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TMT illustration
Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, illustrated above, is on hold because of protests by those who believe the telescope will desecrate a sacred site. (credit: TMT)

Thirty meter troubles

Astronomers grapple with the controversy raging over a Hawaiian observatory

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If all goes according to plan, by the mid-2020s astronomers will have a powerful new tool at their disposal in Hawaii. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), as its name suggests, will be a telescope with a primary mirror 30 meters in diameter, far larger than existing telescopes, like the twin 10-meter Keck Observatory telescopes. The much larger area of that mirror will allow astronomers to collect more light, be it from Kuiper Belt objects in our solar system, atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets, and galaxies dating back to the early ages of the universe, and make discoveries not possible today with existing telescopes on Earth or in space.

“The Hawaii story is a pretty long and complicated one,” said Bolte.

Right now, though, things are not going according to plan for those astronomers. Construction of the telescope, on a site near the summit of Maunakea on the Big Island of Hawaii, was scheduled to start more than three months ago. (While most often called “Mauna Kea,” the single-word name is the preferred one today for the mountain, astronomers say.) Protestors, opposed to what they consider to be desecration of a mountain sacred to native Hawaiians, blocked access to the construction site, forcing a halt in work there in early April. A bid to restart work there late last month also failed, putting the future of the telescope, and even of astronomy in general on Hawaii’s tallest mountain, in jeopardy.

A cultural dispute on a mountaintop

Astronomers who gathered in Washington in late June for the TMT Science Forum were there primarily to discuss what science could be done with the telescope and its planned initial suite of instruments, including infrared and visible-light cameras and spectrometers. But part of the discussion at the three-day event also revolved around the protests, which have attracted worldwide attention, and their effect on the observatory’s construction.

“The Hawaii story is a pretty long and complicated one,” said Michael Bolte in a presentation during the meeting June 23. Bolte, a professor of astronomy at the University of California Santa Cruz, is a member of the board of governors of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory, the corporation formally established in 2014 to build and operate the TMT.

The proposed observatory went through years of reviews with local and state officials. “We talked with a lot of people who were—what’s the best word? I think the best word is ‘very suspicious’ of us,” Bolte said. “We talked to a lot of people on the Big Island in particular about what their concerns were and if there were ways to coexist peacefully.”

Bolte said the TMT made great efforts to address concerns by native Hawaiians about the construction of another telescope on the mountain, indirectly suggesting that previous projects there had not made as strong an effort in that regard. “What we were basically told was that if you want to continue this astronomy activity on Maunakea, you really need to do things differently then they’ve been done in the past.”

The TMT project, he said, took efforts to “do things differently” in both the design and operations of the telescope. The telescope is located not on the summit itself but on a plateau designated 13N a short distance below the summit. “In terms of archeological importance, it doesn’t have any,” he said.

The telescope, despite its much larger primary mirror, has a relatively low profile and doesn’t have a large presence on the skyline. “It’s a much smaller telescope than you might think” if you simply scaled up the Keck by a factor of three, he said.

TMT also took efforts to emphasize the economic and educational benefits of the observatory. Unlike other Maunakea telescopes, which pay a token rent of $1 per year, Bolte said the TMT will pay $1 million a year in rent. It is also providing $1 million of year for the THINK Fund, which supports local STEM education activities through scholarships and grants.

TMT completed its series of environmental and other reviews last year, winning formal approval from state officials last July. “Since that time, we’ve been legal to build on Maunakea, which is absolutely a required condition,” Bolte said. “But it’s not a sufficient condition, clearly.”

That’s a reference to the protests, which started last October when the TMT attempted to hold a “ground blessing” ceremony at the site that was blocked by protestors. That was followed by the protests this spring that led the governor of Hawaii, David Ige, to issue a “timeout” on TMT construction in early April.

“It’s my community, and it’s turned into something that’s very personal for a lot of us,” Simons said. “It’s extremely divisive. Families are split over this. Neighbors aren’t talking to each other.”

Astronomers acknowledge that they were caught flatfooted by the protests, fueled by social media that led to additional protests elsewhere in Hawaii and on the mainland. “This is an incredibly social media savvy group,” said Doug Simons, executive director of another Maunakea observatory, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, in a separate presentation at the forum June 23. “The combination of their dedication to native Hawaiian culture and their ability to use Facebook is powerful.”

Simons, a thirty-year veteran of Hawaii astronomy, says he’s spent about 80 percent of his time over the last three months on the TMT controversy. “It’s my community, and it’s turned into something that’s very personal for a lot of us,” he said. “It’s extremely divisive. Families are split over this. Neighbors aren’t talking to each other. It’s really gotten into a complicated situation.”

What’s changed since the last major observatories, Gemini and Subaru, were built on Maunakea in the 1990s is a renaissance of native Hawaiian culture, Simons said. That’s included the development of “immersion” schools that promote the islands’ culture and language, and in many cases don’t teach “western” science in depth.

That’s created a generation of young Hawaiians deeply attuned to their culture, and willing to take steps to defend it from anything that might appear to desecrate it, like the construction of a new telescope on a mountain many consider sacred. That means, he said, that many of the economic and educational arguments used by TMT supporters are no effective.

“Most of these arguments are meaningless from the perspective of the protestors,” Simons said. “It is much more of a personal, cultural perspective that they share. It ultimately boils down to changing the language and the narrative of the conversation completely.”

TMT supporters, reacting to protests that “went out of control and nonlinear very quickly” in April, have been working in the last few months to retool their arguments. That included a three-hour event in a Hawaiian town a few weeks after the protests started that brought together the community for a discussion on the TMT and its merits. “It really was an emotional release for the community,” he said of the event.

The TMT has also brought on board a public relations firm to help “turn the narrative around” in the media, he added. However, TMT supporters have stayed away from the social media that helped power the initial protests. “In my opinion, social media is only good at playing a disruptive role,” he said. “It can’t solve problems. It’s hard for it to constructively do things.” Instead, he has supported face-to-face meetings to discuss the controversy.

“A hell of a day”

The forum took place as the TMT was making another attempt to restart construction of the telescope. In May 26, Gov. Ige announced a plan to allow construction to go forward. That plan included a series of conditions, dubbed the “ten commandments” by some astronomers critical of them, that called for closing a quarter of the existing telescopes on Maunakea by the time the TMT opens in the 2020s. But, Ige said, “TMT has the right to proceed with construction and they may proceed as far as I am concerned. And we will support and enforce their right to do so.”

In June 20, the TMT announced plans to restart construction on June 24. “I don’t know how it’s going to go,” Bolte said, speaking to forum attendees by phone from Honolulu, preparing for the restart the next day. “I hope that many people among the opponents will say, ‘Alright, we made some real strides forward.’”

Simons was less optimistic, saying he expected “hundreds and hundreds” of protestors to show up on the mountain and block the roads. “It’s going to be a hell of a day tomorrow,” he said.

Simons was right. At least a couple hundred protestors were on the mountain as construction trucks arrived to head to the TMT site. The protestors blocked the road on several occasions, first by standing in the road, and later by placing boulders in the road. The trucks eventually turned around and headed back down the mountain. A dozen protestors were arrested.

“TMT has the right to proceed with construction and they may proceed as far as I am concerned,” Gov. Ige said in May. “And we will support and enforce their right to do so.”

“This is a difficult day for Hawaii and TMT,” Henry Yang, chairman of the board of the TMT International Observatory corporation, said in a June 24 statement. Referring to the boulders that blocked the road for the construction crews, he said, “For the safety of our team, we made the decision to bring them off the mountain and we are planning to resume when the issue is resolved.”

The issue, not surprisingly, has not been resolved. The access road to the summit was closed by state officials after the protests, citing work that needed to be done on to remove the boulders and grade the unpaved road. As of the publication of this article, the road was open only to astronomers and others working at other observatories on the mountain.

Ige, in a June 26 statement, called placing the boulders in the road “an act of vandalism,” although acknowledged that the protestors removed the boulders after the TMT canceled its effort to send crews to the site. “So let me be very direct: The roads belong to all the people of Hawaii and they will remain open,” Ige said in his statement. “We will do whatever is necessary to ensure lawful access.”

Other challenges

The controversy over building TMT on Maunakea hasn’t halted all work on the observatory. Bolte, in his presentation, noted work continued on the design of the telescope’s instruments, and production of the 492 mirror segments that will comprise the TMT’s primary mirror was underway.

The international partners that are funding the TMT have not been dissuaded by the protests, either. In April, after the protests on the summit started, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper announced Canada would commit $243.5 million (US$192 million) over ten years for Canada’s share of the project. Canada joins organizations from China, India, and Japan, as well as the University of California and Caltech on the project, whose overall cost is estimated to be $1.5 billion.

Many American astronomers hope that the National Science Foundation (NSF) will also join the project, giving them a share of telescope time once it begins operation. The NSF has made no decision on whether to join the partnership, but a team called the TMT Science Working Group is studying the potential roles it could play.

“We’re working with TMT to develop this US TMT participation plan,” said Mark Dickinson of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory at the forum. “We’re concerned with how to get the most out of the TMT for the US community, if the US were to join the partnership.”

“The situation is very serious, make no mistake about it,” Simons said. “It’s not an insurmountable one.”

The goal of the working group is to complete that plan by the end of this year. A decision by the NSF on whether to join the partnership may take longer, but Robinson noted that a wedge of funding in the NSF’s astronomy budget should become available later in the decade that could go towards TMT. “It will not happen overnight by any means,” he said of the decision-making process, “but it can conceivably happen on a timescale that’s still useful from the point of view of the TMT construction timeline.”

In the meantime, astronomers are keeping a close eye on the protests that have halted construction of the observatory. When astronomers attending the forum asked what they could do to help, Simons suggested they stay on the sidelines, at least for now. “When people on the mainland inject their opinions, it isn’t always necessarily well regarded,” he said. “When it comes down to actually getting down to negotiating a compromise, with all due respect to the mainland, it’s essentially irrelevant.”

Simons said the word he best uses to describe the situation on Maunakea is “unprecedented.” “It was immediately identified across the Maunakea observatories as a threat not just to TMT, but to all of Hawaii astronomy,” he said.

He still believed, though, that a compromise could be worked out to allow the TMT to proceed while recognizing the cultural concerns of native Hawaiians. “The situation is very serious, make no mistake about it,” he said. “It’s not an insurmountable one.”