The University of Hawaii (UH) took another step toward its dream: building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the peak of Maunakea, a mountain deemed sacred by native Hawaiians. Earlier this week the university picked the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) to be decommissioned, the third big telescope to be removed from the mountain, where there are a dozen dotting the landscape.
Three observatories, 25 percent of summit observatories, had to be removed as part of Hawaii Governor David Ige's stewardship plan to better conserve Maunakea. Other parts of the plan include the return of land not used for astronomy, improved cultural training and full use of observing time in the remaining telescopes. The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Holu Kea telescope will begin the decommissioning process in 2016.
As part of the deal, the new astronomical observatory with a rare "extremely large telescope," will be built elsewhere on the property. Removal of the the UKIRT will take place after the Caltech and Hoku Kea telescopes are removed. No new telescopes will take their place, according to the University of Hawaii.
"UH is fulfilling its promise to take several telescopes down from the mountain. You can imagine for us as scientists this is a very hard thing, but this has to be done," Guenther Hasinger, director of the UH Mānoa Institute for Astronomy, said in a statement.
Maunakea has long been renowned as an astronomical destination. The height, weather and environmental conditions make it an ideal base for observatories. As such, 12 telescopes have been on or near the summit of the mountain. The University of Hawaii leased the 11,288-acre Maunakea Science Reserve from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Included in the reserve is the 525-acre Astronomy Precinct, home to the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope and 12 existing observatories.
The proposed Thirty Meter Telescope is billed as having the "most advanced and power optical telescope on Earth." After a decade of planning, TMT construction began in 2014. But it was quickly halted due to fierce protests by a group of native Hawaiians who deemed the mountain sacred. A June restart was met with a violent protest that led to the arrest of 31 people who oppose it. Maunakea is also the site of ancient burial grounds, and the mountain plays a sacred role in Hawaii's creation story.
With construction halted, the TMT battle continued in the State Supreme Court. "No word on when a decision will be announced. No stays or injunctions have been issued (or requested actually) on construction, so legally TMT does have the right to start construction," Dan Meisenzahl, UH spokesman, said in an email. An Oct. 10 ruling from the Hawaii circuit court invalidated an emergency rule preventing anyone from being within a mile of the Maunakea access road, unless they are in a moving vehicle, between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. local time, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported.
While TMT can legally continue construction, the organization behind the project has not announced future plans for the observatory. "TMT has not yet determined when it will resume construction on Maunakea. It anticipates completion in 2024," Jocelyn Collado, TMT spokesperson, said via email.