The best place to view space is from a locale far from the glaring lights of human habitation. And what better spot than the isolated Hawaiian islands, in the middle of the northern Pacific? Unfortunately, the residents of Hawaii abhor the idea of another telescope marring their sacred mountain. So they have banned together to bid the giant scope a hearty "Aloha!"
The $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which its nonprofit company claims will transform the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology by enabling scientists to see much fainter objects more clearly than ever before, has been met with protests and demonstrations by the people of Honolulu. Activists blocked access to the future site of the giant scope near the summit of Mauna Kea, forcing construction to be shut down while local government officials tried to make peace.
Gov. David Ige claims the telescope company has a right to build atop the mountain and that they will decide when construction at the site will resume.
Activists are not happy, especially about the perceived lack of support by the island's governor.
"It created this illusion that we're going to do something without really doing much," says Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime critic of the TMT, about the governor's statements. Pisciotta vowed the lack of support will not keep protesters from demonstrating on the mountain.
"He affirmed that they will move forward," she said of telescope construction. "The deep sadness I feel is that means our people will be arrested."
Members of the TMT International Observatory Board have expressed concern over the protests.
"We appreciate that there are still people who are opposed to the project, and we will continue to respectfully listen and work with them to seek solutions," says Henry Yang, chair of the TMT Board.
The governor has vowed to make changes to improve stewardship of Mauna Kea, saying The University of Hawaii, who holds the lease on the mountain, must do a better job as stewards. Gov. Ige has encouraged the University to make several changes.
The first is to decommission as many of the existing telescopes as possible, which could mean a 25% reduction in the number of scopes currently perched atop the mountain. Other changes include restarting environmental review processes, limiting noncultural access to the mountain, and vowing that no additional areas of the mountain be considered for future scope placement.
The Mauna Kea Observatory is the world's largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy. Once the Thirty Meter Telescope is built, scientists will have unprecedented access to the cosmos.
"There is virtually no cosmic stone that TMT will leave unturned," says Warren Skidmore, Research Scientist for TMT International Observatory. "We at TMT, our international partners, and the broader astronomical community are all eagerly looking forward to the scientific breakthroughs that TMT will help deliver."
For native Hawaiians, the 13,000-foot dormant volcano, whose name means "white mountain," is the most sacred of all peaks on the island. For over a thousand years, aboriginal people relied on the mountain's forests for food and its dense basalts for their stone tools.
And no matter how far future astronomers will be able to peer into deep space, the development of this sacred landscape will remain a source of contention for its native people.