Construction of Giant Telescope Pushes on Despite Protests

Thirty Meter Telescope: Artist’s Concept
Artist's concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop the volcanic peak of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The construction phase of the TMT project officially kicked off in October 2014; the telescope should achieve “first light” in 2022, if all goes according to plan. (Image credit: Courtesy TMT International Observatory)

The group building a huge telescope on Hawaii's tallest mountain plans to restart construction this week, ending a two-month delay caused by protestors opposed to the ambitious project.

Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano — work that was halted in April after a series of protests—will resume on Wednesday (June 24), project representatives said in a statement issued over the weekend.

"Our period of inactivity has made us a better organization in the long run," Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, said in the statement. "We are now comfortable that we can be better stewards and better neighbors during our temporary and limited use of this precious land, which will allow us to explore the heavens and broaden the boundaries of science in the interest of humanity." [The Biggest Telescopes on Earth: How They Measure Up]

Construction of the $1.4 billion TMT began in October near the top of Mauna Kea, which rises 13,796 feet (4,205 meters) into the sky from the Big Island of Hawaii. The TMT will link up 492 small, hexagonal mirrors to form a giant light-collecting surface 98 feet (30 m) wide.

Once complete in the early 2020s, the observatory will return images 10 times sharper than those captured by NASA's iconic Hubble Space Telescope, TMT representatives have said. Astronomers will put the telescope to a number of uses: searching for and characterizing exoplanets, for example, and investigating the nature of mysterious dark matter and dark energy. (Two other huge, ground-based scopes — the Giant Magellan Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope — should come online in Chile at about the same time as TMT, and do similar work.)

But not everybody is enamored with the TMT. Native Hawaiians regard the peaks of mountains throughout the island chain as sacred, and Mauna Kea may be the most sacred one of all.

So building another telescope on this dormant volanco, which already houses a number of observatories, has been controversial from the start. For instance, protestors disrupted the TMT's groundbreaking ceremony in October, and further demonstrations in March and April resulted in a number of arrests and eventually halted construction altogether.

In his statement, Yang said TMT representatives are "mindful of those who have concerns, and yet, we hope they will permit us to proceed with this important task while reserving their right to peaceful protest." But another showdown appears to be looming Wednesday.

"By proceeding with the project, the TMT officials neglect to acknowledge and act on the concerns of citizens of Hawai'i who have voiced their strong disapproval of the project. This action further demonstrates the lack of respect that the State of Hawai'i and project officials have for Native Hawaiians and their culture, in addition to the health and well-being of the people and the environment," members of the group Idle No More Mauna Kea wrote in a Facebook post Sunday (June 21).

"Members of the global Mauna Kea 'Ohana [family] are asked to lift prayers, songs and chants for our mauna [mountain] and those who will be standing physically on the mauna," they added. "Those who are on island and plan to be on the mauna Wednesday morning are asked to bring their highest selves to protect the mauna and stand with compassion, patience, love and forgiveness in their hearts. Bring digital cameras, phones and video cameras to the mauna to document the day as it unfolds."

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.