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Hawaiians Are Protesting Construction of the World’s Largest Telescope

Native Hawai’ian activists say the volcano-top project is damaging sacred lands

The observatory atop Mauna Kea (Micha Pawlitzki/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The peak of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on an island in Hawaii, is one of the best places to see the stars in the whole world. Most nights are calm and cloudless. The Earth's atmosphere obscures starlight; at an elevation of 13,796 feet, to stand on Mauna Kea is to stand above 40 percent of it.

Since 1964, the peak been the home to the Mauna Kea observatory. Today, it's also a construction site for what could become the largest telescope in the whole world. If, that is, the project is finished. Some 300 people lined the access road last Friday in a show of opposition, reports Hawaii News Now, and for this week, at least, the construction is on pause.

For Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is scared: a home of the gods, and a place for very special ceremonies, explains Science. The large telescope—called the Thirty Meter Telescope—would further encroach on the special peak, its ecology and archeology. And some see the the University of Hawaii's mismanagement of their mountain emblematic of a centuries-long occupation, begun in 1893 when the United States overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. In October, protestors tried to disrupt the groundbreaking ceremony, and in recent weeks, they have resided at a mountainside encampment.

They hope that the pause in construction will be permanent: “Our ultimate goal is to stop the construction, stop the desecration of our mountain,” protestor spokesperson Kahookahi Kanuha told Science.

About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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