Telescope project at center of Mauna Kea disruption

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Although the Mauna Kea summit is closed to the public, tour operators can still take groups stargazing on other parts of the mountain.
Although the Mauna Kea summit is closed to the public, tour operators can still take groups stargazing on other parts of the mountain. Photo Credit: Kirk Lee Aeder/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

A powerful new telescope slated to join the baker's dozen of world-class observatories on Mauna Kea was supposed to begin construction on July 15, but protesters blocked traffic on the summit road, and operations on the mountain have been widely disrupted.

The Thirty-Meter-Telescope (TMT) has gone through a twisting and halting path of legal challenges, delays and debate, and protesters claim the construction disrupts land some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. On July 16, scientists and other staff evacuated the 13 existing telescopes on Mauna Kea because access and safe entry and exit could not be guaranteed, and some protesters were arrested as they blocked the road to the island's highest peak, according to the Associated Press.

Mauna Kea is not just popular with astronomers. Numerous tour companies take groups up the mountain to 9,000 feet to visit the observatories, gaze at the stars through high-powered portable telescopes and also see the sunrise over the mountains.

Summit access is closed until further notice along with observatory visits, but tour companies are still offering stargazing opportunities.

"Our stargazing tours have never gone to the summit, so they're running as normal," said Gary Marrow, co-founder of KapohoKine Adventures. "We go to the same elevation, just on a different part of the mountain away from the closures."

Hawaii Island, already one of the most isolated inhabited areas in the world, has special ordinances to reduce light pollution, and Mauna Kea, with typically clear weather, is one of the world's top locations for astronomical observation. The mountain is also "a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions" as a "home to the gods," according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The $1.4 billion TMT is billed to be one of the most advanced telescopes in the world, and once finished (it's currently scheduled for July 2027 completion) it would be deployed to find other planets in the habitable zone for supporting life, and observe blackholes, stars and other phenomenon. Some Native Hawaiians said construction would desecrate the hallowed mountain, and after years of legal battles and protests the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 2018 the telescope permit was legally obtained and construction could begin. Hawaii Gov. David Ige then announced the project had been authorized to begin on July 10.

The road to the top of Mauna Kea was closed by authorities on July 15 to allow equipment and workers to move up the mountain to start construction. Hundreds of protesters formed roadblocks, and on July 17, 2,000 rally participants were reported.

Additionally, the Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea has been closed for stargazing since December, as work was being done to expand and improve the parking lot and other facilities.

The station adjusted hours, remaining open only during the day, during the infrastructure project. Now, the VIS, which was improving parking in part due to a significant increase in visitation, is closed until summit access can be restored.

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