Construction halted on Thirty Meter Telescope atop Hawaii Island’s Mauna Kea


Construction on what would be the world’s largest visible light telescope atop Hawaii Island’s Mauna Kea has been delayed indefinitely following ongoing demonstrations by protestors.

The non-profit Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory Corp., with backing from the governments of India, China, Japan and Canada, plans to build a 180-foot tall, thirty-meter mirrored telescope on Hawaii’s tallest summit.  The telescope’s grounds would occupy five acres atop the shield volcano and within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve (MKSR). The MKSR’s 525-acre Astronomy Precinct, leased by the University of Hawaii from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, is already home to 13 other telescopes.

Progress on the estimated $1.4 billion project has been halted on three separate occasions since crews first attempted to bring equipment up the mountain and were blocked by demonstrators on April 2.

In addition to being one of the best places on Earth for astronomical observation, Mauna Kea’s summit 13,796 feet-above-sea-level is also one of the most sacred and revered sites of the Hawaiian people. According to oral tradition and mythology, the mountain is the firstborn child of the Earth mother, Papahanaumoku, and sky father, Wakea, the piko (navel, origins) of Hawaii Island. For many, opposition to the telescope’s construction is not about halting scientific progress, but instead about preserving sacred lands. Consequently the controversy over the telescope’s chosen construction site has become, for some demonstrators, the latest frontline in a longstanding and complicated struggle for Hawaiian land rights, cultural preservation and sovereignty.

On April 2, crews were attempting to take construction equipment up the mountain but were blocked by demonstrators. Thirty-one people were taken into police custody. According to local news sources, protestors have maintained a regular presence atop the summit over the last several weeks.

This is the third time this month construction on the TMT project has been delayed. Hawaii Gov. David Ige first issued a one-week construction “timeout” on April 7 to encourage discussion between involved parties. That moratorium was later extended. On Friday, April 17, Gov. Ige issued an announcement declaring that TMT Observatory Corp. is legally entitled to “use its discretion to proceed with construction.” The organization voluntarily extended the construction moratorium on Monday.

A six-year study led to the selection of Mauna Kea’s summit as the preferred site of the TMT because of its unique meteorological conditions, optimal for peering through Earth’s atmosphere and into space. TMT Observatory Corp. selected the Mauna Kea site and began the permitting process in 2009. The project was cleared to begin construction in March 2015, following a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony last October.

If completed, the telescope promises to deliver the sharpest resolution and deepest images ever captured of space. The telescope’s primary mirror, which will be 30 meters in diameter, would have nine times the light-gathering power of today’s best telescopes and offer an unprecedented look at the origins of our universe. The telescope would also be used for various projects exploring and studying dark matter and dark energy; black holes and their relationships with galaxies; the formation of stars, planets; the evolution of structures in the universe; as well as projects looking for signs of life throughout the universe.

Categories: Culture, Hawai‘i Island