Mauna Kea protests against massive telescope prompt astronomers to look to ‘Plan B’

By CHRISTINA ANDRONESCU

This past July, compelling images of Native Hawaiian activists protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea have been consistently dashed across everyone’s newsfeed. This battle, however, is an ongoing one—with local demonstrations against the $1.4 billion TMT beginning as early as October 7, 2014. 

Mauna Kea, also known by its original name Mauna a Wakea, is a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i and is considered sacred to Native Hawaiians and an intrinsic part of their traditions. The mountain also happens to be an ideal site for astronomy. 

Mauna Kea’s “high altitude, gentle slopes, calm air and dark skies allow for the clearest visibility on Earth for astronomical observation,” according to Maunakea Observatories’s offical website. As a premier location for such research, the summit is already home to thirteen of the world’s leading telescopes which are operated by research teams from around the world. Construction to build the newest addition, the Thirty Meter Telescope, was set to begin the week of July 15, 2019. 

On July 17, thousands of Native Hawaiian protesters gathered to peacefully block the Mauna Kea Access Road and effectively halted construction efforts. Dozens were arrested during the protest, including 33 Hawaiian elders. Kealoha Pisciotta, a protest organizer, told The New York Times that those particular arrests were “extremely difficult to watch.” 

“They are our elders,” she said. “They decided rather than having to see their young children and young people being arrested that they were going to take the arrests. They asked everyone to abide by their will to do this, on behalf of the people.”

Outcry and opposition from Native Hawaiian groups dates back to when these elders were young themselves, starting with the installation of the first telescope in 1964. In 2019, activists stress the environmental and cultural concerns that the proposed TMT construction poses, arguing that native groups are not sufficiently consulted in the process of planning such an instrument.

“We are not anti-science,” says indigenous organizer and activist, Pua Case, in an interview with Democracy Now!. “We are against the building of anything 18 stories over our watershed, water aquifers, on our sacred mountain. It could have been anything; it just happens to be a telescope.” 

In response to these developments, TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO), a consortium of several international universities backed by six countries, has begun the process of procuring a building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope at their “plan B” location on La Palma Island in the Canary Islands. TMT Executive Director Ed Stone issued a statement on August 5 saying, “We continue to follow the process to allow for TMT to be constructed at the ‘plan B’ site in La Palma should it not be possible to build in Hawaiʻi…Maunakea remains the preferred site for TMT.”

Activists and Native Hawaiian groups remain hopeful that the TIO Board of Directors will finally land on La Palma Island as the ultimate site for TMT. The La Palma site was deemed “excellent for carrying out the core science of the TMT” and the interactions with the potential host country and organizations were “uniformly very positive,” according to TMT evaluations of the alternative location.  

If built, TMT would be the largest visible-light telescope in the world and capable of peering deeper into space than ever before with unprecedented sensitivity. With its 30m prime mirror diameter, the telescope would be able to capture images more than 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope; it would enable new discoveries in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics.

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