Skip to main content

The Thirty Meter Telescope: How a volcano in Hawaii became a battleground for astronomy

Demonstrators block the Maunakea Access Road on July 15, 2019, to oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Demonstrators block the Maunakea Access Road on July 15, 2019, to oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
(Image: © Caleb Jones/AP/Shutterstock)

MAUNAKEA, Hawaii — The sun pointed to a little before noon when a chorus of conch shells and bamboo flutes trumpeted into the sharp mountainside breezes. The noise marked the start of a religious ceremony and a demonstration against construction of a massive telescope on what some consider sacred land. The participants saluted east, toward the distant ocean; then south, toward the volcanic shell of a past eruption; then west; then north, toward the summit where a dozen telescopes loomed far out of sight.

Many of the people taking part in that ceremony, halfway up the mountain of Maunakea at the heart of Hawaii's Big Island, were native Hawaiians who call themselves kia'i (pronounced kee AH ee), or protectors. By that, they mean protectors of the mountain itself, from the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at its summit, where the facility would join venerable observatories like the twin Keck domes and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility.

I visited the kia'i encampment on the last day of 2019 and the 172nd day of the continuing vigil against construction. Nearby was an octagonal road sign edited to read "Kia'i STOP TMT." Less than two weeks before, with the mountain's harsh winter looming, law enforcement had left the spot. The retreat marked an acknowledgement of a stalemate that began nearly a decade ago and stretches from the ocean to the stars, but is expected to shift once again as spring returns.

(Outside events have already prompted a shift in the situation. In response to the spread of the novel coronavirus that is causing the serious respiratory disease COVID-19, the kia'i have asked visitors to stay away from their previously welcoming encampment, according to a statement released on March 14.)

For the kia'i, the 160-foot-tall TMT (49 meters) would be one telescope too many at a site they see as stolen, sacred, delicate and consistently mismanaged. "It's too big, too massive, and it's in the wrong place," E. Kalani Flores, a professor of Hawaiian studies at Hawaii Community College and one of the lead plaintiffs in court cases surrounding the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, told Space.com. "There's a certain tipping point and the TMT would exceed that tipping point."

That's why a subset of native Hawaiians have said no to TMT, in words and actions, for years. Some are calling the current situation an existential crisis for astronomy and for Hawaii. It's certainly a crisis of communication for astronomers who support the project. And while some of the tension reflects Hawaii's history of colonization and oppression, some of the main sticking points display remarkable irony given the telescope's priorities.

Related: Controversy over giant telescope roils astronomy conference in Hawaii
More: Thirty Meter Telescope: Hawaii's giant space eye in pictures

A giant telescope is born 

The saga of the TMT began in 2003, when a nonprofit partnership formed between two universities in California and counterparts in Japan, China, India and Canada. Now called TMT International Observatory, the group set out to design a telescope with such a massive observing mirror that it would change science forever. Its findings could tackle some of astronomy's signature existential questions, Gordon Squires, TMT's vice president for external relations and an astronomer by profession, told Space.com: Are we alone? How did the universe wake up? What is dark matter?

Squires said he believes that the process of answering those questions, and the answers themselves, could change humanity forever; that's why he became an astronomer in the first place. "If the world saw the universe the way I do, or the way we do, the world would be a fundamentally different place," he said. "I still believe that."

In 2009, the TMT set its sights on the summit of Maunakea; since then, it has worked to negotiate access and construction with the state, which owns the land, and the University of Hawaii, which manages the astronomy precinct.

It has not gone smoothly.

Flores and other native Hawaiians have filed multiple court cases over the permits required for construction. When the TMT tried to break ground in 2014, the kia'i interrupted the ceremony. Tensions came to a head in July 2019, when the TMT announced it was ready to try building again and the kia'i mobilized, blocking construction trucks from the road that climbs to the summit. They settled in with tents and Porta-Potties, a kitchen and a makeshift university offering lessons in native history and culture.

(By then, the TMT had spent $500 million in 2014 dollars worldwide on the project; current estimates suggest it will total about $2.4 billion in today's dollars, although that number will change based on where and when construction finally begins, a TMT representative said.)

Related: The biggest telescopes on Earth

Each morning, the kia'i greet the sun; three times a day, they conduct a ceremony called the 'aha, or the protocol, a series of chants and dances representing their beliefs about the mountain and lasting an hour or longer. It's that protocol the kia'i began by greeting the cardinal directions, barefoot and clad in street clothes. Early in the ceremony, they called on their ancestors. "Grant us insight, grant us power," one chant reads in a translation posted to the kia'i's website.

For centuries, kia'i told me, those ancestors have come to the mountain and, more frequently, worshipped it from afar. The tenuous atmosphere at the summit, 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level, leaves little oxygen to feed a human brain. For native Hawaiians, that shortage is a sign that the summit is the realm of deities and that humans should visit only for specific purposes.

That's why Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, a native Hawaiian and a political scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has only ever been to the summit once, 10 years ago. Ever since, she has remembered what breathing the thin atmosphere felt like, she told Space.com. "The line between living and dead, or here and the next realm or the realm of the ancestors or however you want to think about that, was much more porous because you are so much out of the realm of where humans are normally supposed to be."

But devotion at a distance has complicated matters for the Hawaiians who wish to see the mountain protected: Because a key piece of their religious practice lies in leaving the summit alone, they've struggled to convince authorities that the land is important to them or that they should have a say in what happens to it.

That said, the kia'i can point to a ring of hundreds of shrines about 1,000 feet below the summit, which they say mark the edge of the most sacred zone. These shrines are nothing dramatic, Flores said: standing stones a foot or two tall, reaching the height of a kneecap, some toppled by time. But TMT construction would run right through that ring, he said, and that shouldn't be acceptable.

(Squires contends that TMT selected its location in consultation with native Hawaiians to avoid areas of concern. "It's on a site that has no historically significant or cultural practice areas on it," he said, citing the nearest cultural site as being a mile away.)

Related: World's largest reflecting telescopes explained (infographic)

 An artist's depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.  (Image credit: TMT International Observatory)

Ways of knowing 

In a controversy that is often framed as a conflict between science and religion, despite native Hawaiians pointing to their long history of studying the stars, the shrines point to the first key irony underlying the TMT controversy. Many of the standing stones mark points on the horizon where particularly meaningful stars rose, set or reached their zenith, according to Flores. 

"There's hundreds of shrines around, and some of these shrines are interconnected together and then they build a star grid," Flores said. "What you see in the heavens is what you see on Earth."

Hawaii's rich tradition of skywatching is hardly the extent of Maunakea's sacredness, however. Down the slope, as the noontime ceremony continues, the kia'i sing of the creation of what they call Mauna a Wakea, from the union of Wakea the Skyfather and Papa the Earthmother. Native Hawaiians tie their own origin story to that of the mountain.

"We have always revered Maunakea as our sacred mauna," Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a leader of the kia'i, told Space.com. "In fact, it is part of our cosmology, the very beginning of Earth from which man descends, so for us it's a very spiritual matter."

That's the second irony of the controversy surrounding the TMT, which is tailored to elucidate astronomy's own vision of cosmology. 

"Astronomers oftentimes think that an interest in the universe and our origins in the universe is what unites all cultures," Sara Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian and a doctoral student in marine ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Space.com. "But [they] maybe don't realize that some cultures don't necessarily need to explore the universe to know where we come from."

Kahanamoku is the lead author of one of a collection of native-led white papers exploring the ways astronomy in Hawaii affects non-astronomers. The group submitted the papers as public comments to the government's decadal survey of astrophysics, which sets scientific priorities for the field. She and her co-authors offer a collection of recommendations for dealing with situations like the TMT, including establishing a system paralleling the institutional review boards that oversee research done on humans.

"We really believe that good science also means that you also need to be good to the people that you're working among," Kahanamoku said.

Related: Hawaii night sky revealed in stunning new video

An artist's depiction of the primary mirror of the Thirty Meter Telescope.  (Image credit: TMT International Observatory)

Support and opposition 

Of course, some Hawaiian residents and native Hawaiians alike support the TMT, seeing the telescopes atop Maunakea as modern successors to the islanders' pre-contact expertise at navigating by the stars, as a vital segment of the local economy, and as a pathway to educational and employment opportunities for their children.

(A TMT representative said that it's too early to estimate how much would be spent in Hawaii if the project goes through, but that once the facility is observing, the organization expects to spend about $50 million each year on operations and employ 140 people.)

Tyler Trent, a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Arizona, is one of those native Hawaiians, although he said he wrestled with the decision. "Whether I'm for it or against it, if that gets built, people are going to be hurt by it," he told Space.com.

Trent concluded that TMT and its counterparts deserve a place on the sacred summit. "I don't see them as like another shopping center or another hotel," he said. "These are special things that are illuminating secrets of the universe." He worries that continuing opposition to the TMT is painting his culture as backward and anti-science, despite the loud objections of kia'i that they are no such thing, and he's disappointed that some astronomers unaffiliated with the project have started speaking out against construction on Maunakea.

"Maybe astronomers taking too neutral of a stance or even supporting the kia'i because that's what they believe being respectful to native Hawaiian culture is — I'm starting to think that maybe that's not the right way to go about it," he said. "I think at the end of the day, it's people from the outside picking which native Hawaiian culture they want to support or they want to agree with. I think that if outsiders want to pick one, I truly think that they should support the side that is trying to integrate the two, that is trying to build bridges between the two."

Trent added that he thought he would feel the same way if the site were on his own island, Oahu, which holds Honolulu. But it can't be. For scientists hoping to build the TMT, the summit of Maunakea is simply the best possible site. They want a Northern Hemisphere location to better facilitate partnerships with telescopes in the south, including the equally massive Giant Magellan Telescope already under construction in Chile.

Then, it's a matter of atmospheres. It's here that Maunakea really shines, although you wouldn't know that halfway to the summit, where the kia'i camp amid gusts of wind and transitory bursts of showers and sun. 

It's a different story at the summit itself, which picky astronomers consider among the best places on Earth for ground-based astronomy. That's in part because of, ironically, one of the same reasons native Hawaiians consider the peak sacred: the barely-there oxygen. Like so many telescopes around the world, TMT has gravitated to a mountaintop site that would carry its optical equipment through some of the lower layers of Earth's atmosphere, which can blur telescope images.

Even the summit's view, however, leaves astronomers dissatisfied. That's why TMT would be armed with an adaptive optics system, which measures and automatically subtracts blurriness caused by the atmosphere. TMT's version would be equipped with lasers that create artificial stars for the system to judge, which lets astronomers observe fainter objects.

An artist's depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope using a laser to create a guide star, which allows the telescope to better understand how the atmosphere is interfering with measurements.  (Image credit: TMT International Observatory)

But such technology doesn't negate astronomers' desire to remain perched at high elevations, TMT project scientist Christophe Dumas told Space.com. For a project as ambitious as TMT, he said, siting is crucial to an instrument's output, despite opposition. The TMT has its eye on a site in the Canary Islands as a back-up location, which would slightly reduce the project's price tag, a representative said. But that site is still a clear second choice for astronomers and would require some adjustments to the facility, he said.

For the kia'i, their opposition is not just about Maunakea, it's about the way astronomy and science in general operates, particularly given that mountaintops are nearly always sacred to someone. One leader of the kia'i emphasized that the solution was not merely for the TMT to move, as some astronomers have begun to call for, but to find a location where people truly welcome it.

That could require a new way of approaching such projects, several native Hawaiians said. In particular, scientists looking to start a new project would be wise to incorporate local communities in discussions long before any opposition begins — long before it's even a project, in fact.

'Imiloa Astronomy Center, which operates under the aegis of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and seeks to tell all the various stories of Maunakea, is working to foster these conversations at Maunakea and elsewhere. Such dialogues should begin earlier and without such tense motivation, Ka'iu Kimura, a native Hawaiian and 'Imiloa's director, told Space.com. "Not because there's conflict, but because it's just the right thing to do," she said.

The astronomy precinct at Maunakea and the TMT specifically are far, far past that point. Construction on the first modern telescope at the site began in 1964, and over the intervening decades, plenty of hard feelings have built up.

TMT isn't the first Maunakea project to meet opposition, but supporters and kia'i alike told me that things seem to be different this time. "I think a lot of people are saying, we have stood by long enough," Goodyear-Kaopua said. "The narrative that's been put forward is, well, why can't Hawaiians just share? We have been sharing for a long time, not always at our consent." She wants to see more native Hawaiians involved in making decisions about the summit.

One of the most significant decisions about the summit was made in the fall of 2018, when a state Supreme Court ruling allowed the project to continue. Four justices agreed with the state land management board's argument that astronomy had already changed the summit so much that one more observatory couldn't really make a difference. One dissented, arguing that this so-called degradation principle set a dangerous precedent.

For the kia'i, who see the mountain as a relative as much as a resource, "one more can't hurt" is not an acceptable philosophy. Many of the native Hawaiians I spoke with pointed to the degradation principle to voice their concerns about how decisions are made not just at Maunakea, but around the world. Some referenced climate change, others focused on land use, but many expressed concern about how humans have exploited and continue to exploit the planet.

Related: European scientists are taking a mock moon mission in Hawaii right now

The island of Hawaii, with the snowy peak of Maunakea toward the top of the image.  (Image credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC)

"Water is a sacred thing" 

Toward the end of the protocol, the ceremony leader explained that the next dance was a new addition to the daily ceremony. It traced water on its journey throughout the island and the water cycle, they said: from ocean to clouds to rain to waterfalls to ponds to rivers to cultivated fields to estuaries to ocean, with plenty of stops in between.

It's that same connected water that the kia'i mentioned again and again in their concerns about the TMT. It's another irony in the controversy: Among other discoveries, the TMT could help astronomers identify planets with water in their atmospheres, a first step toward finding a habitable world. But the kia'i already know of one very habitable planet with that precious liquid in its atmosphere, and they consider it their responsibility to protect that water and the mountain that anchors it to the Big Island.

(It was while watching this dance that I was struck by how closely the protocol seemed to parallel the kia'i concerns about the telescope; I've structured this story to follow the protocol as a mark of gratitude for the ceremony leader's work to make that connection.)

"Water is a sacred thing for all of humanity," Kealoha Pisciotta, a native Hawaiian who was a technician at two telescopes on Maunakea before deciding she couldn't condone the way the observatories treat the summit, told Space.com. "We use it ceremonially as well; the snow, ice and water from Maunakea is collected for ceremony."

One of Pisciotta's concerns about astronomy at Maunakea has been the observatories' treatment of the water. She said that during her time working on the summit, she saw spills of hazardous substances from bug spray to mercury, and that she has seen evidence of only one existing observatory addressing those issues.

It's one of the most common concerns I heard about TMT as well, that it could contaminate water across the island. The TMT's response is that those concerns are completely unfounded. There's no evidence the observatory could affect the water, the TMT says; the nearest wells are about 12 miles away; the observatory won't rely on mercury, the worst of the chemicals used to clean telescope mirrors; the facility has a system to transport wastewater from science operations and human staff support alike off the mountain.

But still, the kia'i say, they worry about the water. The summit is a particularly sensitive place in the eyes of native Hawaiians because it's where water first touches land. "It's in its purest form, unaltered by humans, unaltered by any other aspects," Flores said of the rain, snow and fog at the summit, which makes interfering with it particularly dire. "You disrupt, disturb, desecrate the water in its highest forms, and [the elders] tell us the water is the basic form of life for all of us on this planet."

And while the kia'i agree that the hydrology models of Hawaii to date show that TMT shouldn't contaminate anything, that isn't a satisfactory response for them. "I think regardless of that, because the models are not clear, there's still a possibility that there could be infiltration because it's very complex," Rosie Alegado, a native Hawaiian and an oceanographer at University of Hawaii at Manoa, told Space.com. "The models that we have are definitely incomplete."

For Stephanie Malin, an environmental sociologist at Colorado State University, that situation is not surprising. Development projects typically rely on technocratic assessment of potential risks, she said, while indigenous groups tend to exercise a precautionary principle that delays development until there is certainty that there are no risks — which isn't always possible.

"I don't necessarily think that the two groups are talking the same language, even," Malin told Space.com.

Related: How space exploration can teach us to preserve all life on Earth

A demonstrator and a law-enforcement officer greet each other at Maunakea Access Road on July 22, 2019.  (Image credit: Dan Dennison/AP/Shutterstock)

What comes next 

Near the end of the noontime ceremony, the gathered kia'i completed a series of dances open to all, regardless of their knowledge of hula. The only requirement, the ceremony leader explained, was that participants dance with the intention of stopping TMT from being constructed on Maunakea. And so the kia'i hold space at the mountain and dance three times a day, to protect the mountain that tells them their place in the universe. Later, they progressed toward the summit, taking one step at a time, dodging the tents around the dance space.

It's not clear what the TMT's steps forward might be. If the TMT decides the Maunakea site is no longer worth the pain, as the kia'i hope, they will take their plans to the Canary Islands. It's unclear how much longer they are willing to wait to begin construction — which is scheduled to last 10 years — in earnest.

A sharper deadline is also looming over Maunakea: the master lease agreement between the state and the University of Hawaii, which governs every observatory's sublease, will expire in 2033. What negotiations might look like is still unclear, but chances are they won't resemble the process that led to the original agreement decades ago. The master lease worries all the observatories on the summit, but particularly TMT, which dreads reaching first light just in time for site access to fall apart entirely.

Even the most strident opponents of TMT aren't calling for all the telescopes to be removed. They do, however, want the observatories to be better neighbors, more responsive to local concerns and more respectful of the land from which they study the stars.

No one thinks that will be straightforward. For the astronomers affiliated with the TMT project, the conversations of the past decade have already challenged their perceptions of their own values. "We never thought we were the bad people, and some people think authentically that we are," Squires said.

The kia'i I spoke with never phrased their feelings quite like that. Many insisted they aren't trying to stop science: Instead, they're trying to improve it. 

"Science that doesn't empower humanity for a better Earth is maybe not the science we need to be doing," Pisciotta, the former telescope technician who once dreamed of studying cosmology and who described her family as traditional star people, said. That's perhaps especially true of astronomy, she added, since astronomers cannot escape the way distance acts as a time machine across the universe.

"Everything in astronomy is looking back in time," she said. "It has to find its modern relevancy. Yes, it's noble, but we can make it more noble — together, though."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

OFFER: Save at least 56% with our latest magazine deal!

All About Space magazine takes you on an awe-inspiring journey through our solar system and beyond, from the amazing technology and spacecraft that enables humanity to venture into orbit, to the complexities of space science.View Deal

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

  • Torbjorn Larsson
    Admin said:
    What could a massive new telescope in Hawaii teach astronomers about the universe — and why are some native Hawaiians fiercely opposed to the project?

    The Thirty Meter Telescope: How a volcano in Hawaii became a battleground for astronomy : Read more

    It is easy to see who the selfish people are.

    And then we have this stinker:

    "It was while watching this dance that I was struck by how closely the protocol seemed to parallel the kia'i concerns about the telescope; I've structured this story to follow the protocol as a mark of gratitude for the ceremony leader's work to make that connection."

    Which of course remind me of the famous quote:

    "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

    - Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate
    Reply
  • smeekz808
    I don't understand why they oppose the advancement of science and astrology. I understand the land is sacred to them, I'm not overlooking that, but the purpose of the TMT benefits not only the natives, but humankind as a whole. I also see the TMT as a successor to the early Hawaiian astronomers who often looked up to the stars for direction.

    Astronomers are not bad guys, though this issue is painting them to be, which is entirely ludicrous and a bad example for the keiki-- our future.
    Reply
  • mneal
    Admin said:
    What could a massive new telescope in Hawaii teach astronomers about the universe — and why are some native Hawaiians fiercely opposed to the project?

    The Thirty Meter Telescope: How a volcano in Hawaii became a battleground for astronomy : Read more

    As a Native Hawaiian pursuing a PhD in physics and astronomy instrumentation, I am absolutely insulted by this article. It is written with shameful amounts of bias and misinformation. Pieces such as this one just adds to the wild fire of fake news and propaganda. The majority of Native Hawaiians and Hawai'i residents support and rejoice in the prospect of TMT being built on Mauna Kea. TMT will be an extension of the brilliant, innovative, and progressive-thinking Hawaiian culture. Please be more considerate and courteous of all those involved in sensitive issues in the future. Report facts, not fiction.
    Reply