How One Telescope Has Divided an Island
At thirty meters in diameter, it would be three times as wide as the current largest visible-light telescope in the world, allowing astronomers to see deeper into space at a resolution twelve times sharper than that from the Hubble Space Telescope.
With this groundbreaking instrument, astronomers could look back in time and study the DNA of our universe, learning about the history of galaxies and the formation of planets and stars. With these discoveries, we could learn where we came from and how our universe came to be.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), first proposed in 2003 by three of the world's leading research institutions, has garnered funds, permits and a legion of support from partners and members of the astronomy community. However, it's also secured some enemies. There has been a significant pushback against TMT, encompassing contested court cases and even protests.
The problem people have with TMT?
Where astronomers are planning to build it.
It would be unlike any telescope ever built before.
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on Hawai'i Island standing at 13,796 feet above sea level, which makes it the highest point in the state of Hawai'i. In fact, when measured from its base below sea level, it stands at over 33,000 feet — making it even taller than Mount Everest.
Mauna Kea, which translates to “white mountain”, is considered by many to be a sacred place on the island. It’s regarded in Native Hawaiian culture as a place of worship, a home to the gods and goddesses. Native Hawaiians often visit the Mauna to pray and perform ceremonies, as its peak is considered a zenith for spirituality.
Its geography and height, according to astronomers, render it a prime location for observing celestial objects. However, TMT’s size, along with its status as the fourteenth telescope that would be built on Mauna Kea, was the last straw for scores of Native Hawaiians who are tired of their land being monopolized by outsiders. A string of people began stepping forward, testifying in court against TMT and advocating for the sacrosanctity of the Mauna. After years of altercation in court, Hawai'i Gov. David Ige announced that construction of the telescope would begin the week of July 15, 2019.
But it never happened.
Protesters, who self-identify as protectors, hindered construction by camping out en masse on Mauna Kea Access Road, preventing the trucks and equipment from reaching the construction site. The telescope would have been built by now had the road been clear.
When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, it deferred efforts on both sides of the conflict. Although currently in limbo, the narrative is far from over. Native Hawaiians are continuing to resist TMT, as the possibility of its development on Mauna Kea still dwells. To this day, the mountain's fate is unknown.