Construction of the World’s Largest Telescope on Hold

The UC Santa Cruz-led project to build the Thirty Meter Telescope has been stifled because many consider the proposed site to be sacred.

by Ryan Masters, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. / January 5, 2016 0
Computer rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope TMT Observatory Corporation

(TNS) -- Earlier this month, the Hawaii Supreme Court revoked a construction permit to build the largest telescope in the world at the summit of a sacred Hawaiian mountain.

The construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, which is considered hallowed ground to native Hawaiians, was led by an international coalition of astronomers, including key personnel from UC Santa Cruz such as Michael Bolte.

Bolte is a UCSC professor of astronomy and a member of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory Board of Directors. He calls the telescope “the biggest leap in capability since Galileo.”

According to Bolte, the key design component of the Thirty Meter Telescope is its array of segmented mirrors, an innovation devised by UCSC astronomy and astrophysics professor Jerry Nelson.

Despite its UCSC-led innovation, the project has sparked heated protests and indefinitely closed the summit of the mountain to the public since construction began in April 2015. In addition to the protests, cyber attacks targeted the Thirty Meter Telescope’s website, and activist groups challenged the project in Hawaiian courts.

On Dec. 3, those courts determined that the seven-member Board of Land and Natural Resources, which issued the construction permit in 2011, had done so improperly.

“Quite simply, the board put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit before the request for a contested case hearing was resolved and the hearing was held,” the court’s opinion said. “Accordingly, the permit cannot stand.”

As a result, all equipment related to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope was removed from the summit of Mauna Kea on Dec. 16.

“We thank the Hawaii Supreme Court for the timely ruling and we respect their decision,” Henry Yang, chair of the board of the Thirty Meter Telescope, said in a statement. “The Thirty-Meter Telescope will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have.”

Yang also thanked the people of Hawaii and the project’s supporters and said his organization is “assessing next steps” and deciding whether or not to apply for a new permit.

Clarence “Kukauakahi” Ching describes himself as a “cultural practitioner” on Mauna Kea. He is also a lawyer, a former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and one of six appellants in the supreme court case.

Although he is satisfied with the court’s ruling, Ching said it stopped before “the real issues” could be examined.

“Their analysis stopped once they determined that the board had made its decision before holding the contested case,” he said “While this is customary when the court finds a major problem, it leaves unresolved issues for another day.”

If the case goes forward, Ching said the major issue becomes whether the project complied with the eight criteria necessary for development in a conservation zone.

Ching said opposition to the telescope is not a unified association. It consists of a large consortium of individuals and organizations, many of which possess very different objectives.

“We are not on the offensive. We are waiting and we will react in an appropriate manner when and if a reaction is called for,” Ching said.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would not have been the first on Mauna Kea’s summit. Since the creation of an access road in 1964, 13 telescopes funded by 11 countries have been constructed at the summit, including two 10-meter Keck telescopes utilizing Nelson’s segmented mirror technology.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would have been the largest telescope in the world for only a short time. The European Extremely Large Telescope, which boasts a mirror nearly 40 meters in diameter, is currently under construction in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.

©2016 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.