Canary Islands, not Hawaii, possible future home of Thirty Meter Telescope

The Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory Board spent years working through bureaucratic red tape to secure government approval to build the telescope on Hawaii's Big Island. But that work may have been for naught.

TMT Observatory Corporation/AP
An artist rendering depicts the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, planned to be built atop Mauna Kea, a large dormant volcano in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii in Hawaii.

Members of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) International Observatory Board have selected Spain’s Canary Islands as a potential alternative site for their giant telescope after locals in the first-choice site of Hawaii's Mauna Kea protested construction.

While TMT officials say they would still prefer to build on Mauna Kea, they are willing to consider other locations, due to the dissatisfaction of Hawaiian locals with the Observatory’s original proposal.

"We’ll be watching the situation in Hawaii carefully, hoping that continues to move forward," Fiona Harrison, member of the TMT board of governors, told Nature. "And the success of those efforts will determine whether we can build the TMT in Hawaii."

Although Observatory officials spent years working through the paperwork and meetings necessary to receive government approval to build the telescope on Mauna Kea, the group did not anticipate the level of resistance offered by native Hawaiians.

Hawaiian mythology views the islands’ mountain peaks as sacred conduits between heaven and earth, a view that particularly applies to Mauna Kea, the highest point in the state. Locals see that mountain as a point of connection between the earth and heavens, a sacred "umbilical cord" or "piko."

As a result, a small group of native Hawaiians have protested the telescope several times since construction began in April 2015. Their protests and subsequent arrests led some to remind the telescope proponents that while the legal barriers to construction have been removed, cultural sensitivity is important as well.

"As a ranger on Maunakea, I’ve enjoyed working with many astronomers, who are generally people of good will and from whom I have learned much about the stars," said park ranger James Kealii Pihana. "But despite all of their scientific accomplishments, I do feel that much more needs to be done to bring awareness and respect for Hawaiian culture on the mountain. Science does play an important role in people’s lives, but it is not everything. A spiritual connection is just as important."

Hawaii’s Supreme Court blocked construction last year, forcing TMT officials to seek another solution. Although they still hope to construct the telescope on Mauna Kea, which has some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the world, the TMT board finally settled on the Canary Islands as an alternative.

"We just want a mountain to start building on," TMT scientist Christophe Dumas told Nature.

The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma beat out three other sites, one in Mexico’s Baja peninsula and two in Chile, to be selected as TMT’s top alternative. La Palma’s peak, however, is approximately 2,000 meters, or about 6,500 feet, lower than Mauna Kea’s, a drawback for scientists who had hoped to cut through as much atmosphere as possible and decrease water vapor exposure that can degrade measurements.

"Maunakea continues to be the preferred choice for the location of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the TIO Board will continue intensive efforts to gain approval for TMT in Hawaii," wrote TMT chair Henry Yang in a statement. "TIO is very grateful to all of our supporters and friends throughout Hawaii, and we deeply appreciate their continued support."

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