Opposition to the Mauna Kea Observatories

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Three of Mauna Kea's existing telescopes: the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (foreground), the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (middle distance), and the Submillimeter Array (background)

Opposition to the Mauna Kea Observatories has existed since the first telescope was built in the late 1960s. Originally part of research begun by Gerard Kuiper of the University of Arizona, the site has expanded into the world's largest observatory for infrared and submillimeter telescopes. Opposition to the telescope from residents in the city of Hilo, Hawaii were concerned about the visual appearance of the mountain and Native Hawaiians voiced concerns over the site being sacred to the Hawaiian religion as the home of several deities. Environmental groups and activists have been expressing concern over endangered species habitat.

The Outrigger Telescopes Project, intended to build from four to six comparatively small telescopes for interferometry, was to surround the Keck telescopes.[1] It was cancelled in 2006, after a court found NASA's Environmental Impact Statement was improperly limited to just the telescope area.[2][3]

An ongoing proposal for one of the world's largest optical telescopes, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) was the focus of protests concerning the continued development of the mountain Hawaiians consider the most sacred peak in the island chain. On 30 October 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii approved the resumption of construction of the TMT.[4][5]


After studying photos for NASA's Apollo program that contained greater detail than any ground-based telescope, Gerard Kuiper began seeking an arid site for infrared studies.[6][7] While he first began looking in Chile, he also made the decision to perform tests in the Hawaiian Islands. Tests on Maui's Haleakalā were promising but the mountain was too low in the inversion layer and often covered by clouds. On the "Big Island" of Hawaii, Mauna Kea is considered the highest island mountain in the world. While the summit is often covered with snow the air itself is extremely dry.[6] Kuiper began looking into the possibility of an observatory on Mauna Kea. After testing, he discovered the low humidity was perfect for infrared signals. He persuaded then-Governor John A. Burns to bulldoze a dirt road to the summit where he built a small telescope on Puʻu Poliʻahu, a cinder cone peak.[6][8][9] The peak was the second highest on the mountain with the highest peak being holy ground, so Kuiper avoided it.[10] Next, Kuiper tried enlisting NASA to fund a larger facility with a large telescope, housing and other needed structures. NASA, in turn decided to make the project open to competition. Professor of physics, John Jefferies of the University of Hawaii placed a bid on behalf of the university.[6][11][12] Jefferies had gained his reputation through observations at Sacramento Peak Observatory. The proposal was for a two-meter telescope to serve both the needs of NASA and the university. While large telescopes are not ordinarily awarded to universities without well established astronomers, Jefferies and UH were awarded the NASA contract, infuriating Kuiper who felt that "his mountain" had been "stolen" from "him".[6][13] Kuiper would abandon his site (the very first telescope on Mauna Kea) over the competition and begin work in Arizona on a different NASA project. After considerable testing by Jefferies' team, the best locations were determined to be near the summit at the top of the cinder cones. Testing also determined Mauna Kea to be superb for nighttime viewing due to many factors including the thin air, constant trade winds and being surrounded by sea. Jefferies would build a 2.24 meter telescope with the State of Hawaii agreeing to build a reliable, all weather roadway to the summit. Building began in 1967 and first light seen in 1970.[6]

Expansion renews opposition[edit]

In Honolulu, the governor and legislature, enthusiastic about the development, set aside an even larger area for the observatory causing opposition in the main city of the Big Island, Hilo. Native kānaka ʻōiwi believed the entire site was sacred and that developing the mountain, even for science, would spoil the area. Environmentalists were concerned about rare native bird populations and other citizens of Hilo were concerned about the sight of the domes from the city. Using town hall meetings, Jefferies was able to overcome opposition by weighing the economic advantage and prestige the island would receive.[6] There has been substantial opposition to the Mauna Kea observatories that continues to grow.[14] Over the years, the opposition to the observatories may have become the most visible example of the conflict western science has encountered over access and use of environmental and culturally significant sites.[15] Opposition to development grew shortly after expansion of the observatories commenced. Once access was opened up by the roadway to the summit, skiers began using it for recreation and objected when the road was closed as a precaution against vandalism when the telescopes were being built. Hunters voiced concerns, as did the Hawaiian Audubon Society, which was supported by Governor George Ariyoshi.[10]

The Audubon Society objected to further development on Mauna Kea over concerns to habitat of the endangered palila, an endemic species to only specific parts of this mountain. The bird is the last of the finch billed honeycreepers existing on the island. Over 50% of native bird species had been killed off due to loss of habitat from early western settlers, or the introduction of non-native species competing for resources. Hunters and sportsmen were concerned that the hunting of feral animals would be effected by the telescope operations.[16] A "Save Mauna Kea" movement was inspired by the proliferation of telescopes, with opposition believing development of the mountain to be sacrilegious.[17] Native Hawaiian non-profit groups, such as Kahea, (whose goals are the protection of cultural heritage and the environment), oppose development on Mauna Kea as a sacred space to the Hawaiian religion.[18] Today, Mauna Kea hosts the world's largest location for telescope observations in infrared and submillimeter astronomy. The land itself is protected by the U.S. Historical Preservation Act due to its significance to Hawaiian culture, but this still allowed development.[19]

Outrigger telescopes[edit]

Development of the Mauna Kea observatories is still opposed by environmental groups and Native Hawaiians. A 2006 proposal for the Outrigger Telescopes to become extensions of the Keck Observatory was canceled after a judge's determination that a full environmental impact statement must be prepared before any further development of the site.[20] The "outrigger" would have linked the Keck I and Keck II telescopes. Environmental groups and Native Hawaiian activists were much stronger in their opposition this time than they had been in the past, but NASA went ahead with the proposal for lack of an alternate site. The group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou made several arguments against the development, including that Mauna Kea was a sacred mountain to Native Hawaiians where many deities live, and that the cinder cone location being proposed was holy in Hawaiian tradition as a burial site for a demi-god. The group raised several other concerns, such as environmental, concern for the preservation of native insects, the question of Ceded lands, and an audit report critical of the mountain's management.[21]

Thirty Meter Telescope proposal[edit]

Kealoha Pisciotta, a former Mauna Kea Observatory employee, testifies at a State hearing in 2011.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is a proposal for a large, segmented, mirror telescope, planned for the summit of Mauna Kea. The TMT has become a focal point for protests against further development of the observatory site, and a legal battle was fought through the Hawaii court system. The Supreme Court of Hawaii approved the resumption of construction of the telescope on 31 October 2018.[4]

The TMT project is a response to a recommendation in 2000 from the US National Academy of Sciences that a thirty-meter telescope be the top priority and be built within the decade.[22] Urgency in construction is due to the competitive nature of science with the European-Extremely Large Telescope also under construction.[23] Mauna Kea's summit is the most sacred of all the mountains in Hawaii to many, but not all, Native Hawaiian people.[24][25][26] Hawaiian cultural practitioners cite impacts to indigenous cultural practice, while recreational users have argued that construction harms the scenic view plane. Some environmentalists are concerned that irreparable ecological damage may be done by construction, although this has been disputed by other environmental advocates.[27] All three groups are represented among the petitioners opposing the TMT.[28] According to the State of Hawaii law HAR 13-5-30, the eight key criteria must be met before construction be allowed on conservation lands in Hawaii. Among other criteria, the development may not "cause substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources within the surrounding area, community, or region," and the "existing physical and environmental aspects of the land must be preserved or improved upon."[29]

Native Hawaiian activists such as Kealoha Pisciotta, a former employee of the Mauna Kea Observatories, have raised concerns over the telescopes on Mauna Kea desecrating what some Native Hawaiians consider to be their most sacred mountain.[30] Pisciotta, a former telescope systems specialist technician at James Clark Maxwell telescope, is one of several people suing to stop the construction,[31] and is also director of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.[32] As of April 2015, two separate appeals were still pending.[33]

The 1998 study Mauna Kea Science Reserve and Hale Pohaku Complex Development Plan Update stated that "...nearly all the interviewees and all others who participated in the consultation process (Appendices B and C) called for a moratorium on any further development on the summit of Mauna Kea."[34]

The Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources gave final approval for the project in September 2017 after a protracted hearing process that included a six month long contested case hearing.[35] This decision was challenged in the Hawaii State Supreme Court the following year. The court ruled that the DLNR decision was valid and that contruction may proceed.[36]

As of late 2021 construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope remains paused due to the controversy and ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Decadal report of the National Science Foundation has recommended federal investment in the TMT project.[37] The controversy surrounding construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope continues. Independent polls commissioned by local media organizations[38][39] show consistent support for the project in the islands with over two thirds of local residents supporting the project. These same polls indicate Native Hawaiian community support remains split with about half of Hawaiian respondents supporting contruction of the new telescope.


  1. ^ "Record of Decision for the Outrigger Telescope Project". W. M. Keck Observatory. 5 August 2005. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  2. ^ Young, Kelly (8 August 2006). "Judge reverses permit for new Hawaiian telescopes". New Scientist. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  3. ^ Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Outrigger Telescopes Project (PDF). I. NASA. 2005.
  4. ^ a b Hawaii top court approves controversial Thirty Meter Telescope BBC News, 31 October 2018.
  5. ^ "State Supreme Court rules in favor of Thirty Meter Telescope's construction". Hawaii News Now. Retrieved 31 October 2018.
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  7. ^ Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc. (November 1964). Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc. p. 35. ISSN 0096-3402.
  8. ^ David Yount (1 January 1996). Who Runs the University?: The Politics of Higher Education in Hawaii, 1985-1992. University of Hawaii Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-8248-1821-0.
  9. ^ Astronomy Now. Intra Press. 1991. p. 45.
  10. ^ a b Barry R. PARKER (11 November 2013). Stairway to the Stars: The Story of the World's Largest Observatory. Springer. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-4899-6052-8.
  11. ^ David Leverington (6 December 2012). A History of Astronomy: from 1890 to the Present. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 276. ISBN 978-1-4471-2124-4.
  12. ^ Robert M. Kamins; Robert E. Potter; University of Hawaii (System) (January 1998). Måalamalama: A History of the University of Hawai'i. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-0-8248-2006-0.
  13. ^ Joseph N. Tatarewicz (1990). Space Technology & Planetary Astronomy. Indiana University Press. p. 82. ISBN 0-253-35655-5.
  14. ^ Terry D. Oswalt (2003). The Future of Small Telescopes in the New Millennium. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 18. ISBN 978-94-010-0253-0.
  15. ^ Michael Dear; Jim Ketchum; Sarah Luria; Doug Richardson (13 April 2011). GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place. Routledge. p. 476. ISBN 978-1-136-88347-7.
  16. ^ Mark Gordon (18 July 2007). Recollections of "Tucson Operations": The Millimeter-Wave Observatory of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 136–140. ISBN 978-1-4020-3236-3.
  17. ^ Robert F. Oaks (1 November 2003). Hawaii:: A History of the Big Island. Arcadia Publishing. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-4396-1403-7.
  18. ^ Ned Kaufman (11 September 2009). Place, Race, and Story: Essays on the Past and Future of Historic Preservation. Routledge. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-135-88972-2.
  19. ^ Judith Schachter (15 September 2013). The Legacies of a Hawaiian Generation: From Territorial Subject to American Citizen. Berghahn Books. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-78238-012-2.
  20. ^ Jeff Campbell (15 September 2010). Hawaii. Lonely Planet. p. 97. ISBN 978-1-74220-344-7.
  21. ^ Patrick Kenji Takahashi (29 February 2008). Simple Solutions for Humanity. AuthorHouse. p. 164. ISBN 978-1-4678-3517-6.
  22. ^ A.P. Lobanov; J.A. Zensus; C. Cesarsky; Ph. Diamond (15 February 2007). Exploring the Cosmic Frontier: Astrophysical Instruments for the 21st Century. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 24. ISBN 978-3-540-39756-4.
  23. ^ Hubbard, Amy (7 October 2014). "Monster telescope breaks ground, will offer deepest views of universe". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  24. ^ Sabine Hendreschke. Menehune Mana The Spiritual Essence of Hawaii. Sabine Hendreschke. p. 43. GGKEY:PDSF05H9RAT.
  25. ^ Martin Gray; Graham Hancock (2007). Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power. Sterling Pub.Company. p. 254. ISBN 978-1-4027-4737-3.
  26. ^ Luci Yamamoto; Alan Tarbell (2005). Hawai'i: The Big Island. Lonely Planet. p. 137. ISBN 978-1-74059-691-6.
  27. ^ Hofschneider, Amy (27 April 2015). "Does the Thirty Meter Telescope Pose Environmental Risks?". Hawaii CivilBeat. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  28. ^ "For the Love of Mauna Kea — KAHEA". Kahea.org. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
  29. ^ "Conservation District" (PDF). State.hi.us. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 January 2014. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  30. ^ Winona LaDuke (2005). Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. South End Press. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-0-89608-712-5.
  31. ^ Worth, Katie (20 February 2015). "World's Largest Telescope Faces Opposition from Native Hawaiian Protesters". Scientific American. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
  32. ^ Huliau: Time of Change. Kuleana 'Oiwi Press. 1 January 2004. ISBN 978-0-9668220-3-8.
  33. ^ Solomon, Molly (21 April 2015). "Construction Of Giant Telescope In Hawaii Draws Natives' Ire". National Public Radio.
  34. ^ "overview of info". Mauna Kea Science Reserve and Hale Pohaku Complex Development Plan Update. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  35. ^ "BLNR approves TMT permit". West Hawaii Today. 28 September 2017.
  36. ^ Yerton, Stewart (Oct 30, 2018). "Supreme Court Approves Thirty Meter Telescope". Honolulu Civil Beat. Retrieved November 14, 2021.
  37. ^ Lovell, Blaze (Nov 4, 2021). "National Panel Recommends Federal Funding For The Thirty Meter Telescope". Honolulu Civil Beat. Retrieved November 14, 2021.
  38. ^ Blair, Chad (August 7, 2019). "Strong Support for TMT". Honolulu Civil Beat. Retrieved November 14, 2021.
  39. ^ Staff (May 28, 2020). "Poll shows majority support for TMT". West Hawaii Today. Retrieved November 14, 2021.