Why mauna kea for tmt?
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is a planned extremely large telescope (ELT) that has become controversial due to its location on Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaiʻi. The TMT would become the largest visible-light telescope on Mauna Kea.
Scientists have been considering ELTs since the mid 1980s. In 2000, astronomers considered the possibility of a telescope with a light-gathering mirror larger than 20 meters (65') in diameter, using either small segments that create one large mirror, or a grouping of larger 8-meter (26') mirrors working as one unit. The US National Academy of Sciences recommended a 30-meter (100') telescope be the focus of U.S. interests, seeking to see it built within the decade.
Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Caltech began development of a design that would eventually become the TMT, consisting of a 492-segment primary mirror with nine times the power of the Keck Observatory. Due to its light-gathering power and the optimal observing conditions which exist atop Mauna Kea, the TMT would enable astronomers to conduct research which is infeasible with current instruments. The TMT is designed for near-ultraviolet to mid-infrared (0.31 to 28 μm wavelengths) observations, featuring adaptive optics to assist in correcting image blur. The TMT will be at the highest altitude of all the proposed ELTs. The telescope has government-level support from several nations.
Demonstrations attracted press coverage after October 2014, when construction was temporarily halted due to a blockade of the roadway. When construction of the telescope was set to resume, construction was blocked by further protests each time. In 2015, Governor David Ige announced several changes to the management of Mauna Kea, including a requirement that the TMT's site will be the last new site on Mauna Kea to be developed for a telescope. The Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the TMT project, but the Supreme Court of Hawaii invalidated the building permits in December 2015, ruling that the board had not followed due process. In October 2018, the Court approved the resumption of construction, however no further construction has occurred due to continued opposition. Several alternative sites for the Thirty Meter Telescope have been proposed.
In 2000, astronomers began considering the potential of telescopes larger than 20 meters (65') in diameter. The technology to build a mirror larger than 8.4 meters (28') does not exist; instead scientists considered two methods: either segmented smaller mirrors as used in the Keck Observatory, or a group of 8-meter (26') mirrors mounted to form a single unit. The US National Academy of Sciences made a suggestion that a 30-meter (100') telescope should be the focus of US astronomy interests and recommended that it be built within the decade.
The University of California, along with Caltech, began development of a 30-meter telescope that same year. The California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT) began development, along with the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT), and the Very Large Optical Telescope (VLOT). These studies would eventually become the Thirty Meter Telescope. The TMT would have nine times the collecting area of the older Keck telescope using slightly smaller mirror segments in a vastly larger group. Another telescope of a large diameter in the works is the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) being built in northern Chile.
The telescope is designed for observations from near-ultraviolet to mid-infrared (0.31 to 28 μm wavelengths). In addition, its adaptive optics system will help correct for image blur caused by the atmosphere of the Earth, helping it to reach the potential of such a large mirror. Among existing and planned extremely large telescopes, the TMT will have the highest elevation and will be the second-largest telescope once the ELT is built. Both use segments of small 1.44 metre (4'9") hexagonal mirrors—a design vastly different from the large mirrors of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) or the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). Each night, the TMT would collect 90 terabytes of data. The TMT has government-level support from the following countries: Canada, China, Japan and India. The United States is also contributing some funding, but less than the formal partnership.
In cooperation with AURA, the TMT project completed a multi-year evaluation of six sites:
The TMT Observatory Corporation board of directors narrowed the list to two sites, one in each hemisphere, for further consideration: Cerro Armazones in Chile's Atacama Desert and Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island. On July 21, 2009, the TMT board announced Mauna Kea as the preferred site. The final TMT site selection decision was based on a combination of scientific, financial, and political criteria. Chile is also where the European Southern Observatory is building the ELT. If both next-generation telescopes were in the same hemisphere, there would be many astronomical objects that neither could observe. The telescope was given approval by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in April 2013.
There has been opposition to the building of the telescope, based on potential disruption to the fragile alpine environment of Mauna Kea due to construction, traffic, and noise, which is a concern for the habitat of several species, and because Mauna Kea is a sacred site for the Native Hawaiian culture. The Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources conditionally approved the Mauna Kea site for the TMT in February 2011. The approval has been challenged; however, the Board officially approved the site following a hearing on February 12, 2013.
Because of the ongoing protests that re-erupted in July 2019, the TMT project officials requested a building permit for a second site choice, the Spanish island of La Palma in the Canary Islands. Rafael Rebolo, the director of the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute, confirmed that he had received a letter requesting a building permit for the site as a backup in case the Hawaii site cannot be constructed. Some astronomers argue however that La Palma is not an adequate site to build the telescope due to the island’s comparatively low elevation, which would enable water vapor to frequently interfere with observations due to water vapor’s tendency to absorb light at midinfrared wavelengths. Such atmospheric interference could impact observing times for research into exoplanets, galactic formation, and cosmology. Other astronomers argue that construction of the telescope in La Palma would disrupt projected international collaboration between the United States and other involved countries such as Japan, Canada, and France.
Environmentalists such as Ben Magec and the environmental advocacy organization Ecologistas en Acción in the Canary Islands are gearing up to fight against its construction there as well. According to EEA spokesperson Pablo Bautista, the projected TMT construction area in the Canary Islands exists inside a protected conservation refuge which hosts at least three archeological sites of the indigenous Guanche people, who lived on the islands for thousands of years before Spanish colonization. On July 29, 2021, Judge Roi López Encinas of the High Court of Justice of the Canary Islands, revoked the 2017 concession of public lands by local authorities for the TMT construction. Encinas ruled that the land concessions were invalid as they were not covered by an international treaty on scientific research and that the TMT International Observatory consortium did not express concrete intent to build on the La Palma site as opposed to the site in Mauna Kea.
On July 19, 2022, The National Science Foundation announced it will carry out a new environmental survey of the possible impacts of the construction of the Thirty Metter Telescope at proposed building sites at both Mauna Kea and at the Canary Islands. Continued funding for the telescope will not be considered prior to the results of the environmental survey, updates on the project's technical readiness, and comments from the public.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has committed US$200 million for construction. Caltech and the University of California have committed an additional US$50 million each. Japan, which has its own large telescope at Mauna Kea, the 8.3-metre Subaru, is also a partner.
In 2008, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) joined TMT as a collaborator institution. The following year, the telescope cost was estimated to be $970 million to $1.4 billion. That same year, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) joined TMT as an observer. The observer status is the first step in becoming a full partner in the construction of the TMT and participating in the engineering development and scientific use of the observatory.
In June 2010, Governor Linda Lingle and University of Hawaii-Hilo Chancellor Rose Tseng attended a banquet at the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, sponsored by the China Diplomatic Friendship Association and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The banquet included special guest Lu Yong Xiang, vice chairman of the Chinese People’s National Congress and head of the Chinese National Academy of Sciences who had visited Mauna Kea as part of China's intention to become a collaborative partner with the TMT. The governor gave a presentation on the two competing site locations, Mauna Kea and Cerro Armazones, Chile. Speaking at a Chinese Academy of Science conference in 1995, Lu Yong Xiang stated that by 2010, the academy would become one of the leading international scientific institutions, with new research results in such fields as Moon exploration, evolution of the universe and of life, space micro-gravity, particle physics, and astrophysics.
In 2010, a consortium of Indian Astronomy Research Institutes (IIA, IUCAA and ARIES) joined TMT as an observer, subject to approval of funding from the Indian government. Two years later, India and China became partners with representatives on the TMT board. Both countries agreed to share the telescope construction costs, expected to top $1 billion. India became a full member of the TMT consortium in 2014. In 2019 the India-based company Larsen & Toubro (L&T) were awarded the contract to build the segment support assembly (SSA), which “are complex optomechanical sub-assemblies on which each hexagonal mirror of the 30-metre primary mirror, the heart of the telescope, is mounted”.
The IndiaTMT Optics Fabricating Facility (ITOFF) will be constructed at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics campus in the city of Hosakote, near Bengaluru. India will supply 80 of the 492 mirror segments for the TMT. A.N. Ramaprakash, the associate programme director of India-TMT, stated; "All sensors, actuators and SSAs for the whole telescope are being developed and manufactured in India, which will be put together in building the heart of TMT", also adding; "Since it is for the first time that India is involved in such a technically demanding astronomy project, it is also an opportunity to put to test the abilities of Indian scientists and industries, alike."
The continued financial commitment from the Canadian government had been in doubt due to economic pressures. In April 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada would commit $243.5 million over a period of 10 years. The telescope's unique enclosure was designed by Dynamic Structures Ltd. in British Columbia. In a 2019 online petition, a group of Canadian academics called on succeeding Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau together with Industry Minister Navdeep Bains and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan to divest Canadian funding from the project. The Canadian astronomy community has as of September 2020 named TMT its top facility priority for the decade ahead.
The TMT would be housed in a general-purpose observatory capable of investigating a broad range of astrophysical problems. The total diameter of the dome will be 217 feet (66 m) with the total dome height at 180 feet (55 m) (comparable in height to an eighteen-storey building). The total area of the structure is projected to be 1.44 acres (0.58 ha) within a 5-acre (2.0 ha) complex.
The centerpiece of the TMT Observatory is to be a Ritchey-Chrétien telescope with a 30-metre (98 ft) diameter primary mirror. This mirror is to be segmented and consist of 492 smaller (1.4 metre; 4'6"), individual hexagonal mirrors. The shape of each segment, as well as its position relative to neighboring segments, will be controlled actively.
A 3.1-metre (10 ft) secondary mirror is to produce an unobstructed field-of-view of 20 arcminutes in diameter with a focal ratio of 15. A 3.5 × 2.5 metre (12' x 8') flat tertiary mirror is to direct the light path to science instruments mounted on large Nasmyth platforms. The telescope is to have an alt-azimuth mount. Target acquisition and system configuration capabilities need to be achieved within 5 minutes, or ten minutes if relocating to a newer device. To achieve these time limitations the TMT will use a software architecture linked by a service based communications system. The moving mass of the telescope, optics, and instruments will be 1430 tonnes. The design of the facility descends from the Keck Observatory.
Integral to the observatory is a Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics (MCAO) system. This MCAO system will measure atmospheric turbulence by observing a combination of natural (real) stars and artificial laser guide stars. Based on these measurements, a pair of deformable mirrors will be adjusted many times per second to correct optical wave-front distortions caused by the intervening turbulence.
This system will produce diffraction-limited images over a 30-arc-second diameter field-of-view, which means that the core of the point spread function will have a size of 0.015 arc-second at a wavelength of 2.2 micrometers, almost ten times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Three instruments are planned to be available for scientific observations:
In 2008, the TMT corporation selected two semi-finalists for further study, Mauna Kea and Cerro Amazones. In July 2009, Mauna Kea was selected. Once TMT selected Mauna Kea, the project began a regulatory and community process for approval. Mauna Kea is ranked as one of the best sites on Earth for telescope viewing and is home to 13 other telescopes built at the summit of the mountain, within the Mauna Kea Observatories grounds. Telescopes generate money for the big island, with millions of dollars in jobs and subsidies gained by the state. The TMT would be one of the most expensive telescopes ever created.
However, the proposed construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea sparked protests and demonstrations across the state of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is the most sacred mountain in Hawaiian culture as well as conservation land held in trust by the state of Hawaii.
In 2010 Governor Linda Lingle of the State of Hawaii signed off on an environmental study after 14 community meetings. The BLNR held hearings on December 2 and December 3, 2010, on the application for a permit.
On February 25, 2011, the board granted the permits after multiple public hearings. This approval had conditions, in particular, that a hearing about contesting the approval be heard. A contested case hearing was held in August 2011, which led to a judgment by the hearing officer for approval in November 2012. The telescope was given approval by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in April 2013. This process was challenged in court with a lower court ruling in May 2014. The Intermediate Court of Appeals of the State of Hawaii declined to hear an appeal regarding the permit until the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources first issued a decision from the contested case hearing that could then be appealed to the court.
The dedication and ground-breaking ceremony was held, but interrupted by protesters on October 7, 2014. The project became the focal point of escalating political conflict, police arrests and continued litigation over the proper use of conservation lands. Native Hawaiian cultural practice and religious rights became central to the opposition, with concerns over the lack of meaningful dialogue during the permitting process. In late March 2015, demonstrators again halted the construction crews. On April 2, 2015, about 300 protesters gathered on Mauna Kea, some of them trying to block the access road to the summit; 23 arrests were made. Once the access road to the summit was cleared by the police, about 40 to 50 protesters began following the heavily laden and slow-moving construction trucks to the summit construction site.
On April 7, 2015, the construction was halted for one week at the request of Hawaii state governor David Ige, after the protest on Mauna Kea continued. Project manager Gary Sanders stated that TMT agreed to the one-week stop for continued dialogue; Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one of the organizations that have challenged the TMT in court, viewed the development as positive but said opposition to the project would continue. On April 8, 2015, Governor Ige announced that the project was being temporarily postponed until at least April 20, 2015. Construction was set to begin again on June 24, though hundreds of protesters gathered on that day, blocking access to the construction site for the TMT. Some protesters camped on the access road to the site, while others rolled large rocks onto the road. The actions resulted in 11 arrests.
The TMT company chairman stated: "T.M.T. will follow the process set forth by the state." A revised permit was approved on September 28, 2017, by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources.
On December 2, 2015, the Hawaii State Supreme Court ruled the 2011 permit from the State of Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) was invalid ruling that due process was not followed when the Board approved the permit before the contested case hearing. The high court stated: "BLNR put the cart before the horse when it approved the permit before the contested case hearing," and "Once the permit was granted, Appellants were denied the most basic element of procedural due process – an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. Our Constitution demands more".
In March 2017, the BLNR hearing officer, retired judge Riki May Amano, finished six months of hearings in Hilo, Hawaii, taking 44 days of testimony from 71 witnesses. On July 26, 2017, Amano filed her recommendation that the Land Board grant the construction permit. On September 28, 2017, the BLNR, acting on Amano's report, approved, by a vote of 5-2, a Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) for the TMT. Numerous conditions, including the removal of three existing telescopes and an assertion that the TMT is to be the last telescope on the mountain, were attached to the permit.
On October 30, 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled 4-1, that the revised permit was acceptable, allowing construction to proceed. On July 10, 2019, Hawaii Gov. David Ige and the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory jointly announced that construction would begin the week of July 15, 2019.
On July 15, 2019, renewed protests blocked the access road, again preventing construction from commencing. On July 17, 38 protestors were arrested, all of whom were kupuna (elders) as the blockage of the access road continued. The blockade lasted 4 weeks and shut down all 12 observatories on Mauna Kea, the longest shut down in the 50-year history of the observatories. The full shut down ended when state officials brokered a deal that included building a new road around the campsite of the demonstrations and providing a complete list of vehicles accessing the road to show they are not associated with the TMT. The protests have become the latest fight for indigenous rights and become a field-defining moment for astronomy. While there is both Native Hawaiian and non native Hawaiian support for the TMT, a substantial percentage of native Hawaiians oppose the construction and see the proposal itself as a continued disregard to their basic rights.
The 50 years of protests against the use of Mauna Kea has drawn into question the ethics of conducting research with telescopes on the mountain. The controversy is about more than the construction and is about generations of conflict between Native Hawaiians, the U.S. Government and private interests. The American Astronomical Society stated through their Press Officer, Rick Fienberg; "The Hawaiian people have numerous legitimate grievances concerning the way they’ve been treated over the centuries. These grievances have simmered for many years, and when astronomers announced their intention to build a new giant telescope on Maunakea, things boiled over". On July 18, 2019, an online petition titled "Impeach Governor David Ige" was posted to Change.org. The petition has gathered over 25,000 signatures. The governor and others in his administration received death threats over the construction of the telescope.
On December 19, 2019, Hawaii Governor David Ige announced that the state would reduce its law enforcement personnel on Mauna Kea. At the same time, the TMT project stated it was not prepared to start construction anytime soon.
Early in 2020, TMT and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) jointly presented their science and technical readiness to the U.S. National Academies Astro2020 panel. Chile is the site for GMT in the south and Mauna Kea is being considered as the primary site for TMT in the north. The panel will produce a series of recommendations for implementing a strategy and vision for the coming decade of U.S. Astronomy & Astrophysics frontier research and prioritize projects for future funding.
In July 2020, TMT confirmed it would not resume construction on TMT until 2021, at the earliest. TMT continues to assess a number of factors impacting its timeline and schedule. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in TMT’s partnership working from home around the world and it continues to present a public health threat as well as travel and logistical challenges. The project is currently focused on doing the work it can safely do in its partner countries.
On August 13, 2020, the Speaker of the Hawaii House of Representatives, Scott Saiki announced that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has initiated an informal outreach process to engage stakeholders interested in the Thirty Meter Telescope project. After listening to and considering the stakeholders’ viewpoints, NSF will decide whether to initiate a formal federal environmental review process for TMT.
As of June 20, 2022, no further construction has been announced or initiated. Continued progress on instrument design, mirror casting & polishing, and other critical operational technicalities have been worked through or are currently being worked on. No specific timelines or schedules have been provided in regards to expected start/completion dates of additional construction at this time.
After years of protests that halted the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea and divided communities in Hawaii, a major change in the management of the summit is underway.
Since the beginning of this year, a new state-appointed oversight board has been preparing to assume management of Mauna Kea. Under a law signed in June 2022 by then-Hawaii Governor David Ige, a five-year transition period formally begins in July of this year. Then, in 2028, the Maunakea Stewardship Oversight Authority (MKSOA) will take over stewardship of the mountaintop from the University of Hawaii (UH), which has managed the site since 1968.
Crucially, the MKSOA includes representatives from both astronomical observatories and Native Hawaiian communities. Its members say it marks a new approach, one that for the first time gives Native Hawaiians a voting role in overseeing the mountaintop. And although board members don’t want to get ahead of the process, an emerging compromise could see the embattled TMT built atop the peak in exchange for the decommissioning of several telescopes.
The broad outlines of such a deal would be similar to terms previously agreed on by the University of Hawaii with the state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) as conditions for obtaining the building permit for TMT’s construction, which never commenced in the face of protests.
What may be different this time is the process and the approach — what the board calls a model of mutual stewardship.
The MKSOA is “a new community-based management model that for the first time includes cultural practitioners, lineal descendants, and natural resource and education experts from throughout the community as mutual stewards of Mauna Kea,” said Kaʻiu Kimura, director of the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, speaking Jan. 9 at a session of the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle, Washington.
The board still faces many challenges, and potential skepticism from activists who seek a smaller footprint or total removal of astronomical facilities from Mauna Kea. But its members say they have found the common ground that seemed unreachable in 2019, when protests and tensions flared.
“There really was what appeared to be a no-win situation back then, and no way of how this was going to be resolved between the community and government and astronomy field,” MKSOA board member and native rights activist Noe Noe Wong-Wilson told Astronomy at the AAS meeting. “It’s still early in the life of the new authority, but there’s actually a pathway forward.”
The Thirty Meter Telescope, backed by an international consortium of institutes and agencies, would be larger than any telescope now in existence — in an entirely different size class from the 13 other facilities already built on Mauna Kea. The dormant volcano’s peak is sacred to Native Hawaiians, home to their deities and ancestors. In ancient Hawaiian law, access to the summit was restricted to only the highest-ranking leaders.
In recent years, Mauna Kea has become a symbol of Native Hawaiians’ fight for self-determination. Activists argued that astronomers are continuing a colonial approach that denied Hawaiian people a voice in the use of their land, going back to the overthrow and annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For astronomers, Mauna Kea has always been attractive for its ideal observing conditions. At 13,800 feet (4,200 meters) high, the peak lies above much of the distorting effects of the atmosphere; it also has dry air and clear skies.
Astronomers’ push for the TMT has at times turned ugly. In 2015, University of California, Santa Cruz, astronomer Sandra Faber called protestors “a horde of native Hawaiians” in an email to colleagues. She issued an apology two days later. Hundreds of scientists signed a statement condemning the language, and after two weeks of public silence, the AAS followed suit.
Backers of the TMT also accused activists opposed to its construction of being anti-science. In a 2014 New York Times opinion piece, science writer George Johnson called the TMT protests “skirmishes against science.” He also compared activists to religious fundamentalists, writing that “ creationism is tolerated out of a sense of guilt over past wrongdoings.”
Wong-Wilson rejects that characterization.
“The conflict was never between our culture and western science,” said Wong-Wilson, who is executive director of the Lālākea Foundation, a group of cultural and spiritual practitioners. “We’re as fascinated with our view of the heavens, our view of constellations, and our relationship from the Native perspective as anything.” Rather, she said, the issue was “the use of particular areas of land, of which there may be conflicting interests.”
Those interests include the footprint not only of astronomy but also tourism and recreation, as well as preserving the ability for Native Hawaiians to carry out cultural practices on the mountain, including funeral rituals. “Our stand on Mauna Kea — to protect Mauna Kea — was about a particular placement of a particular telescope that was just one too many,” said Wong-Wilson.
When construction on the TMT began in 2015, activists set up camp on the road to the summit to block equipment and workers from reaching the site. The TMT eventually prevailed in a Hawaii Supreme Court case. When construction was set to recommence in 2019, thousands of people gathered to again occupy the road for months. Dozens were arrested or cited.
But when COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill in early 2020 and everyone left the mountain, a core group of astronomers and activists began a dialogue, out of the public eye, in an attempt to build trust with one another and resolve the impasse. These discussions planted the seeds for the MKSOA.
In 2021, as the University of Hawaii board of regents considered the new Mauna Kea management plan, discussions in Hawaiian political circles began building over the possibility of a management structure that would remove UH altogether.
The university’s oversight of the mountaintop had previously been scrutinized — and found lacking. A 1998 state audit reported that UH had “focused on developing the summit for astronomical research” by building telescopes that “enhanced the university’s prestige and that of its astronomy program,” but that its management was “inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources.” The audit cited a litany of offenses, including preservation plans submitted a decade late, failures of implementation, damage to historic sites, and trash from construction that was not picked up until the Sierra Club, a nonprofit environmental organization, complained.
Native Hawaiians had also long been calling for greater inclusion in the decision-making process. “We attended hearings, we submitted testimonies, we did whatever we felt we might be effective at, using the rules that were placed down in the past,” said Wong-Wilson during the AAS panel. “And yet there was a feeling of powerlessness, and a feeling of inequity in that power, that power relationship.”
A 2020 independent review found that UH’s management of the site itself had improved, but that its progress was “overshadowed” by “inadequacies,” including a failure to consult and engage with the Native Hawaiian community.
In 2021, the Hawaii House of Representatives established a working group to consider new management structures for Mauna Kea — including the possibility of a management structure that excluded UH. This working group consisted of seven people from Native Hawaiian communities (including Wong-Wilson), four elected officials, and representatives from UH, the BLNR, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the Maunakea Observatories.
After six months, the group produced a set of recommendations that became the basis for a Hawaii House bill, HB2024, establishing the MKSOA and revoking UH’s responsibilities. Although there was support in the Hawaii Senate for retaining UH, eventually, both the Hawaii state House and Senate passed the House bill in May 2022. Ige signed the bill into law a month later.
In a 2022 statement, UH president David Lassner acknowledged previous UH mismanagement but defended its recent tenure. “UH has been on a trajectory of continuous improvement for over 20 years,” he said, citing the creation of advisory councils of Native Hawaiians, the creation of the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center, and surveys of cultural sites. Lassner criticized how “a completely false narrative that UH is mismanaging Maunakea drove this legislation.” But UH did not request a veto of the bill.
In total, the MKSOA has 11 members, three of whom are ex officio. The other eight members of the MKSOA have been appointed by Ige and reappointed by his successor, Josh Green, who took office last December.
As specified by the act, the appointed members include a representative from the Maunakea Observatories and a lineal descendant of a practitioner of Native Hawaii traditional and customary practices associated with Mauna Kea. Other members include experts in land resource management and education, the UH board of regents chair, and local officials like the BLNR chair.
At the AAS meeting in Seattle, hundreds of astronomers crowded into a plenary hall to listen to the MKSOA session, which featured three of the authority’s members: Wong-Wilson; Rich Matsuda, Keck Observatory’s associate director of external relations and former chief of operations; and the board’s chair, John Komeiji, a legal and business executive. All three were born and raised in Hawaii, as were most of the people on the working group — an attribute that Matsuda said helped the group understand one another and build trust.
“We decided to put the mauna in the middle,” said Matsuda, who also repped Maunakea Observatories on the working group. “What we mean is that we put the care of Maunakea at primary importance, and the individual human interests — whether it be astronomy or culture or environment or tourism or recreation, or whatever it is — would be at a secondary level. … This feeling of mutual stewardship is a lot different than a stakeholder model, when you come in to protect your interest and transact and negotiate to get your piece of the pie.”
The board’s decisions will shape the future of astronomy and every other human activity on the mountain. The leasing arrangements for all 13 observatories on Mauna Kea expire in 2033, including the University of Hawaii’s overriding lease for the entire summit site. This means that the future of every observatory beyond 2033 lies in decisions made by the oversight board.
Nothing is set in stone, but the outlines of a potential compromise are clear: If the TMT goes forward, additional telescopes would need to be decommissioned so that the overall footprint of astronomy on the summit remains the same, or shrinks.
Some of these planned removals have already been set in motion. In January 2022, the UH board of regents approved a plan that called for five of the current 13 facilities on Mauna Kea to be decommissioned and removed from the mountaintop to fulfill the terms of the TMT permit issued by the BLNR. Two are already under way: the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) and UH Hilo’s Hōkū Ke‘a teaching telescope. (The latter will be relocated to a different site further down the mountain.)
UH had also tentatively identified the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope as an additional candidate for decommissioning, and had agreed to the BLNR’s recommendation of removing the 25-meter radio antenna on Mauna Kea that’s part of the Very Long Baseline Array, a collection of 10 sites around the world that is operated as one array by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. That left one more telescope for UH to identify before a self-imposed deadline of December 2025. But the Hawaii state legislature’s passage in May 2022 stripped UH’s authority to solidify those plans.
Still, Komeiji is treating the UH roadmap “as a sort of rough timetable” of what the oversight board needs to accomplish to resolve the TMT issue, he told Astronomy at the AAS meeting. “For sure, we have to identify one other telescope to decommission.” He says UH would like to announce that telescope by mid-2026 and have new leases for the continuing observatories in place by Jan. 1, 2027.
Judging from the reaction to the board’s session at AAS, the astronomical community is ready to buy into the authority’s approach: The packed ballroom gave the panel a resounding standing ovation.
After the AAS session, Robert Kirshner, the TMT’s executive director, told Astronomy, “There’s a long way to go, but I’m cautiously optimistic.” Referring to the mood in the room, he said, “You could hear it, you know — there’s a reason to be hopeful.”
Kirshner was hired on as TMT’s executive director just a year ago. He sees the fact that he is new to the issue as “a good thing,” and cites TMT community outreach efforts as part of a new approach from the astronomical community, shifting from persuasion to dialogue. “Instead of telling people, ‘Oh, we’re going to do something for you,’ it’s much better to listen and see what people want,” he said.
And, he suggested, there is an appetite among astronomers to deescalate tensions. “We’ve been, you know, in this zone where it looks like — well, it is conflict. That’s not a comfortable place for people who care so much about finding out about how the world works.”
Komeiji is frank about the challenges facing the MKSOA board, which are not just political but also logistical. The authority is starting from scratch; at the time of the AAS meeting, it had yet to hire any staff and Komeiji said he wasn’t even sure how to access the $14 million in funds that the state has appropriated for it. Key personal connections also still had to be made: After the MKSOA panel ended, Kirshner walked up to Komeiji to introduce himself and give him his business card.
“What I’m trying to do is make sure that we build the agency as quickly as we can,” Komeiji told Astronomy, “and then on a parallel track start having discussions about TMT, about decommissioning, about new leases.”
Komeiji has previously served as president of Hawaiian Telecom and general counsel and vice president for Kamehameha Schools, the prestigious college-prep school system founded by Hawaiian royalty in 1887. But he knows that steering the MKSOA may be his most challenging job yet. “There has not been one person that hasn’t called me crazy,” he said on the panel. “But you know, Hawaii has been my home. Hawaii is very important to me. And I get emotional about this. Because … this is probably the most divisive issue that has come for all of Hawaii in my lifetime.”
When asked by Astronomy whether he was feeling time pressure from observatories, he wryly replied, “In my life, I’m very much aware of timeframes and people’s time requirements.” Then he added: “The one timeframe that is not as clear to me, but I’m always thinking about, is what the timetables are for the funders.”
In good news for him, at the AAS meeting in Seattle, one major potential backer of the telescope, the National Science Foundation (NSF), signaled an openness to letting the process play out. So far, the U.S. partners of TMT are all universities or private institutions. Unlike the other nations involved in TMT — Canada, China, Japan, and India — the U.S. government has not committed significant funding.
But that would change if NSF decides to invest in the project. And the agency is considering doing so, spurred by a strong endorsement from the influential astronomy decadal survey published in 2021 by the National Academies of Sciences. That report recommended that TMT and a rival telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope — currently under construction in Chile — combine forces, with NSF coordinating a joint organization to encompass both facilities.
But the NSF is willing to be patient on making that decision, said the agency’s astrophysics division director Debra Fischer, who is also an astronomer at Yale University specializing in exoplanets, at an AAS session on Jan. 11.
Fischer called the Mauna Kea panel “very moving” and threw the agency’s support behind the new oversight board and its process. “We at the NSF are committed to working in lockstep with this new authority. For myself, I would be unwilling to go forward, to recommend a partnership, that didn’t have the approval of the authority,” said Fischer.
“A year ago, I would have been chomping at the bit and feeling very anxious about, ‘Well, when can we start?’” Fischer told Astronomy. Now, she’s developed “kind of a more zen-like feeling about it. I think that there is a good chance that this will happen, but it’s going to happen on a timescale which is, you know, their timescale, if it’s going to happen at all. I’m not sure what that will be. I don’t know if it will be a couple of years, or if it will be longer.”
She added, “I think it’s really important that we back off. We’ve been pushing too hard.”
For nearly nine months, she and other kiaʻi, or protectors, were sleeping in a parking lot over a lava field that marks the beginning of the access road up to Maunakea’s summit. From the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu camp, protectors kept watch for construction crews for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) — planned to be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere — through windstorms, hail, and overnight temperatures that dipped well below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Hawaiian traditions of creation, the mountain is an ancestor and shares genealogical ties with Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli. It is one of the most sacred sites — if not the most sacred — in Hawaiian culture. For kiaʻi, protecting the mountain from desecration is more than a cultural responsibility; it’s a lineal duty to those who came before them and the generations who will succeed them.
When the pandemic hit, kiaʻi were already assessing the threat of construction and considering the impact on resources. After determining that there was no imminent threat, they decided to pack up their site, which hosted anywhere between 30 and 3,000 people at any given time. Should an attempt be made to initiate the project, they knew they could be back up there in half an hour. Still, their departure from the mountain was marked by emotional exhaustion and trepidation for what was to come.
It also presented familiar challenges. Before the latest standoff on the mountain, many kiaʻi had spent years tirelessly writing letters, submitting testimony to city council meetings, combing over management plans, and trying to monitor the movements of multiple parties with vastly more power and resources than they’ll ever have. Today, they continue that labor from their homes.
At least on the mountain, they could offer their physical presence to inspire supporters, who could be shielded from the invisible — and, certainly, less romantic — work kiaʻi had been doing behind the scenes. The movement has a robust social media presence that acts as a direct line of communication between the front line and its supporters abroad. The Protect Mauna a Wākea Instagram account, one of two accounts that had been operating from the camp, has 136,000 followers who rely on photos and videos of kiaʻi to draw inspiration and feel plugged into the action. Under lockdown, the movement is challenged with keeping supporters, who are used to seeing dispatches from the mountain, engaged and connected to it.
“It’s constant,” Case says. “You have to be a presence or you’re going to disappear. And you can’t afford to disappear when you’re talking about your lifeways, your culture, and the very continuance and protection of the places that are connected to you.”
Kiaʻi have opposed the telescope’s construction in a string of legal challenges, petitions, and protests over the past decade. But the fight for Maunakea gained national attention a year ago, after Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced that construction would be cleared to begin on July 15.
That morning, kiaʻi awaited the construction crews. Some had locked themselves to a cattle guard that was built into the Mauna Kea Access Road — the only road up to the summit. But then, a line of elders, or kupuna, formed farther down, at the start of the road. It was their blockade that inevitably became the front line.
“I saw them sitting in lawn chairs and folding chairs on the road, all bundled up with blankets and sleeping bags,” said Andre Perez, one of the kiaʻi and a nonviolent direct action trainer for the Hawaiʻi Unity and Liberation Institute. He was the acting police liaison that day. “I knew that something powerful was happening. The elders were stepping into the fray and taking charge.”
They held that line for two days before Ige issued a state of emergency on July 17, clearing a path for law enforcement to begin making arrests.
Multiple agencies arrived on the scene; there were officers brought in from other islands, three state agencies, and the National Guard. It wasn’t long before kiaʻi, hundreds of whom had gathered there around their kupuna, were sitting in front of a massive militarized police presence dressed in riot gear and armed with chemical dispersants and a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) — a sonic weapon developed for use by the US military that emits high-frequency sounds at extreme volumes to disperse crowds.
Whatever aggression law enforcement expected from the crowd that day never materialized. Kia‘i sat in purposeful silence as 38 of their kupuna, many in their 70s and 80s, were arrested and escorted — and, in several instances, carried — away to awaiting police vans, crying but resolute. The air above the crowd was periodically punctured by sobs, singing, and chanting. “We didn’t want to give the police any reason to escalate,” said Perez. “Our discipline was our safety.”
Images and video footage of the arrests sparked public outcry across the island chain and overseas. It was the stark, visible disparity between the resistance and the state response that galvanized a native movement and brought supporters from around the world to their cause.
For nearly nine months after, kupuna never left the spot they first occupied. A tent was erected to shelter them as they sat on the road, and a volunteer village formed overnight, equipped with a kitchen, solar trailers, and even a “university” grounded in Native Hawaiian science and culture. They hosted locals and musicians from neighboring islands, curious tourists, relatives from other Indigenous movements — the camp flew flags gifted to them from Palestine, Tibet, Guam, Standing Rock, Cherokee, and Navajo, Aotearoa, and the Indigenous Australian people, among others. Even Hollywood celebrities like Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who felt connected to the movement through their Polynesian heritage, came to pay their respects.
A team of medics was also on hand to assist kupuna, some of whom experienced altitude sickness and even mild strokes while keeping watch over their sacred mountain. Many kupuna had preexisting health conditions that made their taking a stand challenging — and yet, they stayed.
After five months and $15 million spent on officers and supplies to manage the conflict, Ige withdrew state and county law enforcement from the mountain. At the same time, he requested additional funding from the House Finance Committee as a “contingency amount for any upcoming projects that may attract community activism, including but not limited to Maunakea.”
In late December, kiaʻi reached a temporary agreement with Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim to clear the access road with his assurance that TMT would not attempt to begin construction until the end of February 2020. They caught a break when the deal expired; the observatory’s leadership had yet to determine when construction could begin.
In the midst of the pandemic, the future is uncertain. Kiaʻi don’t know when or if they’ll return to the mountain to resume their standoff. Since the lockdown, some have returned to the mountain to stand at the ahu, the altar erected alongside where their camp once stood, and for years where many have offered prayers. It is ground that they hope someday to only have to hold in prayer, rather than resistance.
The new giant telescope promises access to “the very edge of the observable Universe,” an opportunity to discover places that were previously unreachable to humankind.
“It will enable a new frontier of discoveries about the contents, nature, and evolution of the universe, including the search for life on other planets,” the University of California, one of the project’s funders, said in a statement to Vox. “The potential for scientific discoveries is truly unlimited.”
But kiaʻi say it’s precisely this argument that gives cause for opposition: There are some places that humans aren’t meant to go, and the summit of Maunakea is one of them.
The summit is firmly the province of the gods. Historically, only select individuals — such as the kahuna, or priests, or the ali‘i, high chiefs — were permitted on the mountain in order to perform ceremonies of affairs, and they wouldn’t stay long. It is sacred not only in its religious capacity but also because of the lack of oxygen.
At 13,796 feet, there is 40 percent less air pressure at the summit than at sea level. Visitors are advised to heed signs of altitude sickness and pulmonary and cerebral edemas. Even employees at existing observatories have reported feeling fatigued working at that elevation.
“It’s a place where humans don’t belong,” says Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the kupuna arrested that day. “Where gods reside.”
The area between Maunakea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai volcanic mountains are sensitive environments and culturally significant landscapes. Roughly 20 miles from Kona to the west and almost 30 miles from Hilo to the east, the area is extremely remote.
The only other substantial activity in that area is at the Pōhakuloa Training Area, the largest military installation in the Pacific, where the US Army conducts live-fire training a few miles down the road. On those rare nights when the harsh weather conditions would relent, kiaʻi still had to fall asleep to the sound of machine gun fire carried over the camp by an eastward wind. And as they laid their heads down in their tents, they could feel tremors underneath them from the impact of explosions. “It feels like a little earthquake,” says Wong-Wilson. “Every time, it just hurt our soul.”
TMT proponents say they don’t understand why Kanaka and locals would go through the trouble to contest a telescope, an instrument of science that beckons humankind to reach for a higher purpose. Many have reasoned that the telescope must represent other longstanding issues for the Hawaiian people — such as the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom by American and European businessmen, aided by the US military, which paved the way for US possession of the islands and, eventually, Hawaii’s induction into statehood. “I understand that talking about TMT is a way to express some frustration over these issues that have not been addressed in the past,” Gordon Squires, vice president of external affairs for the TMT International Observatory, told Hawaii News Now.
It’s a position those in the movement have heard repeatedly from their opposition, and to Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a longtime advocate for the preservation of Maunakea and an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa’s School of Law and School of Hawaiian Knowledge, the argument is entirely dismissive. “Trying to say, ‘Look, we’re sorry the overthrow, but don’t make us hurt for it’ is so dislocated from the reality of the situation. The scale, the amount of degradation, and the density of the existing telescope facilities on Maunakea — it’s all too much.”
Squires, meanwhile, has called the project — whose budget has now climbed from its initial projection of $1.4 billion to $2.4 billion — “a bargain for the people of Hawaii and the people of the world as we understand our place in the universe.”
But what many onlookers find perplexing, and what opponents of the telescope certainly find frustrating, is that TMT already has the licenses and land required to develop on a backup site: La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands. It is a far less contentious option, and yet Maunakea remains TMT’s first choice for the project; the summit’s higher altitude and cooler temperatures make it a “slightly better” site to capture infrared light, Harvard’s astronomy department chair, Avi Loeb, told the Associated Press, thereby enhancing the telescope’s imaging capabilities.
“I think we can all agree that Maunakea is a great place to view the stars,” says Beamer. “But that’s not all Maunakea is.”
TMT leadership and proponents have also vehemently denied that the project’s presence would disturb any cultural resources or sites at the summit. But historical mismanagement of the summit’s natural and cultural resources has been well documented since the first observatory was constructed; kia‘i have no doubt that the addition of an 18-story building — slated to be the largest building on the Big Island — will be any different.
“In the Western perspective, people want to draw a line in the dirt and say, ‘It’s only sacred in this spot here, where you stand; therefore, we can build 500 feet to the left of that because that’s not sacred anymore.’ And we say that the landscape of the summit, which has no line drawn around it, is a spiritual landscape,” says Wong-Wilson. “Once they dig two stories into the ground and put in all the roads and outbuildings, and then the five-acre structure, they’ll have done damage that’s irreparable. The way that it looks now will never be recovered, and that, to me, is unacceptable. All the money in the world will not make up for that.”
There’s no telling what the fight ahead looks like for the movement, other than that it will be difficult.
While the TMT International Observatory has announced that construction will not likely begin until 2021, the project is pursuing significant funding from the National Science Foundation, which would present a new set of federal regulatory obstacles that could further postpone construction by at least another three years. Still, Squires says it isn’t a question of “if” construction would happen, but “when.”
“We’re absolutely committed to finding a way forward in Hawaii,” he said to Hawaii News Now on July 15, exactly one year since the most recent standoff began. The University of California also doubled down on its commitment to the project, saying, “TMT remains committed to integrating science and culture, providing the best possible stewardship of Maunakea, enriching Hawaiian culture and heritage, and supporting educational opportunities as it enables this global scientific collaboration centered in Hawaii in the interest of humanity.”
The governor’s office did not respond to Vox about the state’s involvement in the private project’s progress in the future. But in February, Ige traveled to Japan — one of two countries investing public funds into the project — and met with key TMT stakeholders there, signaling his commitment, as he stated in his emergency proclamation a year ago, “to seeing this project through.”
As far as kiaʻi are concerned, though, they still have a job to do: protect the mountain; stop the project for good. In July, to commemorate a year since this latest standoff and the kupuna arrests, a slew of online events and actions was organized for their supporters to participate in “#TMTshutdown week,” including topic-focused talks via Zoom, film screenings, and a letter-signing campaign to TMT’s board of governors, project partners, and other affiliated stakeholders urging them to halt any further attempts at construction. Kiaʻi also recently submitted testimony at a UC Board of Regents meeting on July 30, where its chair John Pérez concluded that the board would continue discussions of the telescope at a later date. Meanwhile, charges against the 38 kupuna still stand.
While kiaʻi can’t afford rest, they might spare a moment to marvel at what has transpired over the past year. “I think most people thought we would get squashed. We were up against a billion-dollar project,” says Beamer. “And yet we were able to turn the tide. Despite all that it takes to stand against something like this, to risk what we’ve spent our lives building, people did it anyway. And we did it out of courage.”
On July 15, 2019, construction for TMT was scheduled to begin. One year later, it still hasn’t broken ground.
Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth's atmosphere, the site at Maunakea has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science.