The forces of nature, science and native culture clashed this week on the slopes of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, with people clogging the sacred mountain’s roads in hopes of preventing construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, TMT, created with funds and expertise provided by JPL and Caltech of Pasadena.
More than 3,000 activists, calling themselves “protectors of the land,” gathered on Mauna Kea beginning on July 15 in hopes of stopping equipment and resources from being delivered to the telescope construction site.
Although the project was approved after more than four years of legal challenges that reached the state Supreme Court, opponents of placing yet another telescope on Mauna Kea call TMT an abomination — the latest of 13 other such interstellar telescopes to be placed in roughly the same man-made plateau a few hundred feet from the peak of the mountain, which stands 13,802 feet above sea level.
When completed, TMT “will be three times as wide, with nine times more area, than the largest currently existing visible-light telescope in the world. This will provide unparalleled resolution with TMT images more than 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope,” according to the TMT website.
Officials with TMT, a project being led by former JPL Director Ed Stone, backed down following the protest, some of which saw tribal elders chaining themselves to metal cow crossing barriers to prevent trucks from passing. With more than 1,000 people still protesting as of Friday, July 26, all construction work has come to a halt.
Both Jason “Aquaman” Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have expressed support for the protesters.
Gov. David Ige announced in a written statement on July 24 that Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim in Hilo will coordinate both county and state efforts to reach common ground with the protectors of Mauna Kea and the broader community.
“Mayor Kim is closer to the situation and the impacts are greatest on the island he leads (Hawaii Island),” Ige said.
“We both understand that the issues underlying what is taking place today are deeper than TMT or Mauna Kea. They are about righting the wrongs done to the Hawaiian people back more than a century,” Ige said of the US takeover of Hawaii in 1893.
According to TMT spokesperson Scott Ishikawa, officials do not know when work will resume.
“As of July 24, state and county officials have opened a greater dialogue with the project opponents to find a resolution on the matter. We respect those who express opposition and understand the pain they feel,” Ishikawa said. TMT
TMT does not have to return to court to begin construction because the required state Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) needed to build on Mauna Kea was affirmed by the Hawaii Supreme Court in 2018.
“While Mauna Kea remains our preferred location for TMT, the Canary Islands continue to be our Plan B,” Ishikawa said.