Hawaii Blocks Construction Of Huge New Telescope After "Sacred Land" Dispute

Artist's concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope. TMT Observatory Corporation

In what has become an extremely controversial situation, Hawaii’s supreme court has revoked a permit for construction of a new massive observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope, on the Mauna Kea mountain.

The decision was made following continuous protests from Native Hawaiians who argue the location is a sacred site. The situation has caused some to label it a battle of science versus religion, but even for those of us who want to see science progress with the construction of new facilities like this, it is important not to let desires trample over what are important historic sites to many indigenous people.

"Quite simply, the Board put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit," the court decision made on December 2 read, referencing the earlier permit it had given for the construction. "Accordingly, the permit cannot stand."

The huge $1.5 billion (£1 billion) telescope, managed by an international consortium, would return fantastic views of the universe, and could be used to observe everything from star and planet formation to the history of galaxies. Located just below Mauna Kea’s 4,200-meter-high (14,000 feet) summit, it would be afforded fantastically clear skies to perform some of this key astronomy. This latest setback highlights issues with building in scientifically rich sites such as this, though.

"We thank the Hawaii Supreme Court for the timely ruling and we respect their decision," Henry Yang, Chair of the TMT International Observatory Board of Directors, said in a short statement. "TMT will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have. We are assessing our next steps on the way forward. We appreciate and thank the people of Hawaii and our supporters from these last eight-plus years."

While some will no doubt lament the decision, the controversy is complex. A piece by Forbes earlier this year looked at both sides of the argument. Proponents of the telescope say they have promised to pump money into the local economy and education, and also point to the existing 13 telescopes on the slopes of Mauna Kea as examples of how science and local culture can work together.

But this location is of particular significance. "This is not only an ecologically sensitive area," Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, told Forbes. "For Hawaiians, it’s where our origin story begins. It’s a place where significant ancestors are buried, so it’s a burial ground. It’s the abode of the gods and goddesses, and you have to go there with strong reverence."

It is not clear where this latest decision leaves the telescope, which was expected to be operational by 2024 following its construction. But what is clear is that, as science hopes to progress, it will need to work closely with native people in locations around the world to ensure that issues like this, which might seem trivial to some but are no doubt important, can be avoided in the future.

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