TMT Update

COVID-19 leaves both parties at a stand still as we check in with affiliates

Staff Writer: Sasha Kauwale

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is not a new issue. However it is one that is still ongoing. The TMT project was founded on June 1st, 2003 and has been developed as a collaboration among Caltech, the University of California (UC), the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), and the national institutes of Japan, China, and India with the goal to design, develop, construct, and operate a thirty-meter class telescope and observatory on Mauna Kea in cooperation with the University of Hawai’i, according to the homepage of the TMT project.


Ke Kalahea contacted Dr. Kathy Cooksey, Chair & Associate Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Pro Navigator Chad ʻKalepaʻ Babayan of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Captain/Navigator of Hokulea, and Desmon Haumea, expert deep sea voyager, and educator, who is running for the House of Representatives for District 4, Puna about the current state of TMT.

1) What is happening with astronomy on the mountain now that the Ku Kia’i Mauna Movement has been eclipsed by COVID-19?

“The Mauna Kea Observatories are operating as well as possible during the pandemic.” -Dr. Kathy Cooksey

2) Is the TMT Project still underway?

“Their construction permit is still good so they could move equipment up the mountain and begin construction immediately, but they wonʻt. Construction was tied to safe access up the mountain which the state could not guarantee. In the meantime it has forced an escalation of construction cost.

Right now TMT is looking for additional funds via the NSF based upon recommendations from the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey (Astro2020) which will develop a comprehensive research strategy and vision for a decade of transformative science at the frontiers of astronomy and astrophysics.The TMT telescope is now partnering with the US ELT project (Extremely Large Telescope) which will be comprised of two ground based large telescopes, the TMT in the northern hemisphere and the Magellan (25 Meter) in the southern hemisphere which will provide a 360˚ view of the whole sky. Based upon the recommendations of the Decadal Survey will determine if NSF will fund the ELT project. All that to say the TMT telescope along with its partner the Magellan telescope is still a go.” -Chad Babayan

3) What can we truly gain from a new telescope that cannot be achieved via one of the 13 other telescopes?

“The size of a telescope determines how faint it can see. At three-times the diameter of the largest telescope on Mauna Kea, TMT can see nine-times fainter. This means it can see smaller, fainter nearby objects, like exoplanets, and it can see more distant objects, which, given the finite speed of light, means earlier in the history of the Universe. We don't know exactly what we're going to find; it is the nature of fundamental research to seek both known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But we know—not believe—we will gain knowledge. Similarly, we don't know which technology—from detectors to lasers to computers—developed for TMT will find broader use, but technological development definitely comes along with any new instrument. Image processing techniques also improve because of what astronomers develop.”-Dr. Kathy Cooksey

4) What can involvement look like for the everyday student?

“As with all issues, people should be as informed as possible, using reliable sources and a diversity of sources. Students can share their perspective at various levels involved with astronomy on Mauna Kea: UH Hilo Chancellor Irwin; UH Board of Regents; various local, state, and federal Hawaiʻi government officials; and even the National Science Foundation.” -Dr. Kathy Cooksey

“Vote. Vote for Impact. It’s the only voice we have in the system right now. We can protest all we want, but if you don’t have a voice in legislation, it’s difficult.” -Desmon Haumea

Haumea was among the 30 Hawaiian elders to be arrested on July 17, 2019. This highlights the fact that the issue at hand is not the Hawaiian people versus science. There are many Native Hawaiians who support the TMT project, Haumea being one of them, but are against the desecration of sacred land. Desecration is against the law in Hawaii, highlighted in Hawai’i Revised Statutes 711-1107.

Kealoha Pisciotta, President of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and Founder of Kai Palaoa, echoes this belief despite being on the opposing side of the TMT project. “This issue has never been about astronomy. It’s always been about Mauna Kea. It's sacred. It’s our water source that contains very important biodiversity on the planet that is rare, threatened and endangered, cultural practices and rituals will be affected as well.” An example of some rituals are the solstice and equinox ceremonies that are specifically dependent upon our ability to observe and track the motion of the sun and other celestial bodies in order to find our way in space and time and to determine when and how to perform certain activities for the care of the land and sea. Our traditional resource management models are dependent on these ceremonies. Ancient knowledge relating to our relationship with other Pacific peoples is also a part of these traditions. Pisciotta stresses that the land that is being addressed, Mauna Kea, belongs to the Native Hawaiian people and those with less than 50% Hawaiian blood. Kealoha shares how 30 years of astronomy development on Mauna Kea has resulted in adverse significant and substantial impact to the natural and cultural resources of Mauna Kea. Combining the cultural and environmental impacts, modern shrines and hales destroyed at the hands of the University further support the TMT movement. With these points, Kealoha believes that the TMT project and science needs to evolve from their privileged perspective. “If science loses its humanity, then there’s no purpose for doing it. At some point, the people need to say that “you don’t get to do this anymore.”

Ke Kalahea connected with Kealoha Pisciotta on the Kia’i side of the TMT issue:

1) What is happening with astronomy on the mountain now that the Ku Kia’i Mauna Movement has been eclipsed by COVID-19?

There is a small group of Kia’i, really only watching the road to make sure that no big earth movers go up. Astronomy has been allowed to do it since they opened back up during the 2019 stand, and there seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding that we were stopping workers, or blocking the road, but that wasn’t true because we weren’t stopping anything but construction vehicles.

2) Is TMT a go?

There are simultaneous efforts going on, one of which is that the TMT since 2019, does not have the funds to build it. They never have. According to the New York Time, the cost will be 2.4 billion. They are seeking funds from the National Science Foundation, who classifies TMT as a “Next Generation Large Telescope.” There are two kinds: the giant magellan and the TMT. The University of California (Santa Cruz, barabra, UCLA ) is being asked by a number of schools and the indigenous people within that region and their chain to divest from the TMT project. They’ve had petitions, and rallies attend Board of Regents meetings to talk about how they are failing the students and staff. Their petition has reached 500,000 signatures so far.

If NSF gives them money they are going to have to engage in not only the National Environmental Policy Act but also the National Historic Preservation Act because Mauna Kea is a historic district. Mauna Kea is a sacred site as well as all sites within the district are interconnected, which requires a different standard of review. The federal prophecies have not been completed if they use federal money, to effect the historic district. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA) is a Federal law. Section 101 highlights the purpose of this act: The Congress of the United States and the State of Hawaii declare that the policy of this Act is to enable native Hawaiians to return to their lands in order to fully support self-sufficiency and the self-determination of the preservation of the values, traditions, and culture of native Hawaiians. The Act continues further with the United States and the State of Hawaii hereby acknowledge the trust established under this Act and affirm their fiduciary duty to faithfully administer the provisions of this Act on behalf of the native Hawaiian beneficiaries of the Act.

Section 201.5.2 of the HHCA explains that the United States has a unique trust responsibility to promote the welfare of the aboriginal, indigenous people of the State, and the federal government has delegated broad authority to the State to act for their betterment.

3) What can we truly gain from a new telescope that cannot be achieved via one of the 13 other telescopes?

“At a Board of Regents meeting held at the University of California, TMT project affiliates disclosed that they could achieve 90% projected science for this telescope if it weren’t built on Mauna Kea. We are only losing 10% projected science.”

4) What as a Native Hawaiian person can I do for this movement if I am against it?

As a native hawaiian, understanding the importance of standing for your sacred places and learning how to protect them. Be willing to stand up for them. Learn your rights as an indigenous person. Read the declaration on rights of indigenous people and Hawai’i constitution relating to Hawaiians and the environment. Our constitution is unique because our constitution not only protects Native Hawaiians traditional and customary cultural and religious rights access and use, but it also says that every person in Hawai’i has a right to a clean and healthful environment. The private and public can sue to protect that environment.

On September 28, 2017, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) approved the Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) for the TMT project, and that is an approval that should not have been allowed, according to the home page of the Protect Mauna Kea movement. BLNR acted improperly in issuing both the CDUP and the Consent to Begin. BLNR was fully aware that the TMT cannot meet the legal requirements of a Conservation District. BLNR thereby went directly against its own mandate of natural resource protection in issuing the CDUP. Unfortunately, the only explanation possible for these actions by those mandated to protect the land and natural resources is institutionalized corruption on the part of the previous administration. Unless these permits are revoked immediately, the new administration will prove itself to be deeply corrupt as well.

In an article written by Chelsea Jensen and published by the Hawaii Tribune Herald on August 3,rd 2020, Big Island community leaders Pualani Kanakaole Kanahele, Edward Halealoha Ayau and Kelii W. Iaone Jr. filed a lawsuit against the State of Hawaii explaining that the state failed to obtain authorization from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands or the Hawaiian Homes Commission to build the Maunakea Access Road on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) land in 1964. Therefore, subsequent use of the land has been unlawful, and the DHHL has failed in its duties to act exclusively in the interests of its beneficiaries, the Native Hawaiian people.


Interested in reading more about either side of the efforts?

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