 2015, Hawaii’s state supreme court nullified the permit that would have allowed construction to proceed. A new round of hearings began in October 2016 for TMT to get a new permit from the DLNR.

The stakeholders and their viewpoints

In hopes of forging a path through the conflict, Ige, who had been silent on the issue, rounded up the divergent viewpoints in May 2015. That included input from the DLNR, the University of Hawaii, TMT officials and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

"My review found that the TMT project took the appropriate steps and received the approvals needed to move forward. The project has the right to proceed with construction, and the state will support and enforce its right to do so,” Ige said.

He also acknowledged that, "In many ways we failed the mountain. Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural resource perspective, we have not done right by a very special place and we must act immediately to change that."

He suggested 10 actions the University of Hawaii system could take to improve its stewardship of the mountain. The actions include establishing that the telescope will be the last telescope project on the mountain, decommissioning 25 percent of telescopes by the time TMT is operational, and implementing cultural training for anyone visiting the mountain. The California Institute of Technology announced it would begin decommissioning the Submillimeter Observatory in 2015 instead of 2016.

"There's a trust gap here that's going to be difficult to overcome," says Thayne Currie, a research associate for the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan atop Mauna Kea. Currie spent hours talking with protesters in hopes of gaining insight into their concerns. "If these changes are executed well, it will take the temperature down."

Though it's unlikely the protests will stop, one silver lining from the dispute could be enhanced outreach programs across the Maunakea Observatories, suggests Doug Simons, director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

"Hawaiian culture pertaining to Mauna Kea is deeply linked to the stars, with Mauna Kea representing a portal to the heavens and humanity emerging as progeny from the stars," said Simons.

"Modern astronomy paints much the same picture and has provided an abundance of evidence that we humans are literally cast from the remnants of an ancient supernova (exploring star), creating the atoms that over time coalesced into our planet and bodies.

An opportunity also exists for opposing viewpoints to appreciate some common ground — a love of the stars.