The Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled on October 30 that construction of the $2 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) can continue, setting the stage for a battle between scientists and native activists.
In a 4-1 decision, the court ruled on the validity of a construction permit that would allow the telescope to proceed. Although there are already 13 other observatories on Mauna Kea, a mountain on the Big Island, the TMT would become the largest in the Northern Hemisphere once complete and allow an unprecedented look into sky; Mauna Kea is 14,000 feet above sea level and isolated from light pollution.
But it’s also a sacred mountain and burial ground to the native Polynesian population, and they’ve been leading the charge against the construction of the TMT for over five years. Opponents have been using a combination of litigation and civil action, namely blockading groundbreakings and the construction site, to prevent the telescope’s development.
The issue is one of native sovereignty and colonialism, a conflict harkening all the way back to the original annexing of Hawaii by the United States in 1898. Mauna Kea is where Polynesian Hawaiians originally refined their own star maps for navigation, and the mountain still holds a number of religious altars used by priests to this day. Support among Hawaiians for the TMT seems to be broad, however, at least according to a 2016 poll, adding weight to the push for telescope’s construction.
Will the TMT’s 98-foot-wide mirror scan the atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system for markers of biological compounds any time soon? It doesn’t seem likely, despite the Supreme Court ruling. The 18-and-a-half-story observatory was originally scheduled to be completed in 2024 and is now five years behind schedule.
For its part, the observatory’s board has vowed to continue talking with the mayor and local residents. Activists have pledged to continue protesting the telescope through non-violent means, their ultimate goal is to force the TMT to build on its backup site in the Canary Islands.