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Divisive giant telescope cleared for construction on Hawaiian peak

The Thirty Meter Telescope would be the 22nd instrument atop Mauna Kea. Japan’s Subaru (left) and the Keck telescopes are shown.

peace portal photo/Alamy Stock Photo

By Daniel Clery

Last week, the state of Hawaii gave astronomers a green light to begin to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which would rise on the volcanic peak of Mauna Kea as one of the largest telescopes in the world. Project leaders say they are set to begin construction after a 4-year delay caused by sit-down protests and court challenges from Native Hawaiians opposed to structures on a site they consider sacred. But some astronomers worry the threat of disruptions and even violence will persist.

“These are passionate people,” says Richard Ellis, an astronomer at University College London who helped develop the TMT concept. “They know that once it gets going their case is weaker.” Others say the project should do more to engage with the protesters. “We need to talk with people who disagree with us,” says Thayne Currie, an astrophysicist the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, who works on Japan’s Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Although legal barriers are now removed, opponents say they can still try to block access to the road that leads up to the 4200-meter-high summit. “What other tools do we have, apart from having people arrested in large numbers?” asks Kealoha Pisciotta, founder of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one of the main opposition organizations. In 2015, 1000 protesters gathered on the mountain, but “there are way, way more people involved now,” she says. The astronomers “may have won in the courts, but they haven’t won the moral high ground.”

The TMT and its rivals, Europe’s 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and a second U.S. project, the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), are the future of ground-based astronomy. Their giant mirrors will gather enough light to probe the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets and detect the first galaxies forming in the early universe.

Backed by six universities and nations and costing more than $1 billion, the TMT was once the leader of the pack, but the problems on Mauna Kea mean it now lags the ELT and GMT, which have both begun construction at sites in Chile. Protesters disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony in 2014 and brought construction to a halt in June 2015. Then, opponents successfully argued in court that the state of Hawaii had issued the project a construction permit before they could voice objections. The permit was rescinded while “contested case” hearings took place. Finally, in October 2018, Hawaii’s Supreme Court upheld the permit. Last week, the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources gave the TMT a “notice to proceed,” meaning that it could move ahead with construction.

TMT managers are now in discussion with various local agencies, including law enforcement, about the best time to start, says TMT Executive Director Edward Stone, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “We’ll take whatever time it takes to make a decision,” he says.

All Mauna Kea observatories are on land leased to the University of Hawaii in 1968 for 65 years. Later plans set a limit of 13 telescopes on the summit and restricted their size. But counting the eight 6-meter dishes of the Submillimeter Array as separate instruments, the TMT will actually be the 22nd scope; at 18 stories high, it will also be the tallest building on the Big Island. Pisciotta says its position, on a pristine site, will block religious practitioners from tracking the sun and obscure their view of Haleakala, a mountain on neighboring Maui. Her group wants no further building outside the existing observatory footprint and says any new telescopes should occupy the sites of old ones.

In 2015, Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, proposed a compromise that would remove older telescopes. Five are now tagged for closure. But this needs to happen much faster, Currie says. “That more than anything else will take the air out of the protests,” he says. Currie also says Hawaiian legislators should pass a bill halting further expansion of the observatory. “We need some way to reassure people,” he says. “The level of trust is very low.”

TMT leaders say they have gone to great lengths to win over the public, and emphasize the money and jobs astronomy brings to the island. Astronomers talk at schools, classes are invited up to Mauna Kea for observations, and high school graduates can take on internships. “It’s hard to hate someone who is good to your kids,” says Mary Beth Laychak, outreach manager at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea.

But others argue that promoting astronomy misses the point. What motivates many protesters are historical grievances over Native Hawaiian rights and cultural practices since the United States annexed the islands in 1898, Pisciotta says. With protesters backed into a corner, Currie says, TMT leaders should reach out. “The protesters need to feel they are getting something out of this.”

Stone says there have been talks but declined to give details, although he cites the 44 days of contested case hearings. “That’s a lot of time listening,” he says. Tensions are likely to persist: Last week, state officials removed four shrines, or ahus, from the mountain, including two from the TMT site. As Michael Balogh, an astronomer at the University of Waterloo in TMT partner country Canada, puts it, “You can imagine lots of ways in which the situation becomes unacceptable.”

Source: Science Mag