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Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano in Hawaii that has many a claim to fame. It’s the world’s tallest mountain when measured from its base under the ocean. It’s considered a sacred site with ties to ancestry and Creation for native Hawaiians. And with its 4,207m elevation, dry environment and stable winds, it’s one of the best locations for space observation in the Northern Hemisphere.
You might notice how two of these aspects could potentially clash. Well, for the last four weeks, it has. Mauna Kea already hosts 13 telescopes on its slopes, but the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has drawn the most controversy, with protestors peacefully blocking access at the base since July 15, 2019. The activists—students, local leaders, Hawaiian elders (kupuna), university professors—say that building the TMT at the top of Mauna Kea is akin to desecration, as it is the realm of the Hawaiian gods. Legal battles and dissent against building the TMT has gone on for years, but one protestor called this the community’s symbolic ‘last stand’ to protect their holy site.
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If completed, the TMT is expected to provide imagery that’s 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing scientists to explore elemental questions about the early universe, as well as probe what planets around distant stars could look like. The conflict seems to have reached an impasse, though, as there is disagreement in both camps—numerous native Hawaiians are accepting of the project, while many scientists and astronomers feel indigenous interests cannot be ignored in the name of science. The latter includes students and researchers from institutions affiliated to the TMT venture.
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Hollywood actors Jason Momoa (Aquaman, Game of Thrones) and Dwayne Johnson (Jumanji, San Andreas, Hercules) have visited the protest site to lend their support in early August and late July respectively. A photo of Momoa wearing the traditional green leaf lei and a native crown and flanked by his children, who were draped in native flags, went viral last week. Johnson, too, explained Mauna Kea’s importance to those of Polynesian descent. “This mountain is their church—like building on their church,” he said. For an Indian equivalent, it would probably be similar to building the telescope atop the Char Dham in the Himalaya.
Musician Damian Marley performed some of his father’s favourites at Mauna Kea’s base as well, while singer Bruno Mars expressed his support for the activists online.
In case no resolution is in sight, the TMT has a proposed backup site at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory at La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands. With its lowered elevation, the telescope would produce images of slightly worse quality as compared to Mauna Kea. However, the community there has been mostly supportive of the idea, save for environmental group Ecologists in Action, who have spoken out against damaging La Palma’s natural beauty.
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