Hawaii's Supreme Court Just Nixed the Thirty Meter Telescope Permit 

A setback for the would-be space observatory set to be built on sacred Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea.

by Sam Blum

Interstellar research stations don’t usually inspire the most heated controversy, but when plans for a massive telescope are bound for territory considered sacred by many native Hawaiians, you can expect friction.

A $1.4 billion telescope project had its permit pulled as Hawaii’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources violated due process when it approved the Thirty Meter Telescope. Opposition to the massive telescope, funded in conjunction between the University of Hawaii and TMT Observatory Corporation, stemmed from its planned location: The top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that, as the highest island mountain in the world, is prized for its view of clear, dark skies and already hosts 13 telescopes.

A rendering of what the Thirty Meter Telescope would look like. 


Many who oppose the Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction claim a spiritual relationship with the mountain dating back to Hawaiian pre-history. And the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that their voices had not been considered during the permitting process from 2011 to 2013; read the full ruling here. The Associated Press reported:

“The court ruled that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources should not have issued a permit for the telescope before a hearings officer reviewed a petition by a group challenging the project’s approval.
“‘Quite simply, the board put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit before the request for a contested case hearing was resolved and the hearing was held,’ the court’s 58-page opinion said. ‘Accordingly, the permit cannot stand.’”

Construction is on hold indefinitely. While the issue is seen as something of a setback for science, many Hawaiian activist organizations, like Mauna Kea Aina Hou, are heralding it as a victory, and are hoping a telescope on Mauna Kea will be interpreted by the Supreme Court as a violation of state laws concerning conservation districts.

There have been many protests in opposition to the TMT telescope this year, although there are already 13 observatories present on Mauna Kea.

Still, TMT and University of Hawaii officials who must return to the BLNR and apply for another permit aren’t swayed, Honolulu’s Civil Beat reports.

“The University of Hawaii continues to believe that Mauna Kea is a precious resource where science and culture can synergistically coexist, now and into the future, and remains strongly in support of the Thirty Meter Telescope,” a University of Hawaii spokesman said in a statement.

Echoing that sentiment was Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory board of directors: “TMT will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have,” he said in a statement following the ruling.

Scientific research on Mauna Kea has traditionally sparked the ire of Hawaiian natives: In 2006, NASA abandoned plans with the Keck Observatory to seek a permit of its own to conduct research near the volcano.

The Supreme Court ruled again, in identical fashion, that the permit had been approved too hastily.

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