The Thirty Meter Telescope

A divisive controversy with more overlap than it may seem

Staff Writer Clara Scheidle
Photos Courtesy of Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services

Mauna Kea Observatories

On Oct. 30, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled in favor of building the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea. The construction for the TMT was supposed to begin in 2014 but was brought to a literal halt when protesters blockaded the access road to the summit, preventing the physical building of the TMT to begin. And so began one of the biggest controversies in contemporary Hawaiʻi--an apparent split between cultural groups and scientists.

The mountain has a lot of cultural significance to many native Hawaiians; many believe it is the home of the Hawaiian gods and goddesses. For some, it is a place where all the pikos, or umbilical cords, in their family have been hidden for generations.

Larry Kimura, Associate Professor of Hawaiian language at UH Hilo, is one such individual. He states that he has a deep connection to Mauna Kea because of his family’s history with the mountain. He believes that the reason people are protesting now more than ever is because of a rising “awareness of what it means to be Hawaiian.”

Kimura also references that the attitude towards the first telescopes being built was “welcoming,” but that had a side effect: lack of regulation. When discussing Governor Ige’s proposal to decommission 25 percent of the telescopes on the mountain, Kimura states that this was a way of “working from hindsight” to be more in control of what happens on the mountain. He also believes that this was done to “show good faith to conservationists.”

Kimura adds that the more people and buildings go up on Mauna Kea, the more “rubbish and waste” is sure to be produced. On the summit, this is regarded as a form of desecration.

Another reason that the TMT is contested is because its location on Mauna Kea. Though already home to 13 other telescopes, it is considered to be what Kimura refers to as part of Hawaii’s “Crown Lands,” which are areas of land that are considered to having been illegally ceded by the United States. The University of Hawaii leased this area on the mountain in 1968 from the State of Hawai`i and the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

This area has since been subleased by UH numerous times and, according to a document from the Department of Land and Natural Resources from 2014, the length of the sublease to TMT International Observatory LLC is approximately 19.5 years expiring on Dec. 31, 2033. This date is common to the subleases UH currently offers to NASA, California Institute of Technology, and the Smithsonian Institution, to name a few. The sublease between UH and TMT outlines that the annual rent starts at $300,000 for the first three years but increases periodically, reaching $1,080,000 annually for years 11 and beyond. The Board included the following condition in an April 2013 Decision and Order: “TMT will pay a “substantial” amount for sublease rent. The rent would be deposited into the Mauna Kea Fund, and only used for management of Mauna Kea.” Building and operating a telescope itself is costly--if the TMT International Observatory decides to go through with building, the telescope is estimated to cost upwards of a billion dollars and be under construction from 2019 to 2027.

Andrea Waiters, a volunteer at TMT and student at UH Hilo, explains that “all astronomers really have is light to study the universe.” Because of this, the bigger the diameter of the telescope, the better light collecting power it has and, therefore, the more new information about our universe we can collect. While Kimura wonders why we need so many telescopes, Waiters says that the TMT will be unlike anything else we have available today.

“Its size along with the new adaptive optic technology that it has will allow us to answer questions about the early universe, galaxies that are farther than any we've detected so far, and even information about exoplanets around other stars,” she states.

And it’s not just an effort on behalf of the United States. Japan, Canada, China, and India are all involved in this project. Waiters says it’s something that she’s always loved about astronomy: the fact that it’s “an international effort.” She adds that “it makes Hawaiʻi an international hub and gives an opportunity for people all over the world to hear about what is done here is Hawai`i.”

At this point, it almost seems as if the controversy turns into a debate based on cultural value and educational value. But the debate is so much more than what it’s made out to be. There seems to be an obvious split between the ideals of those who are for and against TMT, but the issue is much more complicated.

“It’s framed as culture versus science, and it shouldn’t be,” says Kathleen Kawelu, the Department Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology at UH Hilo. She explained that demonstrating this topic as such perpetuates the argument and creates stigmas and stereotypes on both sides that are either untrue or uninformed.

For example, it isn’t only native Hawaiians who are anti-TMT; there are environmentalists who are concerned about the environmental impact that the telescopes are having on Mauna Kea, and whether they’re damaging the delicate and rare ecosystem that it contains. There are also scientists who, like Kawelu says, are worried about “how we are impacting people’s connection to place.”

Kawelu points out that it’s not as if Native Hawaiians are unsupportive of science, either. “Anthropologically, that’s in the history of people dismissing native people and dismissing people who are not in power. Frankly, everybody had science. It’s just not Western science. All science is is observation and recordation.”

Similarly, it is not only scientists who are pro-TMT. There are Hawaiians who see this kind of astronomical progression as an extension of the way their ancestors followed the stars to get to these islands. Similarly, not all astronomers are completely disrespectful towards the land. “I've spent several hours volunteering doing ocean and land conservation,” Waiters relates. “So I definitely understand why people would be opposed to building such a large telescope in such a special location.”

And yet even with such overlap, the controversy still exists. Does this leave any room for a solution or a compromise?

“Is there a right side? That’s the whole point! Both sides are right, from their own perspective, but a compromise means that everybody has to lose something. There will be extremes on both sides where compromise isn’t an option. If there is compromise, people might feel it’s a sellout,” explains Kawelu. “I just think there has to be more balance between development and the culture.”