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If built, the Thirty Meter Telescope would be the biggest telescope on Mauna Kea, a peak many Native Hawaiians hold sacred.

TMT International Observatory

New front emerges in battle to build giant telescope in Hawaii

HONOLULU AND THE SLOPES OF MAUNA KEA IN HAWAII—On the rain-lashed road leading to the peak of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island, the sounds of singing and drumming can be heard above a roaring wind. Under a canopy, dozens of people celebrate their connection to the mountain with Native Hawaiian songs, chants, and dances, as they have been doing three times daily for the past 7 months. Many of the tents scattered across this lava field are unoccupied during this winter lull, but the current residents take good care of the site, which includes tents for food, medical care, and classes. They seem happy to wait as long as it takes for astronomers to give up on their plan to build a giant telescope on their sacred mountaintop.

Like medieval armies calling a halt to war in winter, the two sides contesting the soul of Mauna Kea agreed last month to a 2-month truce: The consortium that wants to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) here will not attempt to start construction, and the camp residents—who see themselves as the mountain’s protectors, or kia’i—moved their tents from the road, allowing unimpeded access up and down the mountain. “A de-escalation of emotions is a good thing,” says Gregory Chun, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii (UH), Hilo, who is advising the university leadership on the management of Mauna Kea. “I don’t know what will come of it.”

Behind the scenes, TMT board members and funders are meeting with Native Hawaiian leaders—some of whom support the project—but this has yet to yield any solutions. Few can predict what might happen when the truce ends in late February, but no one doubts that kia’i would return in force if the TMT consortium tries to start construction, says a longtime kia’i known as Uncle Sparky. “If we put out a call, 1000 people would be here in an hour.”

And now, the $1.4 billion TMT, backed by six nations and wealthy universities, is facing another front in its battle to be one of three new giant telescopes—and the only one in the Northern Hemisphere. TMT opponents—including some astronomers—are seeking to win over the wider astronomy community to stop its construction.

In a press conference outside the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Honolulu last week, a group of Hawaiian researchers announced the submission of eight white papers to the decadal survey in astronomy, known as Astro2020, a priority-setting exercise that influences U.S. funding agencies. They want Astro2020 to ensure that no federal money is used to build on state land without the consent of local Indigenous people. And federal money is just what the TMT needs. In a joint pitch to Astro2020 with one of its two rivals, the U.S.-led Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, the projects are asking for money that would fill budget holes and provide observing time for U.S. astronomers.

The white papers describe the cultural significance of Mauna Kea and the negative impact of the observatories on Indigenous people and their ability to carry out cultural practices on the mountain. One paper charts the decades of resistance—both legal and direct action—to telescopes on Mauna Kea. The mountain and other land throughout the islands that once belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy was seized after its overthrow in 1893 and became state land when Hawaii was granted U.S. statehood in 1959. “It’s a land rights issue, and a power and decision-making issue,” says co-author Shelley Muneoka, a sociologist at the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

In July 2019, after surmounting legal challenges, TMT officials were finally ready to begin construction. When police arrived intending to ensure the safe passage of construction traffic, kia’i had already chained themselves to a cattle grid on the access road. Over a few chaotic days, police arrested 38 people, many of them community elders, or kupuna—which only hardened the opposition on the mountainside and attracted wider interest, including from actors and celebrities who joined the protests. “Arresting elders really changed people’s minds,” says TMT opponent Rosie Alegado, an oceanographer at UH Manoa.

TMT officials have said they can’t condone the use of force to get the telescope built. Canada, one TMT partner, is particularly concerned because of its own checkered history with Indigenous people, Canadian astronomers say. Construction will take most of a decade and require more than 2000 truck trips up the mountain. If protesters constantly harry that effort, an accident is inevitable.

The 3500 astronomers who arrived last week for the AAS meeting found themselves in an awkward situation: wanting to promote the best in astronomy but sensitive to the strong feelings in the islands about building on its mountaintops. To quote one AAS delegate, the TMT was the “30-meter elephant in the room.”

AAS attendees did not see thousands of TMT protesters, like the crowd that greeted the International Astronomical Union when it came to the same venue in 2015. Instead, kia’i were invited to join debates and speak in sessions. “The impact on our Mauna is an impact on our very soul,” kia’i leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson told an Astro2020 session on diversity at the meeting. “We ask TMT not to build. It’s not about the science. It is sacred. It belongs to the gods.”

Native Hawaiian and nonastronomer supporters of the TMT also made their voices heard. For them, it is about well-paid technical jobs in a state with high living costs and scant opportunities. Tourism, a major source of jobs, has in recent years been buffeted by rises in fuel costs, financial crises, and volcanic eruptions. “Science will always be stable,” says Malia Martin, founder of Imua TMT (imua means “forward”). She sees telescopes on Mauna Kea as “an opportunity for Indigenous people to command a global industry.” The opponents “protested and lost, and they need to accept that,” says Imua TMT’s Amber Imai-Hong, an aerospace engineer at UH’s Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory.

Many astronomers still dearly want the TMT built, and take issue with the misinformation spread on social media by some opponents, including claims that it will pollute the island’s groundwater, that it will be nuclear powered, and that it is a laser weapon built by China. But many would not comment publicly. TMT officials kept a low profile at the meeting, only holding off-the-record meetings with journalists.

Robert McLaren, director of UH’s Institute for Astronomy, is concerned that the opposition to astronomy could threaten the dozen other large observatories already on Mauna Kea. The university manages the mountaintop under a lease from the state that must be renewed before the end of 2033. The institute has been working on its application for 5 years, carrying out an environmental impact survey and revising its management plans, McLaren says. He hasn’t yet sensed that opponents are targeting the lease renewal, but says for some, at least, “their ultimate goal is to have nothing there.”

Another worry is financial. The observatories pay just $1 a year for their subleases, but they share day-to-day costs such as road maintenance, snow removal, and operations of the visitor center. Nevertheless, UH chips in $2 million per year—an unsustainable load, McLaren says. The observatories expect to pay higher rent after 2033, but the arrival of the TMT could strain their finances. To appease opponents, Governor David Ige (D) in 2015 called on UH to decommission older and less productive telescopes. The university is in the process of identifying up to five for closure, which would mean fewer to share the burden of operating the site. “How many are going to be at the party to pay the bills?” McLaren asks.

For the TMT itself, it is a waiting game. The project funders—the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Japan, China, India, and Canada—have to decide how long they can wait before considering the backup site of La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands. For astronomy, the site is inferior, but it is less politically fraught. Every passing month adds costs. Glass blanks for more than 60% of the telescope’s 574 1.4-meter-wide mirror segments sits in warehouses. Polishing has started in the United States and Japan and will soon begin in India and China. Designs for the telescope structure and its enclosure are ready, but contractors have been put on hold.

John Evans, a kia’i at the Mauna Kea camp, is happy to keep waiting. The wiry 68-year-old with a long white beard is a recent convert to Hawaiian dancing, and wants to keep at it. “I wish them well,” he says, of the TMT. “Just somewhere else.”