Hawaii's Space Telescope Controversy Is Reopening Old Wounds

The telescope fight is part of a broader movement for native sovereignty.

mauna kea

Ever since construction began on the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island, residents have opposed it.

While astronomers contend that the TMT will be a vital tool in the search for clues about the early universe, residents and indigenous activists alike argue that the sacred mountain, used for generations as a site of prayer, has already been degraded enough by the construction of 13 other massive telescopes. The TMT is part of the class of extremely large telescopes, or ELTs, that can observe light across the visible and infrared spectrums. This capability, aided by the 30-meter diameter of its main mirror, would allow astronomers to gaze back into the early universe with a level of precision that they have not previously been able to achieve.

But protestors and the telescope project are locked in a stalemate, as the controversy is about more than just the TMT. It represents generations of conflict among native Hawaiians, the United States government, and private interests, all coming to a head.

“The Hawaiian people have numerous legitimate grievances concerning the way they’ve been treated over the centuries,” Rick Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society, tells Inverse. “These grievances have simmered for many years, and when astronomers announced their intention to build a new giant telescope on Maunakea, things boiled over.” (While the traditional name of the mountain is Mauna Kea, astronomers tend to write it as “Maunakea.”)

Native Hawaiian activists argue that the natural landscape of Mauna Kea, a sacred site, has become dominated by human objects.
Native Hawaiian activists argue that the natural landscape of Mauna Kea, a sacred site, has become dominated by human objects.

Hawaiian Activists Are Committed to Opposing the Thirty Meter Telescope

When construction of the TMT was supposed to begin in 2014, protests helped shut it down. Then in 2015, Hawaii’s Supreme Court pulled the project’s construction permit after determining that the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources violated due process in issuing the permit.

The construction permit was reissued in June of this year, and construction was scheduled to begin in mid-July. Since then, protestors have blocked the main road that goes up Mauna Kea to the construction site and the other observatories.

thirty meter telescope mauna kea
Artist's illustration of completed Thirty Meter Telescope in Mauna Kea.

In response to the activists, who say they are protecting their ancestral land, the other Maunakea Observatories stopped their work on July 16. On July 17, 34 protestors were arrested, and Hawaii Governor David Ige declared a state of emergency, closing the access road to activists.

On Friday, a press release from the Bennet Group, the Maunakea Observatories’ PR firm, said the TMT project had reached an agreement with the protestors to allow astronomers and telescope staff access to the mountain to work on the existing telescopes.

Activist Lanakila Mangauil contested that version of events, saying that despite maintaining their vigil in the road, protestors had never impeded astronomers’ access to the telescopes in the first place.

“We continue to stand here now on a closed road that was closed by the state of Hawaii. Right now we are still allowing access,” he told Hawaii News Now.

TMT blockade on Mauna Kea
Protestors stood in solidarity against the TMT groundbreaking ceremony back in 2014.

The Bigger Picture

The debate between astronomers and Hawaiian activists illuminates a larger issue that has taken form in recent years, as community groups in the United States push back against private and governmental threats to native sovereignty.

In late 2016, for example, activists in North Dakota faced police use of force against their protest of an oil pipeline running through ancestral land.

“We’re trying to not only protect our sacred places,” Tara Houska, a tribal attorney with the indigenous organization Ginew Collective, told Earther, in reference to Mauna Kea and the larger movement it represents. “We’re trying to prevent further desecration of these places, as well.”

Amid the protests, neither the TMT group nor the larger astronomy community is backing down, but they’re also not directly addressing the concerns of activists.

associated press article
The Associated Press's article on the Mauna Kea controversy gives primary billing to the hypothetical concerns of scientists.

In a tone-deaf Associated Press article on Saturday, astronomers repeatedly emphasized the observations they were missing out on during the telescope closures.

As critics were quick to point out, for native Hawaiians who have been subjected to US rule for over a century, these missed observations pale in comparison.

In a statement from the end of July, AAS President Meghan Donahue emphasized a collaborative solution but offered no details of what that would look like.

“I am hopeful that this question will be resolved locally, by the people of Hawai‘i, working together as family, neighbors, and friends, to find a common vision where all of us can respect and celebrate the rich history and culture of Hawai‘i alongside the peaceful exploration of the universe revealed by all of the observatories on Maunakea,” she wrote.

But there could be a compromise solution, nearly half a world away.

Hawaii to the Canary Islands.
Hawaii to the Canary Islands.

Just Put the Thirty Meter Telescope Somewhere Else

Officials in La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, have said that they’re willing to host the telescope if the TMT group can’t come to an agreement with community members on the Mauna Kea site.

“Our position is that we are here if the TMT project needs us,” Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute Director Rafael Rebolo told the Associated Press on Monday.

“Our mountains are not sacred,” he added.

Despite this official government position, though, environmentalists on La Palma are gearing up to fight the TMT, too. There are also technical concerns with La Palma.

This compromise was first proposed back in 2016, but due to the lower elevation of the island site — the La Palma site sits at only about half of Mauna Kea’s nearly 14,000-foot elevation — the TMT collaborators have always considered it second-best to Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is considered an ideal site for an ELT because its high elevation means there is less of Earth’s atmosphere above it, and because its remote location means there is less light pollution there — both factors that translate to less distorted images.

But the group behind the telescope, comprising astronomers from the US, Canada, China, India and Japan, still maintains that this option is a plan B.

“It makes little sense to build the most expensive ground-based telescope in history at a site that compromises its performance,” Fienberg tells Inverse. “The Canary Islands site would a compromise for sure — and while it might be satisfactory to some Hawaiians, it would definitely not be satisfactory to most astronomers.”

For now, the TMT group appears committed to making the TMT happen at the Mauna Kea site, despite the unwavering opposition from native Hawaiian activists — and despite the existence of a workable alternative.