Advanced Telescope Will Be Built Atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea Despite Protests

An artist's rendering of the future telescope. TMT Observatory Corporation

One of the world’s most advanced telescopes has finally been given the green light to be built, after several groups protested its construction site atop Mauna Kea, one of Hawaii’s volcanoes. On September 28, the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources voted 5-2 to go ahead with the project.

As reported by Science, this comes after the telescope was officially approved back in 2011 by the board, but opponents of the scientific endeavor successfully argued that proper procedures hadn’t been followed back then, ultimately postponing the whole thing.

So why would anyone have anything against a telescope? Well, it’s essentially a battle between traditional values and modernity.

Volcanoes have long been seen as hallowed ground to many people across the world, from New Zealand to Indonesia, from the pre-Union US to Hawaii today. They have, and do, inspire fear, awe, and mythological storytelling in equal measure.

Volcanoes also happen to be quite important to astronomers, whose mountaintop observatories are some of the best places in the world to see the stars. One such observatory named the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) was supposed to have been built atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, but Native Hawaiian activists have claimed that to do so would desecrate sacred land.

Additional complainants have suggested that the peak area is mismanaged by the University of Hawaii, and that construction work would endanger the wildlife up there. As a result, the project has long been in limbo.

Mauna Kea has often been regarded as a perfect place for some stargazing. The peak is 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) above sea level, and it’s often above the cloud line, meaning that fans of the cosmos normally have an unobstructed stellar view.

Fortunately, it seems that the long-delayed TMT has finally been approved. It’ll now be one of over 10 telescopes huddled around at the top of the silent volcano.

There are already 13 observatories on Mauna Kea, but three will have to be decommissioned to fit the new one in. MarcelClemens/Shutterstock

The TMT – a type of extremely large telescope – is nothing short of cutting edge. It’s similar to what’s used in the Hubble Space Telescope, in that it contains two mirrors designed to reduce any visualization errors, giving a much clearer image than most. It’s designed for observations across a range of spectra, from the near-ultraviolet to the mid-infrared.

Another extremely large telescope (ELT), the European ELT, is currently being constructed in Chile. With one of each type in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, we’ll now be able to track objects in the dark shadowy ocean above better than ever before.

The project will also require employees at the TMT to take lessons in cultural understanding and wildlife conservation. $1 million per year will also fund local science education initiatives. As per the ruling, it will also be the last telescope ever built atop Mauna Kea.

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