Clash Over a Telescope

Heritage or the Heavens

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By Ali Sundermier

Nine thousand feet above sea level, on the side of a sloping road leading to the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in the state of Hawaii, Pono Kuikahi and Mykay Kden camped out in a large tent across from the visitor’s center.

Kuikahi sat on a lawn chair, holding a ukulele, and Kden lay on his back on a small cot in the corner. There was a half-eaten watermelon and tin containers that once held food spread about on a long table in the back of the tent and cartons of soda cans stocked beneath the cot.

“This mountain is our creation story,” Kuikahi said. “We’re just here to protect our Mauna.”

Kuikahi and Kden are two of a group of people who have been protesting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a colossal 18-story telescope being built by the TMT International Observatory at the summit of Mauna Kea. Because of the telescope’s massive size, it will enable scientists to discover things that would be impossible to see with existing telescopes. But Kuikahi, Kden and others in their group believe that TMT is skipping over the cultural and environmental impact, compromising not just their sacred mountain, but the ecologically delicate environment that exists on it.

“We’re not coming with force. We’re just protecting,” Kuikahi said. “We’re here to share our na’auao, our knowledge. That’s all we can do right now. Share our thoughts and feelings and what we know is right.”

For many native Hawaiians, everything began when the sky father and earth mother joined to make Mauna Kea. It represents a linking of earth and sky, a connection to the cosmos. They came from this mountain, Kuikahi said. It is their parent. The mountain is so sacred that Hawaiians didn’t even build any heiaus, or sacred temples on it.

“It is a heiau in itself,” Kden said, adding that the movement has united most Hawaiians. “It’s because Mauna Kea is so sacred to everybody,” he said.

Beyond the impact of the TMT on Hawaiian culture, Kden said, the telescope is being built on a site full of endangered plants and insects. The construction of a telescope as large as TMT will be especially threatening to an environment that has already been disrupted by the repeated construction of large telescopes, he said.

“What we’re protecting is not just our generation. It’s for seven generations, and seven generations to come,” Kden said. “So they don’t have to go through the struggle our parents and grandparents and great grandparents had to.”

The protest has worked so far. Widespread disapproval among native Hawaiians has spread to worldwide opposition, halting construction since October 2014. TMT tried to resume construction in early April and again in late June but protesters successfully blocked the construction site. There were arrests but neither TMT nor the governor of Hawaii was willing to forge ahead in the face of so much protest.

Opposition to the construction of building-sized telescopes on Mauna Kea has been part of Hawaii’s cultural politics since the first one was built in 1968. It’s a clash between heritage and science that worsens an already tense relationship between native Hawaiians and settlers. But while earlier generations protested in anger, Kden said, people in the anti-telescope movement now are better educated and more humble than hostile.

“We just want the world to be aware that we’re still here, still a neutral sovereign nation that got overthrown 123 years ago,” Kden said, referring to the takeover of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the white minority that led to the islands being annexed by the United States in 1898. In recent years, there’s been a resurgence in Hawaii’s cultural heritage. “This is just a small chapter in that movement,” Kden said. “It’s a good stepping stone for all of us.”

The TMT Observatory Corporation, a nonprofit research collaborative, says it spent five years conducting studies of four other potential sites, three in Chile and one in Mexico. “Mauna Kea is the best site in the Northern Hemisphere for TMT,” said Michael Bolte, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is a TMT board member. “The climate is dry and cold, and the atmosphere above the site is exceptionally clear and stable, which allows for the capture of very sharp images,” he said.

Bolte said that TMT took great care to identify a location that would have minimal impact out of concern for Mauna Kea’s rich ancestral history and respect for the Hawaiian people and their land. “A very extensive environmental impact statement was prepared that involved a large number of careful studies of environmental and cultural sensitivities specifically for the TMT project,” Bolte said.

The cultural complexities that exist with these mountains has made it common practice for people practicing science on them to proactively look for ways to minimize their intrusion on the environment and show respect for the Hawaiian people.

It’s been a significant concern, for instance, for a project called HI-SEAS, which constructed a small, bubble-like habitat on Mauna Loa to simulate human habitation on Mars. Kim Binsted, the principal investigator of the project, said the members of all crews—who live inside the dome for up to eight months—spend several days learning about Hawaiian culture, including meeting people at elder centers and receiving a traditional Hawaiian blessing. Even the habitat itself was blessed when it was first put in place, Binsted said.

To reduce the dome’s visual impact, Binsted had a camouflage cover placed on its downhill side. “These mountains are very culturally sensitive and important and we don’t want a great big white spot on the side of the mountain,” Binsted said. “It’s a bit of a poke in the eye.”

At TMT, Bolte said, all employees and contractors participate annually in a training program designed to develop ways to honor cultural practices and instill sensitivity to potential negative impacts on cultural resources. Though they understand the deep cultural connection Hawaiians feel with Mauna Kea, scientists see TMT as a way to foster a different kind of connection between earth and the cosmos.

“TMT will be the world’s most advanced and capable ground-based optical, near-infrared, and mid-infrared observatory,” Bolte said. “It will have greater light-gathering capability and will form much sharper images than any existing telescope. These two capabilities in combination will allow astronomers to see much fainter and more distant objects than is possible with existing telescopes and to study objects in greater detail.”

An important feature of an optical telescope is how big its mirror is. Roy Gal, an astronomer with the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, explained it this way: Just like your eyeball opens bigger to collect light, the bigger a telescope, the more light it can collect. TMT can collect nine times more light than the biggest telescopes now on Mauna Kea, those at the Keck Observatory. Bigger telescopes also mean better resolution and more detail. TMT’s mirror will be 30 meters across—12 times that of the Hubble telescope. After correcting for distortions from Earth’s atmosphere, scientists can see details 15 times smaller than Hubble.

By building such an immense telescope, scientists say they will be able to find signs of life on other planets or even see back into the very first generation of stars to test theories about how our universe formed. One of the hundreds of applications TMT will be used for is to look at planets in habitable zones, or regions where there could be water and life. Because of TMT’s size, it won’t just see a dot of light of the planet around a star. It will have the resolution and light-gathering capability to break up light from the planet and determine whether its atmosphere contains oxygen and carbon dioxide, things associated with life.

“There’s no telescope today that can do that,” Gal said. “They can’t get enough light and they can’t separate the light from the planet from the light from the star.”

Another thing TMT will do that is beyond the reach of today’s telescopes is to look at the very earliest galaxies that formed in the universe, which contain the first generation of stars that were made. It could allow scientists to see if what they think should be out there is actually out there and allow for unprecedented tests of their theories and models about how the universe formed and evolved.

“When the universe is an infant universe, it’s basically all hydrogen and helium. That’s what we think the very first generations of stars are made out of,” Gal said. “These stars have very short lives, only millions of years compared to the universe’s 15 billion years. And they make the first heavy elements: the first carbon, the first nitrogen, the first oxygen, which we think were incorporated into later stars.”

And beyond the discoveries that can be imagined and neatly summarized, there are those unseen possibilities lurking just past the edges of our technological capabilities.

“Every time we build a telescope that’s bigger, has better resolution, we can see colors of light we’ve never looked at before,” Gal said. “We discover things we didn’t know were there, didn’t know to look for. Every time we’ve opened up a new capability to astronomy, we’ve found something new and interesting.”

The excitement among astronomers and space scientists doesn’t quite resonate with the TMT opponents. Everybody has their mountain, Pono Kuikahi said, a sacred place they don’t want to be touched. The construction of the mighty telescope might eventually resume, but they’re going to continue to come to the mountain to protect it, one day at a time. They come with aloha, they say: love, openness and compassion.

“We’ll come here and stand here,” Kuikahi said. “We’re not going to move, but we’re not going to fight. We’re going stay here until the end.”