The World's Largest Telescope May Be Built in Hawaii After All [Updated]

Observatories atop Mauna Kea. Image: Alan L / Flickr Creative Commons
Observatories atop Mauna Kea. Image: Alan L / Flickr Creative Commons

A years-long battle over the placement of the Thirty Meter Telescope saw a major development this week, when Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources issued the telescope a fresh construction permit to build on the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. But a coalition of opponents to the telescope, led by Native Hawaiian activists who consider the mountaintop sacred ground, have already vowed to keep fighting.


A next-generation telescope that will study distant corners of the universe with a resolution more than ten times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, the TMT has been at the center of heated ideological clash over the past few years. Astronomers want to place the telescope on Mauna Kea, whose towering peaks offer the sharpest view of the cosmos in the Northern Hemisphere. Many Hawaiians also support the scope on the basis of the educational and economic opportunities it would bring to the state.

But the mountain, which already hosts thirteen observatories, holds religious and cultural significance to Native Hawaiians. Some Natives consider the placement of yet another observatory—especially a 180-foot tall giant like the TMT—to be a desecration of sacred ground. Bad feelings about the TMT are compounded by Hawaii’s long history of colonialism, including decades of development atop Mauna Kea for astronomy.

The controversy came to a head in the spring of 2015, when protestors blocked construction crews from heading up the mountain to break ground for the TMT. Construction was stalled as the Native-led movement against the telescope garnered international attention and support, and as opponents got organized and took legal action. In December 2015, Hawaii’s Supreme Court nullified the telescope’s construction permit on grounds that it violated due process—it was issued before opponents were allowed to air their complaints in a contested case hearing.

A lengthy contested case hearing ensued in the fall of 2016 and early 2017. Uncertain about their future in Hawaii, the TMT board secured a backup construction site in Spain’s Canary Islands. But in July, former judge Riki May Amano sent a recommendation to the Board of Land and Natural Resources that the telescope’s construction be allowed to move forward, according to Hawaii News Now. And on Thursday, in a 5-2 decision, the land board decided to issue a new permit.

“This was one of the most difficult decisions this board has ever made,” state Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case said in a statement. The new permit includes strict environmental guidelines for the telescope, as well as cultural and natural resource training mandates for its employees, according to Nature News.

While it’s a victory for the TMT, the fight isn’t over: Opponents are already filing motions to put the permit on hold until an appeal can be heard by Hawaii’s Supreme Court. In an email to Earther, Kealoha Pisciotta, a representative of the Native Hawaiian organization Mauna Kea Hui, emphasized that the final decision will be made by the courts, which last December ruled that the TMT’s sublease agreement with the University of Hawaii was invalid.


“The long and short is that they they don’t have the green light to move ahead at all,” she said.


Nevertheless, the TMT is celebrating. “We are greatly encouraged by BLNR’s decision today,” the telescope’s board said in a statement. “In moving forward, we will listen respectfully to the community in order to realize the shared vision of Maunakea as a world center for Hawaiian culture, education, and science.”

“Mauna Kea is the best site for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere,” Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University who has been involved in the site-selection process for Chilean observatories, told Earther. “Putting the telescope elsewhere, such as Las Canarias would lessen the reach of this telescope.”


But, Suntzeff added, “the decision will mean tragedy for many native Hawaiians who made the preservation of Mauna Kea an important part of their longing for Hawaiian culture to be respected. Protests will go on for as long as the Hawaiian people see their heritage in danger of disappearing.”

Indeed, opponents of the TMT seem to be galvanized by the latest decision. “For the Hawaiian people, I have a message: This is our time to rise as a people,” said protest leader Kahookahi Kanuha, according to reporting by the Associated Press. “This is our time to take back all of the things that we know are ours. All the things that were illegally taken from us.”


Mauna Kea’s observatories are a big part of Hawaii’s economic engine, generating roughly $60 million in earnings and taxes in 2012. As one of the leading astronomical observatories of the next decade, the TMT is expected to bring more money and jobs to the state, attract world-class astronomers to the University of Hawaii, and create educational opportunities. The telescope has already paid $3.5 million into a STEM education fund on the Big Island, according to the Associated Press.

Not all Native Hawaiians oppose the TMT’s construction on Mauna Kea. Lincoln Ashida, attorney for the pro-telescope Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities, told Hawaii’s land board that “with increased opportunities for children, that results in stronger families, which in turn benefits our community.”


Said Suntzeff: “It is now the responsibility of astronomers to better recognize the importance of understanding the cosmos not only through science, but through the deep cultural traditions of the first peoples.”

[Associated Press via Washington Post, Nature News]

Update: This article has been updated with comments from Nick Suntzeff and Kealoha Pisciotta. It has also been updated to clarify that the telescope’s construction on Mauna Kea is still pending a Supreme Court decision.


Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.



I’m disappointed to see colonialism still in action today, all in the name of “Science”.