Friday, January 17, 2020

More on Hawaiian Telescope

Controversy over giant telescope roils astronomy conference in Hawaii

By Meghan Bartels, 1-16-20, Space

HONOLULU — Heated conversations at the American Astronomical Society's January meeting are usually about stars and galaxies, distant worlds and elaborate calculations.

This year, however, a more terrestrial controversy echoed through both formal presentations and casual conversations at the "Super Bowl of Astronomy," which was held here last week. The debate surrounded the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a massive observatory approved for construction on the Big Island of Hawaii. Specifically, it would join the astronomy-rich summit of Maunakea, sometimes written as Mauna Kea.

Astronomers say the instrument would offer deep insight into the earliest days of the universe and study mysteries like black holes and alien worlds. But a vocal subset of the native population of the Hawaiian Islands opposes the construction for a host of historical, cultural and environmental reasons. The dispute has reached such a tenor that some called the situation an "existential crisis" for astronomy.

The ongoing controversy came to a head last July, when TMT project leaders announced that they would begin construction. Kūpuna — native Hawaiian elders — and others opposing the telescope flocked to Maunakea to block the road leading to the construction site and the dozen existing observatory facilities. Local and state officials dispatched law enforcement personnel and three dozen people were arrested.

Then, stalemate: For five months, TMT opponents calling themselves kia'i, or protectors, camped out on the road leading to the summit. Eventually, they agreed to allow staff up to the existing observatories via a side road. In December, David Ige, the governor of Hawaii, announced that he would temporarily withdraw law enforcement, since telescope construction wasn't in a state to proceed. Just after Christmas, the kūpuna and kia'i moved to allow normal access to the summit, but they remained beside the road in case the situation changed again.

And then, five islands to the northwest and 6,500 feet lower in altitude, in the early days of the new year, 3,500 astronomers poured into Honolulu. They came armed with poster tubes and PowerPoint slides, ready to share and discuss a year's worth of scientific discoveries; among them were supporters and opponents of the TMT, as well as others who weren't sure either way.

The discussions unfurled throughout the conference and in a range of formats. On the opening morning of the conference (Jan. 5), about two dozen people greeted attendees in front of the convention center, demonstrating their support for the telescope with posters reading "Imua TMT," using a Hawaiian word that means to go forward.

But not all the discussions boiled down to such straightforward declarations. Near the end of the conference, a session that was a late addition to the program gave the podium to two kia'i. They shared with astronomers not their reasons for opposing the telescope, but the daily rituals they are following on Maunakea and an invitation to visit their roadside outpost.

That was a deliberate choice. "This is different, perhaps, from what you thought this would be," said Pua Case, a native Hawaiian who has been organizing against the TMT for a decade. "We're not presenting our side to get another side, we're not going to do that. You know why? Because we're meeting you for the first time, most of you."

Instead, she explained that they wanted to offer astronomers a glimpse into their world. "The way we create relationship is through ceremony, ritual, tradition, ancestral passing down of knowledge and protocol," Case said. That's also how the kia'i have arrived at their opposition of the project and how their daily prayers on the mountain continue their process of determining how to live with Maunakea. "We have no choice but to stand, so we're letting you know that," she said.

On all sides, speakers at the conference acknowledged how knotty they consider the situation to be. "One of the reasons why we're stuck is because the conversation has been restricted to a very small, binary choice," Greg Chun, a psychologist and native Hawaiian who currently leads Maunakea stewardship at the University of Hawai'i, which oversees the astronomy community's use of the mountain, said during a presentation. "We're also stuck because the ecosystem that we're trying to have this conversation is not set up to solve these problems."

"We're also stuck because everybody's right," Chun said. "Those people sitting in the middle of the road have suffered. I'm Native Hawaiian; I know the social and historical injustices and the impacts of those injustices. Similarly, TMT is right. They've done everything they're supposed to do legally."

For now, the uncertain truce on the mountain continues.

What comes next is less clear...

Full story at


Note: From Hawaii News Now: Gov. David Ige on Monday approved long overdue rules for the management of Mauna Kea. The rules govern all aspects of the mountain — not just telescopes — but also commercial and visitor access as well as protection of natural and cultural resources. They were approved last November by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents after hearing from 99 people over 11 hours at UH Hilo...

Full story and a link to the rules at

Note: From Hawaii Public Radio: The decommissioning process for one of the Mauna Kea telescopes to be removed in the coming decade remains on schedule. The Maunakea Management Board approved environmental assessments for the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory last month... 

The observatory is one of five telescopes scheduled to be dismantled in exchange for permitting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island. Demonstrators blocked access to the summit of Mauna Kea to prevent construction of the giant telescope from July through December. Demonstrators said the project could damage land considered sacred by some Native Hawaiians. The observatory remains on schedule to be removed by the end of 2021, said Doug Simons, a management board member...

Full story at

No comments: