Thirty Meter Telescope faces more hurdles as Hawaii ponders construction

There are already 13 observatories on the summit plateau, but many native Hawaiians don’t want the TMT there for a multitude of reasons.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), scheduled to be constructed on the Mauna Kea telescope complex, has been continually protested by native Hawaiians. Construction has been postponed until late 2021 as new sites are explored.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), scheduled to be constructed on the Mauna Kea telescope complex, has been continually protested by native Hawaiians. Construction has been postponed until late 2021 as new sites are explored.
Makawalu Photography

On July 30, 2019, the governor of Hawaii, David Ige, announced that the state granted an extension of a key permit to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). At the request of TMT, the University of Hawaii asked for a two-year extension of the Conservation District Use permit deadline for the initiation of construction. The Department of Land and Natural Resources granted this extension until Sept. 26, 2021.

As LFW reported back in 2013, the Hawaiian Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) granted a permit to the TMT project to build and operate the next-generation observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Since then, the move has been protested by native Hawaiians, as described on Science Friday:

Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in Hawaii, towering over the Pacific at nearly 14,000 feet. That high altitude, combined with the mountain’s dry, still air and its extreme darkness at night, make it an ideal place for astronomy.

There are already 13 observatories on the summit plateau. Now, astronomers want to build the TMT, which would become the largest visible-light telescope on the mountain. However, many native Hawaiians don’t want it there for a multitude of reasons: 

“The notion of pursuit of knowledge is an important one here,” Kawika Winter, a multidisciplinary ecologist at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the He’eia National Estuarine Research Reserve, told Science Friday in an interview earlier this week. “But is it pursuit of knowledge at all costs? Is it pursuit of knowledge at the expense of our humanity? From the native Hawaiian perspective this is just the same thing that’s happened before. It’s preventing people from accessing sacred places. It’s desecration of sacred places through construction. It’s all of these issues, but this time it’s for a good reason. This time it’s for science, this time it’s for knowledge, so now it should be OK, right? But it’s the same thing that’s been happening for 200 years. It doesn’t matter what the reason is.”

Many native Hawaiians say the way this fight has been portrayed in the media--as Hawaiian culture versus science--is disrespectful of their culture, ignorant of their motives, and oblivious to the fact that science has long been an important part of traditional Hawaiian culture. Nearly a thousand scientists and astronomers have now signed an open letter in solidarity with those who would like to see a halt in construction. 

And some have suggested that the TMT should be built in the Canary Islands instead, where an existing telescope complex enjoys a lofty perch over the Atlantic Ocean. But even that solution isn’t without its detractors. According to Physics World:

Officials at the TMT have indicated they will seek a building permit to construct the giant telescope on the island of La Palma, belonging to Spain’s Canary Islands. While Mauna Kea in Hawaii remains the preferred site for the TMT, the continuing protests on the island are forcing officials to proceed with the legal requirements to build the observatory elsewhere.

Designed to have a primary mirror 30 m across made of 492 hexagonal segments enclosed in a structure 66 m wide and 56 m tall, when built the TMT will allow astronomers to resolve the faintest and oldest galaxies. The TMT board had chosen Mauna Kea, which already hosts 13 other telescopes, as the observatory’s site in July 2009, but hurdles exist.

The possibility of relocating the TMT away from Mauna Kea has concerned some astronomers who think that La Palma’s environmental conditions will limit the telescope’s scientific potential. In particular, the warmer climate and lower elevation of La Palma compared to Mauna Kea will affect mid-infrared observations, which require dry, cool conditions. Such measurements are used, for example, to characterize nearby exoplanets and their atmospheres, and losing that ability would almost eradicate the exoplanet program from the TMT’s science goals.

Yet, if the TMT is built at La Palma, then officials hope that the loss of sensitivity would be mitigated in part by adaptive optics and by carefully scheduling observations so that those requiring high infrared sensitivity can be on the clearest nights.

SOURCES: Office of the Governor of Hawaii, Science Friday, and Physics World; https://governor.hawaii.gov/newsroom/latest-news/office-of-the-governor-news-release-state-extends-thirty-meter-telescope-permit/, https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/thirty-meter-telescope-mauna-kea-protests-ethics/, and https://physicsworld.com/a/thirty-meter-telescope-forges-ahead-with-canary-islands-site/

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