Hawai‘i Supreme Court Approves Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea

TMT artist rendering of the now approved telescope. What the proposed TMT telescope will look like when construction is completed. Photo courtesy TMT

Christine Hitt

The controversial telescope has been given the approvals necessary for a permit that will allow it to start construction

The Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Oct. 30 and affirmed the Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision to issue a permit for the $1.4 billion telescope project on top of Mauna Kea.

The ruling is the latest in a long history of court battles that have ignited passionate objections by many Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) groups. Construction for the telescope was halted in 2015, following protests that included blocking the road to the top of Mauna Kea and arrests of as much as 31 people on one day.

“Despite four state audits and generations of Native Hawaiians expressing concern about the threats to Maunakea, the state and the University of Hawai‘i have continuously neglected their legal duties to manage the mountain adequately. Instead, they have consistently prioritized astronomical development at the expense of properly caring for Maunakea’s natural and cultural resources,” the Office of Hawaiian Affairs said in a statement following the approval.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling today demonstrates an urgent need for the state to create mechanisms to ensure that constitutionally protected practices and cultural resources are not sacrificed or abridged.”

Social media propelled the issue nationally in 2015 with celebrities joining the protest, such as Rosario Dawson, Nicole Scherzinger, and Jason Momoa. Opponents believe the mountain to be sacred and that further telescopes will add to its desecration.

“This is nothing compared to what they are going to build,” wrote Momoa in an Apr. 3, 2015 Instagram post, standing next to one telescope currently on Mauna Kea. “What kind of foundation would it take to hold your 18 story telescope. Bomb into our sacred mountain. For what. You take and lie and take. Shame on u.”

Supporters say they look forward to new opportunities in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics by being able to see further into the universe with a telescope that’s “three times as wide, with nine times more area, than the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world,” according to TMT’s website, adding that the telescope brings possibilities of discovering, in detail, planets orbiting other stars, and also the chance to find signs of life elsewhere.

“On behalf of the TMT International Observatory, we are grateful for the Hawai‘i State Supreme Court’s ruling that will allow TMT to be built on Maunakea. We thank all of the community members who contributed their thoughtful views during this entire process,” said Henry Yang, chair of TMT International Observatory Board of Governors, in a statement following news of the affirmation.

“We remained committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community. We will honor the culture of the Islands and its people and do our part to contribute to its future through our ongoing support of education and Hawai‘i Islands’ young people. We are excited to move forward in Hawai‘i and will continue to respect and follow state and county regulations, as we determine our next steps.”

A rendering of where the TMT will be located compared to the rest of the current telescopes. The existing telescopes are on the summit of Mauna Kea and can be seen from all of Hawaii Island. TMT (bottom left of photo) will be built on the slope where it will only be visible from Waimea, or 15 percent of Hawaii Island. Unlike the other telescopes, TMT will not be seen from the Hilo or Kona side of the island. Photo courtesy: TMT

​Located on the Island of Hawai‘i, the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the state of Hawai‘i at 13,802 feet and it’s the tallest mountain in the world when measured from base to summit. In 1968, the University of Hawai‘i established the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, leasing 11,000 acres of ceded lands (former Kingdom of Hawai‘i lands that are now administered by the state) for the scientific complex, which currently houses 13 observatories with telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 countries.

Though Mauna Kea has been literally translated to mean “white mountain” for the snow that dusts its peaks in the winter, Mauna Kea is considered by many to be a shortened version of its other multiple names, “Mauna a Wākea” and “Mauna Akea”—all of which mean “Wākea’s mountain.” The “Kumulipo,” a Hawaiian Creation chant that’s 2,102 lines long, mentions Wākea as the Sky Father and Papahānaumokuākea as the Earth Mother. Together, they created the Islands, with the Island of Hawai‘i being the first; then Wākea became the father of Hāloa, the first Hawaiian person. For that reason, Wākea is considered kupuna (ancestor) and the beginning of genealogy for all Native Hawaiian people.

“The mountain belongs to Wākea,” said Pualani Kanahele, a Kanaka Maoli cultural practitioner, in her 1999 opposing testimony during a public meeting about the Mauna Kea Science Reserve’s master plan. “The mountain is sacred. It is Wākea. It is not Mount Joe. It is not Mount Kilroy. It is Mauna a Wākea.” Furthermore, its summit is considered to be the piko (umbilical cord) that ties Wākea to the earth.

Eight criteria were reviewed when evaluating the proposed land use, including Ka Pa‘akai, a reference to a past case when the Hawai‘i Supreme Court provided a framework to “effectuate the State’s obligation to protect native Hawaiian customary and traditional practices while reasonably accommodating competing private interests.” It was one of the arguments appealed by Native Hawaiian groups to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, which would later rule on the side of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, due to no physical evidence of traditional or customary practices within the immediate vicinity of the TMT Observatory area.

“We are disappointed by the state Supreme Court's majority decision to affirm the Land Board’s approval of the University of Hawai‘i’s permit to allow the Thirty-Meter Telescope corporation’s project in a pristine area of Mauna Kea,” wrote KAHEA, a Hawaiian Environmental Alliance that opposes the telescope, on its Facebook page in response. “The opinion wrongly relies on representations that there is ‘no evidence’ of Hawaiian cultural practices on the specific acreage proposed for the TMT. Thousands of Hawaiian cultural practitioners have affirmed the sacredness of the entirety of Mauna Kea.”

Within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, there are “263 historic properties, including 141 ancient shrines,” according to the 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the TMT telescopes; places are named after gods and goddesses; burials have been found on Pu‘u Kanaka (literally meaning “hill crowded with people”) and there are suspected burials elsewhere; and early accounts from the mid-19th century describe the very top of the Mauna (mountain) as being so sacred that it’s kapu (taboo, forbidden), and only accessible by the highest chiefs. It’s why, according to the Mauna Kea Science Reserve’s archaeological inventory survey, there’s a lack of evidence of human activity at the summit about lower elevations.

Though given the green light, the Thirty Meter Telescope must complete all conditions and numerous requirements as stated in the Conservation District Use Permit before beginning construction.

For more information visit maunakeaandtmt.org or