Hawaii's Thirty Meter Telescope: What is it, and why are people protesting?

WATCH ABOVE: Giant telescope the focus of Hawaii protest

Nearly a week after construction was scheduled to begin on an enormous telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, opponents continue to fight against the project.

On Sunday, hundreds opposing the massive Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) gathered for a protest march.

Last week, protesters blocked an access road, halting construction and prompting the arrest of 33 of elderly demonstrators.

READ MORE: Opponents of massive telescope in Hawaii gather for protest march

State spokesperson Dan Dennison said 33 people were arrested and given citations before they were released.

The demonstrations over the last week are the latest in a string of setbacks which have hindered the project for years.

Here is what you need to know about the project and protests:

What is the TMT?

According to the project’s website, the Thirty Meter Telescope is a new class of “extremely large telescopes” that will allow scientists to “see deeper into space and observe cosmic objects with unprecedented sensitivity.”

The device’s primary mirror would measure 30 metres in diameter, making it three times as wide, with nine times more area than the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world.

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“This will provide unparalleled resolution with TMT images more than 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope,” the website reads. “When operational, TMT will provide new observational opportunities in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics.”

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Astronomers are hopeful the $1.4-billion Thirty Meter Telescope will help them study the earliest moments of the universe after the Big Bang as well as identify more planets outside our solar system.

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The enormous telescope is being designed and developed by the TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO), a non-profit international partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India and the National Research Council of Canada.

Why Mauna Kea?

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano located on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Astronomers favour Mauna Kea because the clean air and limited light pollution at its summit 4,205 metres above sea level make it one of the world’s best locations for studying the skies.

The area was selected in July of 2009 by the board of the Thirty Meter Telescope after a five-year-long campaign.

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According to the TMT website, the campaign spanned the entire globe and measured “virtually every atmospheric feature that might affect the performance of the telescope.”

The peak is already home to about a dozen other telescopes.

Why are people protesting

Some Native Hawaiians view the summit of Mauna Kea as sacred and say the presence of yet another telescope will further damage it.

According to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Mauna Kea is a “deeply sacred place” that is revered in Hawaiian traditions.

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Mauna Kea is regarded as a shrine for worship, a home to the gods and as the “Piko” of Hawai’i Island.

“Piko” is a Hawaiian word for the navel, where life begins. It also represents peace, tranquillity and spirituality along with a strong sense of regrowth or new beginnings.

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Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a leader of the protest group, told CNN on Sunday that the site is “without a doubt, one of our most sacred places in all of Hawaii.”

“We are taking a stand not only to protect our mauna and aina, our land, who we have a genealogical connection to,” Kanuha told CNN. “We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this, there is not very much we can fight for or protect.”

Mauna Kea is also considered to be ceded land, meaning it is supposed to be held in a trust to benefit future generations of Native Hawaiians.

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“For us, that mountain is so important in the meaning of who we are as a people,” protester Kalaekeo Kaea, told NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday. “It is part of our humanity.

“I’m not going to say I’m against telescopes,” Kaea continued. “For me, the main purpose is that it’s our people to decide what should happen with that mountain.”

“And the only way you can impose it on other people forcefully is to see that other people as subhuman. And that’s really what’s going on here. We’re here to reclaim our humanity.”

Years of protests and legal challenges

While the protests have ramped up considerably in the last few weeks, opposition to the project has been going on for years.

Telescope equipment coming down from Hawaiian mountain

Here is a timeline of events leading up to current protests:

  • In 2014, the project’s official groundbreaking ceremony was halted by protesters.
  • In 2015, construction on two separate occasions was prevented by protests on the mountain.
  • In September of 2017, the State Board of Land and Natural Resources decided to grant a permit to the University of Hawaii to build TMT on Mauna Kea.
  • However, opponents challenged that decision before the Hawaii State Supreme Court.
  • In October of 2018, the Hawaii Supreme court affirmed the decision to issue the building permit for construction of the telescope on Mauna Kea.
  • In June of this year, a ‘notice to proceed’ was issued to the University of Hawaii for the TMT on Mauna Kea. The formal communication indicates that all pre-construction conditions and mitigation measures specifically required by the permit were met.

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In a press release issued July 10, Gov. David Ige and the TIO announced the construction of the TMT would begin the week of July 15.

“We have followed a 10-year process to get to this point, and the day for construction to begin has arrived,” Ige said in the statement. “At this time, our number 1 priority is everyone’s safety.

“As construction begins, I continue to be committed to engaging with people holding all perspectives on this issue and to making meaningful changes that further contribute to the co-existence of culture and science on Mauna Kea.”

Chair of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory Board of Governors Henry Yang said in the statement that after having been given “all the necessary clearances” by the State of Hawaii and “respectfully reaching out to the community,” they were ready to begin work on the project.

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“We have learned much over the last 10-plus years on the unique importance of Mauna Kea to all, and we remain committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community,” he said in a statement.

“We acknowledge those who disagree with our project and express our respect for their views,” he said.

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Plan B

While the project is scheduled to begin, the TMT website says due to “challenges over the past several years,” the TMT International Observatory Board has developed a Plan B.

According to the TMT website, while Mauna Kea is the chosen site, Plan B would see the construction of the observatory on La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands.

An environmental impact assessment has been done for the Roque de Los Muchachos site and additional use permits are being completed, the project’s website says.

What’s next?

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green visited protesters at the Mauna Kea site on Monday and spoke with the elders.

Green said there will have to be a compromise in order for the Thirty Meter Telescope project to go forward but doesn’t know if that’s possible.

He said Native Hawaiian protesters on the mountain aren’t leaving and said it’s time for a “grand reconciliation” with Hawaii’s “host culture.”

Green says that includes taking a strong state position on federal recognition for Native Hawaiians and moving more aggressively to provide house lots through the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

— With files from the Associated Press

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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