HONOLULU — Scientists hoping to build a telescope that will allow them to see 13 billion light years away, offering a look into the early years of the universe, are facing opposition from Native Hawaiian groups who say the construction site is on sacred land.
After discussions stalled construction, work on the Thirty Meter Telescope is set to resume Wednesday. Protesters plan to try to stop it and are prepared for possible arrests.
Telescope construction began in March near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island after seven years of environmental studies, public hearings and court proceedings.
The land, which is managed by the University of Hawaii, is considered sacred by Native Hawaiian groups. They don't oppose the telescope itself, but they strongly disagree with its location atop the dormant volcano. The nonprofit company building the telescope suspended construction in April after protesters were arrested for blocking the road to the summit and refusing to leave the construction site. Telescope officials announced Saturday that construction would resume Wednesday.
A lawsuit challenging the project's construction permit is pending before the state Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments Aug. 27.
SPACE OBSERVATION ON SUMMIT
The first road to the top of Mauna Kea was built in 1964, and the University of Hawaii constructed the first telescope four years later. Universities from around the world and NASA built about a dozen other telescopes in subsequent decades.
A state report in 2013 said little consideration was given to how these facilities might affect traditional culture because "the significance wasn't understood at the time."
In 2007, scientists abandoned a plan to build six smaller outrigger telescopes after a judge ruled they needed a management plan for the conservation and protection of the entire summit.
The state approved the university's summit management plan in 2009. The Thirty Meter Telescope is the first observatory to receive a construction permit since the outrigger project failed.
SIGNIFICANCE OF MAUNA KEA
Some Native Hawaiians believe the top of Mauna Kea is where their creation story began.
"It is the burial grounds of some of our most sacred and revered ancestors," said Kealoha Pisciotta, a protest organizer. "It is a place where we go for sanctuary and release from the world around us, and it is also the home of our god."
All of the highest points in the islands are considered the home of deities, she said. In the past, only high chiefs and priests were allowed at Mauna Kea's summit.
Once constructed, the telescope will allow astronomers and scientists to view some of the very first stars and galaxies in the universe, research black holes and help understand dark matter.
Peering this far back in time, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, will give scientists the opportunity to explore fundamental questions about dark matter and dark energy — information that could allow them to make conclusions about the future of our universe.
Its summit at 13,796 feet is well above the clouds, offering a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year. Hawaii's isolated location also means it's relatively free of air pollution.
There are few cities on the Big Island, meaning few man-made lights would disrupt observations. Thirty Meter Telescope intends to build on a northern plateau to minimize effects on the native bug habitat, cultural practices and historic sites.
Thirty Meter Telescope is a California nonprofit formed by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology.
Institutions in Canada, China, India and Japan and signed on as partners and would receive a share of observing time. University of Hawaii scientists also would have a share.
Opposition exploded on social media with celebrities, such as Native Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, supporting the cause.
A group of protesters — who call themselves protectors — have been camping on the mountain, bracing for when construction resumes. They sleep in vehicles or on cots under a tent.