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The fight to build Earth's most powerful telescope on sacred ground


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The summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii is arguably the most perfect spot in the world for a telescope.

But some native Hawaiians who believe the mountain top is a sacred site and are worried about the ecological impacts of building a huge telescope there, may disagree.

The peak of the mountain is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, looming high above any light pollution and most clouds. It's a crystal-clear window into the cosmos.

Astronomers want to build a new telescope, called the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), to take advantage of the pristine view on Mauna Kea.

If it's built, TMT could reveal parts of the universe we've never seen. And the dry and cold air on Mauna Kea will produce the sharpest images yet of the parts of the universe we've only glimpsed.

The problem is that Mauna Kea is sacred ground to native Hawaiians. It's home to hundreds of culturally significant and sacred sites. And while you'd think an observatory wouldn't be that destructive, the impact of the construction project on the fragile, remote mountain top could have consequences.

Construction of TMT was slated to start in March, but a series of protests by native Hawaiians brought the work to a grinding halt.

This is not the first time Hawaiians have fought to keep telescopes off Mauna Kea. There are actually 13 existing telescopes in the area. But this is the first time protestors have captured international attention, and they did it by using twitter, creating petitions, and publishing photos and videos documenting the protests:

Desecrating sacred ground

Hawaiians believe that Mauna Kea is where the sky father Wākea married the Earth mother Papahānaumoku and together they created the Hawaiian islands.

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So now Mauna Kea is considered the "region of the gods," and it is believed that benevolent water spirits live there. It's considered sacred ground.

Maintaining reverence for the mountaintop is not the only concern. Natives have also pointed to the environmental impact of the telescope. At 18 stories high, TMT will be the largest telescope on the mountain.

Building a telescope like that will require lots of power and new roads up the mountain. It will also require drilling down about two stories into the ground.

These activites could impact two endangered species that make their home on Mauna Kea: the Nene Goose and the Silversword plant. Some natives are concerned about the potential environmental cost.

One of the cards in the video below reads: "As an island with finite resources, we cannot afford further mismanagement."

Astronomers have considered the environmental implications. It's not easy to get permission to build on an area with legal conservation status and considered sacred — it's taken seven years and tons of environmental assessment. TMT will be the first zero waste facility on Mauna Kea. It will also use solar panels and Energy Star-rated appliances to keep power costs low. Employees will have cultural and natural resources training and there's an invasive species control program in place.

Some groups like Mauna Kea Hui and some members of the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance say the environmental assessment wasn't rigorous enough. The mountaintop has an incredibly fragile ecosystem, and even the slightest disturbance could still have big consequences. The planned roads could land another species, the Weiku beetle, on the endangered list. The telescope's impact on the critical aquifer below the peak has also been questioned.

Still, the TMT could legally resume building tomorrow if it wanted. It's passed every single requirement and secured all the necessary permits, including all environmental requirements.

TMT's Hawaii Community Affairs representative, Sandra Dawson, told New Scientist that she was surprised by the protests:

"We chose a site that has no archaeological shrines, has not been the site of cultural practices, and isn't visible from distance of holy sites," Dawson said.

Still, pressure from native Hawaiians and the fallout from racist allegations against members in the astronomy community have halted its construction until further notice. The Office of Hawaii Affairs trustees rescinded their support of TMT at the end of April.

The astronomy community is torn

The fate of TMT has implications for the fate of astronomy in Hawaii as a whole.

Some astronomers have made up their minds and say there's no compelling reason to not build the telescope. If we want astronomy to advance, then this is the right thing to do.

Others think there needs to be a wider debate.

There's been a lot of discussion, not all of it friendly.

A low point came when University of California astronomers Alex Filippenko and Sandy Faber, sent out a mass email urging other astronomers to sign a petition in support of TMT. It's important to note that the petition was actually written by a native Hawaiian science student. Still, Faber and Filippenko's call to action was poorly written.

The message has since been taken down but several people took screen shots:

Accusations of racism flooded in. Apologies from both Faber and Filippenko expressed regret for reacting too quickly to the situation and using insensitive language. Still, the damage is done and it caused many others in the astronomy community to question TMT.

It's impossible to argue the scientific advances that will come from TMT, and it's very unlikely the telescope will be scrapped. The question that needs answering is how to keep it from steam rolling over the beliefs of a native people.

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