The Telescope War on Mauna Kea

The fight of the Native Hawaiian people against scientists’ plan to build a telescope on their sacred mountain

Published over 1 year ago in North America and Opinion

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A rendering of the proposed TMT telescope on Mauna Kea (Source: Business Insider)

What do you see when you look up at the night sky? There are many answers to that question. For astronomers, the answer is opportunity. Yet, for the native people of Hawaii, the answer is uncertainty. 

The subject of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has long been one of debate. While this extraordinary instrument promises to yield great discoveries thanks to its superior size, it has also encountered many drawbacks due to its proposed location. Legal battles have been underway for years, and new developments during 2017 have severely impacted this project, and those involved in it. 

The root of the issue is the proposed location for the telescope. Astronomers have long been in search of a place where they could get the best images of space. However, such areas tend to have the same features as spiritual or sacred places, such as: distance from cities, unobstructed views of the sky, and proximity to space with limited atmospheric turbulence. This is the case of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. For years, Hawaii has been confirmed to be among the best places on Earth to practice Astronomy, Mauna Kea  being the ideal setting in astronomer’s minds. Currently, there are thirteen active telescopes on the mountain.  Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano located in the Big Island of Hawaii, which has long been a site of spirituality. Originally, tradition only allowed a select few Native Hawaiians to reach the summit of the volcano, since it was considered sacred. As best explained by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs: “Mauna Kea is a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions. It’s regarded as a shrine for worship, as a home to the gods, and as the piko of Hawaiʻi Island.”

By understanding this background of the mountain’s significance, it is easy to see why the construction of this telescope has unsettled so many Hawaiians. More so, it has caused a certain divide in the Hawaiian populace. As Trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Peter Apo states: “The silence is deafening”. When asked on his views in the matter Mr. Apo voiced that even though there was evident backlash when the project was proposed ‘there’s a silent majority of support for building the telescope atop Mauna Kea’. You could ask yourself why then must they hide their opinion, especially if there is such a majority? Well, Mr. Apo adds that due to his beliefs on the project, he’s been called a “traitor”. This is why government officials on the island have taken several measures in order to list Mauna Kea as a historic site. They have been in correspondence with NASA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the late 90s, working back and forth to reach a consensus. While the Wildlife Service agrees that the summit of Mauna Kea is home to an endemic ecosystem, they maintain that the construction of the telescopes would still be possible, with minimal impact to the ecosystem, should the proper precautions be taken. However, according to Edward Stone, Cal Tech professor, and vice-president of the TMT International Observatory- the project has a timer running. He set the date for the start of construction to be April of this year, whether it is in Mauna Kea or elsewhere. The Canary Islands are being considered as an alternative. 

Professor Jonathan Pober, and Professor Ian Dell’Antonio both had their own views on the matter. Professor Jonathan Pober, PhD, is an experimental astrophysicist and a professor of Astronomy at Brown University. He is a researcher in the area of radio astronomy, and he uses radio telescopes to do cosmology, i.e. to study stars and the origin of the universe. 

When asked about his relationship to the TMT, he explained, “I am not someone who will use the Thirty Meter Telescope. I am someone who would be very interested in the kind of science that would come out of the Thirty Meter Telescope, but it would not be something I would be directly using for research.” 

Throughout our conversation, Prof. Pober explained how, in his case, the research and data gathered through the radio telescopes he builds with his peers belong to them. While the structures and the telescopes themselves belong to the funding agencies, the data they collect through their work is something that they can hold on to for years if they wish, and be able to analyze it thoroughly in their own time, with many nights of data collecting. This would not be the case for astronomers that are interested in using the Thirty Meter Telescope. “The thing about TMT is that it is a community instrument where you get a night of data, or a couple nights of data and you spend years analyzing that data.” 

One can easily wonder as to why Professor Pober found out about this project in the first place, seeing as it is not a tool he would directly need in his line of research. He explained that the “astronomical community is somewhat unique in that every ten years, for the past 60 or 70 years, an Independent Commission from the National Academy of Sciences does the Decadal survey, which sets the priorities for astrophysics research for the next decade.” For the decades of 2012-2021, the Decadal Survey’s National Research Council Committee ranked TMT third in priority among the “Recommended Large Ground-Based Projects.” This, however, does not diminish the overall scientific significance that a telescope like TMT would bring. 

The user base is simply much, much bigger for something like TMT.

In order to help the people of Hawaii through the construction of this telescope, the directors of the TMT program offered to donate $1 million dollars a year to local science education in Hawaii, in the hope of earning the favor of the Hawaiian public. They have followed through with their offer, the most recent donation going to the THINK Fund in September 2017. This offer, however, has not dissipated the concerns of the Hawaiian public.

A group in Hawaii bands together to bring the TMT case to the Supreme Court a second time (Source: Molly Solomon and Hawaii Public Radio)


This conflict over Mauna Kea has been an issue for a long time. Even though the mountain is considered sacred by the native people of Hawaii, it has long been mismanaged. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) has long advocated for the proper care of the mountain, arguing, “Instead of carrying out their duties and prioritizing the mountain, the Hawaiian government and the University of Hawaii have prioritized astronomical development at the expense of properly caring for Mauna Kea’s natural and cultural resources.” The office states that government and the University of Hawaii neglected to follow procedures such as properly responding to “safety incidents and accidents on Mauna Kea, failing to respond to unsafe, destructive, or inappropriate behavior on Mauna Kea, and failing to disclose public safety and health issues to the public, including fatalities.” 

Despite what some may argue, these are not false claims. In May 2015,  Governor David Ige publicly admitted to his mistakes, saying: “We have in many ways failed the mountain. Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural resource perspective, we have not done right by a very special place and we must act immediately to change that.”

These tensions have not subsided. There are still protests taking place in Mauna Kea, trying to protect the mountain from further disaster. Conflicts as recent as July 2017 have extended the legal battles over who has ownership of the land astronomers plan to build on, as well as the prerequisites for those that would one day work on the mountain, should TMT be built. One of the pre-requisites the people demanded was the inclusion of mandatory conservation and awareness trainings for all workers on TMT. They asked for these conditions to be added, since they were not included in the original building permits which had already been  revoked by the court for ‘cutting corners’.  

Why has this issue been so rampant for so many years? 

Professor Ian Dell’antonio offered his opinion on the conflict. Dell’antonio teaches Physics at Brown University, but is an Astronomer by training and currently does research in the field. He is interested in using telescopes to study the distant universe, and the distribution of dark matter and dark energy in space. His involvement with TMT started in 2012, when the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked those responsible for the project for more details regarding what would be the benefits of the NSF participating in said project. The TMT project team proposed a five-year plan to grant a group of scientists observer status on the board meetings held for the project, (A plan which the NSF would agree to). “As it so happens, I was one of the three scientists asked to join in the Science Advisory Committee… For the past four years I have actually been to most of the science advisory meetings for this council.” This involvement gave him a front row seat to the conflict and proceedings surrounding the TMT. 

“I am part of a group of people who are looking at what science the TMT can do, and what sorts of instruments and procedures TMT should follow in order to obtain the most interesting scientific results.” This scientific perspective on the proceedings has allowed some voice from those that would actually be using the telescope. However, like many things, there is a catch. The current proposal (called a "cooperative agreement") does not have any commitment on the part of the NSF to actually join TMT. It's not that the survey was to determine the NSF’s involvement versus the US Government’s involvement, the proposal was to determine what it would take for the US to be involved through the NSF.  This means that Prof. Ian Dell'Antonio’s opportunity to use the telescope is not a guaranteed one. “I may end up not having access to it at all.”

Dell’antonio was also part of the deliberations concerning the possibility for alternate locations, such as the Canary Islands. 

A proposed rendering of TMT in the Canary Islands (Source: Space.com)



However, Dell’Antonio assured me that the situation atop Mauna Kea is far more than meets the eye. “The root of the problem with Mauna Kea has partly to do with TMT and partly with something much deeper. There have actually been telescopes on Mauna Kea for five to six decades.” While one may think this would have helped Hawaiians become accustomed to this problem, that is hardly the case. The professor continues, “The astronomical community has had- for a long time- an astronomical reserve area on top of Mauna Kea, which is managed by the University of Hawaii for the U.S. Park Service. Yet, Mauna Kea is also a sacred mountain to the native Hawaiians, so that has been a source of many conflicts, not just TMT related, but older conflicts.”  The truth of the matter is that the island has long endured severe colonial treatment, which has not been represented in media, in favor of the typical ‘postcard’ treatment many island paradises have received in the past. 

“Astronomers typically build on mountain tops, and usually undeveloped areas. This means we are usually the first ones to build somewhere.” This has naturally led to prior occurrences of this issue. Therefore, Mauna Kea is not the only case in which astronomers have tried to build somewhere sacred. For example, the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona was built right in the middle of the Tohono O'odham Nation. There was a lot of conflict originally surrounding its construction, but they were able to eventually come to a consensus that benefitted both parties involved, resulting in the NSF leasing the property from the Tohono O’odham Nation. Yet, not all of these conflicts can be resolved smoothly, which is the case of Mauna Kea, and prior to that, the case of Mount Graham, Arizona. There were many projects, and long resistance battles over building on this mountain, but it was also eventually resolved, though against the wishes of many. 

Overall, from a scientific and social perspective, this is not the first time an issue like this arises, nor possibly the last. Why, then, must history repeat itself?  Professor Pober offers an explanation that certainly seems to be the root of the problem: “The colonial mindset of the western, white community has shown itself in astronomy. Our use of other people’s land to build our instruments, often without consultation or remuneration has not been singular; and so Mauna Kea is a particular example that the history between Hawaii and the United States is not a pretty one.” 

The sad reality is that the people of Hawaii have been constantly oppressed, and have not been listened to for years. This has had a significant impact on the rights of these people, and their trust of a another country's interest on their island. The problem is, of course, far from over. As Professor Pober states: “As the astronomical community, and the physical sciences community struggle with their own issues of diversity, representation, and systematic exclusion, it is time for the scientific community to move past that colonial mindset.” 

As the proposed deadline of April 2018 is upon us, only time will tell what the final verdict of this decade-long battle will be. Will we have another telescope on Mauna Kea, or will sanctuary win after all? 

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