Hawaiian Supreme Court Okays Controversial Planned Telescope

Artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope (Illustration: TMT Observatory Corporation)

The Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled that the Thirty Meter Telescope project can build on Mauna Kea, clearing the legal way for construction despite protests from the Native Hawaiian community.

As we've reported, there's been a bitter battle between the 54.86m-tall telescope's backers and a group of Native Hawaiians. In 2014 and 2015, protesters blocked construction crews on their way up to the mountain.

The Hawaiian Supreme Court then rescinded construction permit so it could hear further opinions on the telescope. Another 2017 permit followed, followed by another appeal from the opposition. The state's Supreme Court has once again sided with the telescope.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would join two other planned extremely large telescopes (that's a technical term for telescopes with mirror diameters of 20-100m), and would be the only such telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. The Giant Magellan Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, are both planned for Chile. "Thirty Meter" refers to the telescope's 30m-diameter mirror.

Astronomers hope these telescopes will be able to directly image rocky exoplanets around distant stars.

Mauna Kea is sacred land for many Native Hawaiians, a place to connect with deities, bury the dead, and learn to navigate. Though it currently hosts 13 other observatories, protesters thought the telescope would further desecrate the mountain — in other words, there's been opposition since telescope development began in the late 1960s.

There's also a 2004 environmental impact assessment that found another telescope project would have significant negative cultural and environmental effects. Astronomers consider Mauna Kea's 4267.20m peak some of the best observing ground in the world, due to the thin atmosphere with low turbulence there that stops the stars from twinkling.

One poll from 2016 found that support for the telescope is split among indigenous Hawaiians, with 46 per cent for and 45 per cent against.

After the previous legal roadblock, researchers found a backup location on the Canary Islands, which also hosts observatories. This would be a less desirable location from an astronomy standpoint, though the science goals could still be achieved. The telescope's planners have also attempted to minimise its visual impact and pay a yearly lease with money designated to maintain the mountain.

The Hawaiian environmental group KAHEA put out a statement on Wednesday that it was disappointed by the court decision, saying they felt that the state Supreme Court was incorrect in its assessment that there were no Hawaiian cultural practices at the specific spot where the telescope will be built.

Though he previously vowed to remove three of the peak's telescopes in the 2020s, Governor David Ige issued a statement in support of the decision.

Should construction continue in Mauna Kea instead of the Canary Islands, the project will likely face more protesters. KAHEA may now instead fight the renewal of the University of Hawaii's lease over the land, which expires in 2033, reports Nature.

You might think of this as a question of religion versus science, but that's probably the wrong way to frame it — it's a sentiment that outsiders have decided they have the right to build on sacred Hawaiian land because it has thin air. As many scientific benefits as the telescope would have, it's a question of whether we're OK with disrupting other people's lives and culture in the name of technological progress.

[via Nature]

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