HONOLULU — A $1.4 billion project to build one of the world’s largest telescopes is up against intense protests by Native Hawaiians and others who say building it on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea mountain will desecrate sacred land.
Hearings for the project’s construction permit are set to begin Thursday and expected to last until next month. This time, numerous parties are participating, including a group of Native Hawaiians who support the telescope, and dozens of witnesses are expected to testify. It’s not clear when the retired judge overseeing the hearings would issue a ruling.
Here are things to know about the embattled telescope:
A group of universities in California and Canada plan to build the telescope with partners from China, India and Japan. Its primary mirror will measure 30 meters in diameter and be made up of 492 individual segments.
Scientists say the telescope would allow them to see into the earliest years of the universe. The telescope could find planets around other stars in the “habitable zone,” where liquid water is possible on a planet’s surface, the project’s website says. The 13 telescopes already on Mauna Kea have played major roles in discoveries considered among the most significant to astronomy. Partners would receive a share of observing time, along with University of Hawaii scientists. Compared with the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, it will be three times as wide, with nine times more area.
Telescope officials say Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is the best location in the world for astronomy. It’s Hawaii’s tallest volcano and its summit provides a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year, with little air and light pollution. Opponents say the project will desecrate land held sacred by Native Hawaiians and that there are already too many telescopes on Mauna Kea. All of the highest points in the islands are considered the home of deities, said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the leaders in the telescope fight.
Construction stopped in April 2015 after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews retreating when they encountered large boulders in the road. The telescope has become one of the most divisive issues in the state, with some telescope supporters saying they are afraid to publicly express their stance on the project.
The telescope’s board of directors held public meetings before selecting Mauna Kea as the preferred site in 2009. In 2011, opponents requested so-called contested-case hearings before the state land board approved a permit to build on conservation land. The hearings were held, and the permit was upheld. Opponents then sued. In December 2015, the state Supreme Court revoked the permit, ruling the land board’s approval process was flawed. That meant the application process needed to be redone, requiring a new hearing.
JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER