Shoot for the Stars

Hawaii to begin construction on Northern Hemisphere’s largest telescope

Hawaii to begin construction on the Northern Hemisphere’s largest telescope, Thirty Meter Telescope. (Courtesy TMT International Observatory)

After a series of legal battles spanning several years, the Hawaiian state government will officially allow construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to begin next week. Governor David Ige and other state officials announced that heavy machinery will be moved to the project site atop the Big Island’s famous Mauna Kea volcano starting on Monday.

Upon completion, the TMT will be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere and the most powerful of Mauna Kea’s 13 observatories. The observatory will match the height of an 18-story building and its dome will have a span equivalent to two-thirds of a football field. Official estimates place its cost at around $1.4 billion, though some astronomers have predicted the project could reach $2 billion.

The state’s decision to move forward with the TMT project comes amid continuing objection from activists seeking to protect Mauna Kea from more large-scale construction. Some Native Hawaiians have been particularly vocal, arguing that the telescope will contribute to the volcano’s environmental degradation and impede Indigenous people’s access to the sacred land. Opponents of the TMT have used a variety of tactics to prevent the construction of the telescope. In 2014, protesters blocked roads to the site and disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony. After a coalition of land-use activists and non-profit organizations filed a lawsuit against the state for approving the telescope without allowing locals to voice concerns, the Hawaiian Supreme Court rescinded the TMT International Observatory’s building permit in 2015.

While a poll issued by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last year showed majority support for the project among Native Hawaiians, the telescope’s past legal troubles highlight the complexity of land stewardship on Mauna Kea. According to state law, the volcano is held in trust by the Hawaiian government and must be preserved for usage by future generations of Hawaiians. As part of the deal allowing for the TMT’s construction, the state will permanently close and dismantle five smaller observatories on the Big Island so that their sites can be fully rehabilitated.

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