Hawaii’s Supreme Court suspends construction of the world’s largest optical telescope

Hawaii’s highest court has officially suspended construction of the world’s largest optical telescope atop the state’s sacred Mauna Kea volcano — a project that has been met with much opposition since it was first announced in 2009. Citing an improper issuing of the construction permit, the court halted the build to allow opponents of the telescope an opportunity to formally present their disputes. Though thirteen other telescopes call Mauna Kea home, native Hawaiians were reportedly unhappy about yet another telescope intruding on what’s considered holy.

Described in 2013 as “another important step forward for the future of astronomical discovery and economic opportunity” for Hawaii, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) was poised to become the most advanced telescope in the world. Once built, the $1 billion TMT would not only have nine times the collecting area of typical optical telescopes, but would also boast the ability to observe objects and light from 13 billion years ago. Basically, this thing was going to be able to peer into our universe’s early years “finding answers to many of the grand challenges of science.”

Artist rendering of the TMT complex
Artist rendering of the TMT complex TMT

For the TMT and its supporters (aka scientists), those days were about as good as it got. From the get go, activists and local groups frequently spoke out about the potentially negative impact construction of such a telescope would have on the surrounding environment. Moreover, many were uneasy at the prospect of damaging centuries of Hawaiian culture despite reassurances the project would exercise “responsible development and environmental stewardship of Mauna Kea.”

In the face of protest, construction of the telescope still managed to move forward. However, just this past April scores of protesters took to the build site and successfully halted its construction while activists took the fight to Hawaii’s high courts. After much deliberation, the courts ruled the permits awarded to the construction team were improperly issued, and called for an immediate production delay of the TMT.

“The Board of Land and Natural Resources issued the University of Hawai’i at Hilo a permit to construct a 180-foot astronomical observatory within a conservation district on Mauna Kea over objections of Native Hawaiians and others, who sought a contested case hearing to fully assess the effects of the project prior to making a decision of whether to issue the permit,” said Justice Richard Pollack in his concurring opinion. “The Board’s procedure of holding a contested case hearing after the permit has already been issued does not comply with our case of law…nor with due process under the Hawai’i Constitution.”

TMT's proposed location on Mauna Kea
TMT’s proposed location on Mauna Kea TMT

Though the project could still move forward after going through the required hearing processes, this is no doubt a massive win for TMT’s opponents. Contested cases could take years to sift through, and there’s also no guarantee construction permits will be reissued once the cases conclude. Despite tasting temporary defeat, TMT’s chair of the board Henry Yang gave his thanks for the court’s ruling, saying he respected the decision it made.

“We thank the Hawaii Supreme Court for the timely ruling and we respect their decision,” said Yang. “We are assessing our next steps on the way forward. We appreciate and thank the people of Hawaii and our supporters from these last eight-plus years.”

As of now, it’s unknown when Hawaiian courts plan on hearing contested cases, though the halt in construction almost certainly pushes the TMT’s operation date past the original estimation of 2024.

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