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Astronomers Clash Over A Giant Telescope On A Sacred Hawaiian Mountain


In late March, construction began on the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, a massive, gleaming dome that will allow astronomers to observe the origins of the universe, and, possibly, signs of life beyond our world. As a 2010 brochure for the effort put it, “The story of the Thirty Meter Telescope is the history of the universe.”

But for now, the TMT’s story is not about the vast universe. It’s about a remote piece of land 14,000 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea, which happens to be one of indigenous Hawaiians’ most sacred sites.

“The mountain needs to be revered,” Kealoha Pisciotta, president of the activist group Mauna Kea Ohana, told BuzzFeed News. Pisciotta is one of six plaintiffs who have brought civil cases against the TMT, on the grounds that the telescope doesn’t meet criteria for building on protected lands.

“It’s a temple. You can’t make war in a temple,” Pisciotta said. “You can stand for righteousness. It demands aloha.”

The fight over the TMT has been happening for more than seven years, but came to a head last week after 31 protesters were arrested on the mountain. On Tuesday, Hawaii’s new governor, David Ige, called for a weeklong halt to construction.

While physical demonstrations and a social media tidal wave — including several celebrity endorsements — have broken out in Hawaii, a quieter battle has erupted in the astronomy community.


Some American astronomers argue that having one of the most impressive telescopes ever built on U.S. soil is an opportunity too good to pass up. The scientific knowledge we stand to gain, they say, plus the ways in which the telescope could create jobs and give back to the local economy, make the project a win-win.

But other astronomers are beginning to challenge those claims — and talk openly about it. The Mauna Kea uproar is driving emotional conversations on their Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, and email inboxes, making them question whether their profession places a higher premium on the Western idea of scientific progress than indigenous cultures.

The TMT “is predicated on this idea that we have some permission to take over these spaces and use them for scientific research,” Adam Burgasser, an associate professor of astrophysics at the University of California, San Diego, told BuzzFeed News.

“Even though I benefit greatly from that professionally, I don’t think we can make that assumption that we have rights to this mountain,” he added. “It’s a very, very complex issue, but it involves a lot of assumptions that a lot of people are uncomfortable facing.”

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