All is not well for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a billion dollar installation slated to be the world’s largest telescope. While the observatory has received support ranging from the University of California to the Chinese Academy of Science, and all funding appears to be secure, the issue rests in the choice of location: Mauna Kea. Standing at an oxygen-poor 13,700 feet (4,200 meters), the mountain is both the highest point in Hawaii and a profoundly sacred location to the Hawaiian people.
According to Christine Hitt, Mauna Kea is considered the first-born child of the Earth Mother and Sky Father, and is revered as the “traditional father and god” of the islands. It is a traditional location for Hawaiians to scatter the ashes of loved ones upon the mountain, and the elders refer to their ancestors being up on Mauna Kea. Suffice it to say, as far as culturally important locations on the archipelago go, Mauna Kea might just be the penultimate one for the people living around it.
This has sparked protests across the islands, with a Sunday protest at Iolani Palace drawing about 3,500 people by activist Walter Ritt’s estimation. Other protests have been at the mountain summit itself, where 12 protesters were arrested for blocking construction of the telescope. The protests have also gained celebrity endorsements, with actors such as Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) and Jill Wagner (Wipeout) voicing dissent on social media. Amidst the protests, Governor of Hawaii David Ige has postponed the telescope’s construction until the 20th of April. Whether or not the protests themselves will have a lasting impact on the telescope’s future remains to be seen.
Still, the benefits of the Thirty Meter Telescope cannot be discounted. With a primary mirror at almost 100 feet in diameter, the TMT “will have 144 times the collecting area and more than a factor of 10 better spatial resolution” than the Hubble Telescope, according to TMT’s website. The telescope will be able to peer deeper, and more clearly, into the depths of our universe, picking up light from exceedingly old sources. In some cases this would be as many as 13 billion light years away. This would allow us to see objects that existed near the beginning of time itself. This would provide an unprecedented picture into the universe’s origins, and be a step to unraveling long-standing mysteries in the universe. The observatory will also be paying a one million dollar lease per year to Hawaii for the land, and the construction itself is expected to generate some 300 construction jobs.
According to the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory, the location for the massive telescope was chosen only after careful deliberation. “We chose a site that has no archaeological shrines, has not been the site of cultural practices, and isn’t visible from distance of holy sites,” Sandra Dawson, TMT’s Hawaii Community Affairs representative said in a NewScientist article. She went on to say that TMT had environmental scientists, historians, and native religious practitioners involved in the location selection process. From TMTIO’s perspective, they have done everything they can to ensure their telescope has minimal cultural and environmental impact on Mauna Kea.
The Thirty Meter Telescope isn’t the first telescope to be built on Mauna Kea. Being both high and dry, the mountain’s summit is highly ideal for observatories, and there are 12 of them currently operating in or around the summit. Protests against the previous telescopes, seen as another colonial evil, were limited and local. However, due to the advent of social media and the Information Age, the ability for protests to go viral is now exponentially greater. Such is the case with the TMT protests, where the efforts to prevent its construction has captured international attention via Facebook and Twitter, with #DecolonizeAstronomy becoming a trending hashtag. Still, even with the governor’s mandated delay in construction, it seems unlikely that the protests will ultimately prevent the billion dollar telescope’s completion.