Controversial Telescope Starts Construction on Sacred Hawaiian Mountain Next Week

This is what the Thirty Meter Telescope should look like.
This is what the Thirty Meter Telescope should look like.
Image: TMT Observatory Corporation

The controversial Thirty Meter Telescope is set break ground on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea on the week of July 15, after about a decade of delays due to local opposition.


Opponents, who have been mostly Native Hawaiians, argue that Mauna Kea, the mountain where this new state-of-the-art telescope is set to gaze into space, has already been tarnished by the construction of 13 other observatories. They want to see Mauna Kea, which many hold sacred, left alone so that they can go there to pray in peace.

However, the Hawaiian Supreme Court gave the $1.4 billion project the green light back in October. That hasn’t stopped opponents from looking to the courts to stop construction, though: They filed a lawsuit earlier this week in the Third Circuit Court of Hawaii arguing that project developers need to post a security bond before starting construction to ensure funding doesn’t fall on taxpayers in case the telescope can’t secure full funding, according to Big Island Video News. Still, the lawsuit won’t stave off construction for long if it gains any traction.

Hawaii Governor David Ige announced Wednesday that the project will result in some road closures as officials prepare for any potential protests in response to the construction. In 2015, protestors succeeded in pausing construction for two weeks, which resulted in more than 30 arrests.

“At this time our number one priority is everyone’s safety,” the governor said in a statement. “As construction begins, I continue to be committed to engaging with people holding all perspectives on this issue and to making meaningful changes that further contribute to the co-existence of culture and science on Mauna Kea.”

The TMT International Observatory, the nonprofit behind this astronomical venture, is made up of universities and an international array of scientific bodies—from the Department of Science and Technology of India to Canada’s National Research Council. The telescope has the potential to search some 13 billion years into the universe’s history to help answer some of the most fundamental scientific questions, like how did we get here? The clear sky conditions at Mauna Kea are perfect for gazing deep into our universe.


It would be a massive asset to science, no doubt, but at what cost? Law enforcement has recently torn down some prayer alters that Native Hawaiian activists built on the mountain, reports Hawaii News Now. That’s bound to only stir the pot further, and who knows what opponents to the project have planned for next week.

That being said, a poll commissioned by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser found that 72 percent of Native Hawaiian respondents supported the telescope. Some two years ago, only 39 percent did.


Construction is expected to take some 10 years, per the New York Times, and effective activism will only stretch that timeline out longer.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.



The opposition to it is pretty spent. As you pointed out, a majority of native Hawaiians support it now, the courts are on their side, and news that construction is going forward has barely caused a ripple in the national media.

If it’s any consolation to the folks opposed, it’s probably going to be the last new telescope built atop Mauna Kea for a long time. Any new ones in the future will at best replace existing telescopes getting retired and dismantled.