The construction of an ultra-large telescope called “TMT” faces rough going on Hawaii Island. Five countries including Japan plan to construct the TMT on the island. The candidate site is the summit of Mauna Kea, a mountain on the island. The site is sacred to native Hawaiians. The construction has been suspended on account of an opposition campaign and lawsuits by the indigenous people. The builders tried to resume the construction in the mid-July but protesters reignited their campaign and are blocking the road to the summit. While the team of five countries still plan to construct the telescope in Hawaii, it also plans to secure an alternate site on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. The future prospect of the TNT remains opaque.
TMT is an acronym for “Thirty Meter Telescope.” With a main mirror 30 meters in diameter, the TMT would have the world’s highest resolution and concentration of luminous power. Plans call for the telescope to explore the very first star in space and habitable exoplanets outside the solar system.
The candidate construction site, about 4,000 meters above sea level, is a leading location because of the stability of the weather there. The area already hosts 13 observatories standing cheek by jowl. However, the area is the zenith of the native Hawaiians’ “ancestral ties to creation.” For some residents, constructing a telescope there involves environmental destruction and encroachment into a sacred area.
The construction started in 2014 with a completion date in 2022 but was suspended on account of opposition activities. In 2015, a court invalidated the construction permit issued from the state government. The permit was reissued last year.
In July this year, when the team announced the resumption of construction, those opposed resumed their campaign. Protesters blocked the summit access road with firm resolution, saying, “We will obstruct the construction no matter what.” This also restricted access to the existing facilities including Japan’s Subaru Telescope. Actors from Hawaii and a state legislator joined the opposition campaign. In the meantime, Hawaii Governor David Ige even declared a state of emergency. People who support the construction expecting more jobs and positive economic effects also took to the street, which deepened the chaos and division.
Lecturer Chihiro Sakihara of the Okinawa Christian University, who is familiar with communities in Hawaii, says the history of Westerners’ suppression of indigenous culture lies at the heart of the problem. The succeeding generation of people who were involved in [the second] Hawaiian Renaissance around 1970 leads opposition activities, saying “No more maladministration of sacred area,” Sakihara points out.
The team of five countries are concerned that if the current situation is prolonged, they will be unable to produce observation results. The team already pushed back the completion of construction by five years. In South America, a rival team comprising the U.S. and European countries has started constructing a next generation telescope, leaving the Hawaii team gradually behind.
In 2016, the team selected the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain, in case of the failure of the Hawaii project. It applied for a construction permit this year. In August, when the media reported that the Spanish government seems supportive of the construction, the opposition in Hawaii declared “victory.”
However, the alternate construction site is about 2,000 meters above sea level, which is lower than the Hawaii site. If the atmosphere is thick, light from space is distorted, making a high-precision observation difficult. For this reason, the team persists in going ahead with the construction in Hawaii.
According to a survey by media outlets at the Hawaii site, 60% of people support the construction. “We are gaining understanding from more people,” said deputy project manager Ikuru Iwata of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. “We want to resume the construction as soon as the current situation is settled.”
However, there is no end in sight to opposition campaign. Lecturer Sakihara said: “To the native Hawaiians, more than land, Mauna Kea is part of their identity. They will not give up.”