Senior Editor
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The Inertia

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of standing atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea on a cloudless night, you know how incredibly clear the air is up there. But as protestors continue to make their displeasure known, plans to construct a giant telescope are running into some serious roadblocks. Now, the governor of Hawaii has signed an emergency proclamation “ensure the execution of the law, prevent lawless violence, and the obstruction of the execution of the law.”

The telescope, fittingly called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), is set to be perched atop Mauna Kea’s summit and will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. The dormant volcano is already home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory, and according to The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, the combined light-gathering power of the telescopes pointing towards the heavens is sixty times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are a host of reasons why that particular place is perfect for star-gazing. The atmosphere above the summit is dry, which means that the number of cloud-free nights is one of the highest of anywhere on earth. Something called a tropical inversion cloud layer some 2,000 feet thick floats below the summit, effectively separating the upper atmosphere from that wet ocean air. Since it’s relatively far from big cities, light pollution is minimal allowing for the “observation of the faintest galaxies that lie at the very edge of the observable Universe.”

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So why the outroar? Well, Mauna Kea is extraordinarily culturally important. “Mauna Kea is a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions,” wrote the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “It’s regarded as a shrine for worship, as a home to the gods.”

Since the telescope’s construction plans hit the news back in 2009, many Hawaiians have been dead-set against the location chosen.  In 2015, protesters used social media to create a snowball that rolled so fast construction was halted. The slew of legal challenges that arose, however, hit a wall in 2018, and in October the Supreme Court of Hawaii upheld that State Board of Land and Natural Resources’ building permit. The first day of construction was penned in for July 15, but hundreds of people got in the way.

As construction companies try to move their equipment up the mountain, peaceful protesters are blocking the road. After two days, 34 protesters have been arrested. Despite the threat of jail time, they’re standing their ground, and Governor David Ige has officially okayed the state to bring in the National Guard to take emergency action if necessary. “We are certainly committed to ensuring the project has access to the construction site,” Ige said to NBC. “We’ve been patient in trying to allow the protesters to express their feelings about the project… The number of protesters has swelled and their blockage of roads and highways creates a dangerous situation. This affects the ability of first responders to address emergencies.”

The protestors, however, aren’t backing down without being dragged off the mountain. “Calling out the National Guard is an insult to Hawaiians,” said Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte at a news conference Thursday morning. “This mountain is united. We cannot let a governor who is abusing powers take it away from us. This is an issue that goes out to all Hawaiians.”

It’s not just on the road up to the summit where the protests are happening—they’re state wide. On Thursday, a rolling protest on Oahu’s H-1 freeway slowed traffic to a crawl, and similar protests occurred on Maui.

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Some 500 astronomers also signed an open letter slamming the way the project is being pushed through in spite of indigenous peoples’ protests. “We write today not to place a value judgment on the future of TMT on Maunakea, but to question the methods by which we are getting the telescope on the mountain in the first place,” the letter says. “We ask whether expedience must come through violation of consent and leverage of apparatuses of state-sanctioned violence.”

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