Hawaii space observatories reopen after weeks of shutting down

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Astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatories can finally return to work after a grueling 4-week pause due to ongoing protests against the construction of a mega observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak, offers clear views of the night sky because of its dark skies from lack of light pollution, good astronomical seeing, low humidity, high elevation of 4,205 meters (13,796 ft), position above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, clean air, good weather and low latitude location. All of these characteristics place the mountain top as a nearly ideal location to observe the universe by national and international scientists alike.

Although the 13,800-foot summit is already considered home for thirteen different observatories, Hawaiian locals and elders have been adamant to the construction of TMT, arguing that the land is sacred and putting a colossal of infrastructure over the land tarnishes it.

Over the past four weeks, protesters by the thousands have been flocking and creating a human barricade that literally blocked the access ways to the other observatories on top, forcing astronomers to take a mandatory leave from their work.

Astronomers around the world compete for valuable time on the telescopes, and since the observatories closed, the scientists have canceled over 2,000 hours of observational time, according to an outlet. Additionally, this has been considered as the longest shutdown since the location’s five-decade history.

“It was very far-reaching,” says Sarah Bosman of University College London, who lost 3 nights of time to observe distant galaxies with the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes. “Every area of astronomy was affected by this.”

Fortunately, state authorities brokered the deal with the protesters to allow current astronomers access to the observatories and said that construction of a temporary roadway will be built across hardened lava around the protesters’ camp on the summit access road.

Additionally, law enforcement will give protesters an advanced list of all vehicles going up and down to show that they are not associated with TMT.

Apparently, protesters began to gather on the main road leading up to the observatories on July 15, the week in which construction on the site for TMT was supposed to begin.

Significantly, the protesters who gathered at the base of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island include indigenous Hawaiian elders, or “kupuna” and has swelled dramatically as the controversy sparked support from the online community.

Despite polls suggesting that Hawaiian were in favor of the construction of TMT, the online community has attracted support from significant figures such as actors Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa—who both visited the protest site—and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. 

TMT is touted to be a $1.4 billion project that aims to provide one of the biggest lenses in the world attached to an observatory, in order to provide better tools to help astronomers study the universe.

Scientists have been sketching the plans for such an instrument as far back as the 1990s, and a global consortium of scientists led by the U.S. and Canada completed the TMT design in 2009. The TMT project would also be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere.

The telescope would be built with support from Canada, China, India, and Japan; a consortium of U.S. universities and international organizations, which will own and operate TMT like many of the observatories operating on Mauna Kea.

However, every step towards the construction of the observatory was met with legal battles ensued by protesters ever since its groundbreaking ceremony in 2014. After nearly a decade of the legal debacle, Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the construction in August 2018, which prompted protesters to take a more active stand against it.

Manua Kea itself has been a flashpoint for controversy ever since the University of Hawaii opened the first telescope there in 1970. Opponents of TMT continue to push the sacred value of the land and also pointed out the mismanagement of the University of Hawaii on the mountaintop observatories. Protesters have also involved other issues with the construction such as Hawaiian nationalism, self-determination, and land rights.

“TMT should build their observatory in their own ancestral lands, not in mine,” says Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, a senior professor at the University of Hawaii’s Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. “Imagine if TMT were to put its five-acre monstrosity on top of Notre Dame or the Vatican. How would the French or Italians feel? Would they not protest?”

However, astronomers urge that TMT would be a valuable instrument for human society. It would be able to help astronomers to discover more with what the universe has in store.

“In our lifetime, we could discover life — evidence of life — off the Earth, which would be one of the biggest things [that have] ever happened in science,” says Michael Bolte, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the TMT board.

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