Giant telescope will be built on sacred Native Hawaiian peak

HONOLULU — After years of protests and legal battles, Hawaii officials announced Thursday that a massive telescope which will allow scientists to peer into the most distant reaches of our early universe will be built on a volcano that some consider sacred.

The state has issued a “notice to proceed” for the Thirty Meter Telescope project, Gov. David Ige said at a news conference. In October, a state Supreme Court’s 4-1 ruling upheld the project’s permits for the $1.4 billion instrument.

“We expect that TMT construction will begin sometime this summer. We will proceed in a way that respects the people, place and culture that make Hawaii unique,” Ige said. “We are all stewards of Mauna Kea. The state has an obligation to respect and honour the unique cultural and natural resources on this special mountain.”

Ige said four unauthorized structures were removed from the mountain earlier in the day.

Opponents say the telescope will desecrate sacred land atop Mauna Kea, the state’s highest peak and a place of religious importance to Native Hawaiians.

Scientists say the summit is one of the best places on Earth for astronomy. Several telescopes and observatories are already on the summit.

The new telescope, which officials say will begin to be constructed this summer, will allow astronomers to reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe.

Thursday’s announcement comes on the same day Native Hawaiian practitioners had planned to go to the summit area for a nighttime solstice ceremony and to honour an elder who recently died, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian activist who has led some of the protest efforts.

“It’s on the eve of our solstice ceremonies. They know that we go up during solstice and equinox,” she said. “We were preparing to head up tonight for the solstice and to honour him.”

She said police are only allowing astronomers through and blocking the road to the summit for everyone else, including Hawaiians who asked to go pray.

“They won’t let anyone up,” she said. “They said no. They may block us tonight, also.”

Before dawn Thursday morning, state and county officials drove up Mauna Kea to remove four Native Hawaiian structures.

Native Hawaiians have used the structures for years, Pisciotta said, and she considers the removal of the structures to be desecration and discriminatory.

“What’s the argument for taking them down? It’s completely discriminatory. It’s hostile to the Native Hawaiian people,” she said. “These are places of worship and the places where we lay our offering and our prayer.”

She said their rights to religious freedom are being violated.

“If someone went into a church and took down the crucifix or you know the cross, how would that be treated?” Pisciotta asked.

Plans for the project date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year, around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site.

The project won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011.

Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the site in 2014. After that, the protests intensified.

Construction stopped in April 2015 after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews retreating when they encountered large boulders in the road.

Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors said the state Supreme Court ruling must be respected, but that people’s right to free speech is also protected and that the conversation should continue.

“It is important that it not stop even as the telescope is constructed,” Connors said. “For safety we encourage that this conversation happens somewhere other than on Mauna Kea.”

Officials would not say exactly when construction will begin, but Connors said that she hopes there will be no confrontations.

“We are all in this together and we hope that everyone who comes to Mauna Kea takes responsibility for their actions, their words and their decisions,” she said. “The safety of our community depends upon people respecting the law and each other.”

A group of universities in California and Canada make up the telescope company, with partners from China, India and Japan. The instrument’s primary mirror would measure 98 feet (30 metres) in diameter. Compared with the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, it would be three times as wide, with nine times more area.

Telescope parts have been built in California and partner countries while construction on Mauna Kea was halted.

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