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Controversial Hawaiian Telescope Gets State Approval

The long-delayed Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea faces opposition from native Hawaiian groups and environmentalists

Illustration of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (Courtesy TMT International Observatory)
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Late last week, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources voted to approve a construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a controversial observatory proposed to be located on the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, located on the island of Hawaii, reports Reuters

If completed, the telescope will be among the largest, most sophisticated optical telescopes on the planet. But the observatory has long been contentious in the state—with Native Hawaiians and environmentalists dennouncing its construction on sacred lands.

The Thirty Meter Telescope was first proposed by a committee from the National Academies of Science in 2001 as a recommended priority for the coming decade. And by 2003 a partnership formed between several universities and institutions to manage the project. In 2011, the telescope received a permit to build on Mauna Kea's conservation land from the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The 14,000-foot tall mountain is the best place for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere because of its height and remoteness from light pollution. Currently there are at least 13 high-powered telescopes at or near the summit of the mountain. And the proposed TMT would be the largest of the lot, capable of peering into the hearts of other galaxies with greater clarity than the Hubble Space Telescope, Dennis Overbye at The New York Times reported earlier this summer.

But many Native Hawaiians and environmentalists object to the proliferation of telescopes at the top of the dormant volcano, wanting to preserve these sacred lands. "Traditionally, Native Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea to be a sacred realm inhabited by several major gods," Ilima Loomis wrote for Science in 2015. It is also an ecologically fragile region that hosts hundreds of archaeological sites.

TMT's massive size has also been a point of contention: The structure is planned to stand some 18 stories tall and cover roughly five acres, making it the largest building on the island of Hawaii. The hight exceeds regulations for the mountain’s special conservation district and requires an exemption from these rules for building.

As The Associated Press reports, protestors disrupted the groundbreaking for the telescope in 2014 and brought construction to an end in 2015 after 31 demonstrators blocked the site. That same year, Hawaii’s supreme court invalidated the telescope’s permit, saying the approval process was not completed correctly. The telescope went through the processing permit again, culminating in 44 days of testimony before the state land board and a retired judge, who issued the permit.

The building permit was issued with 43 stipulations, Ilima Loomis at Science reports, including the decommissioning of three University of Hawaii telescopes currently on the mountain and barring of any future telescopes from being built at the site. The ruling also included requirements that employees of the telescope attend cultural and natural resources training as well as a requirement that as many jobs as possible will be filled by local workers.

This was one of the most difficult decisions this Board has ever made. The members greatly respected and considered the concerns raised by those opposed to the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, ” Suzanne Case, chair of the Land and Natural Resources board tells Loomis.

But not all are pleased with the rulings. Opponents of the telescope are currently filing appeals against the ruling, hoping that the Hawaii Supreme court will once again nullify the permit. “As daunting of a task it might be to stop construction of the TMT, we have once again been left with no choice but to resist and take matters back into our own hands," the Hawaii Unity and Liberation Institute says in a statement, according to Hawaii News Now. “Any attempts by TMT, the illegitimate State of Hawaii or the University to ascent Maunakea will be met with peaceful, non-violent resistence.”

The TMT is one of three massive ground-based telescopes planned around the world. The other two, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope will both be located in Chile. So the construction of TMT would provide greater coverage of the night sky in regions those instruments can not see.

The latest move is just the first of several legal hurdles for the TMT. If construction of the telescope suffers further delays, organizers have commenced talks about relocating the project to the Canary Islands.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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