Thirty Meter Telescope
About 30 elders were arrested as demonstrators protested the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which was slated to start on Monday. Pictured is an artist's concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope astronomical observatory with a rare Extremely Large Telescope. TMT International Observatory

After much back and forth over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, TMT officials announced Monday they had settled on an alternative site for the telescope if it could not be constructed atop Mauna Kea. The dormant volcano is considered sacred by native Hawaiians who have opposed building the giant telescope there.

The board of governors of the TMT International Observatory (TIO) met Monday to discuss the stalled project and expressed hope that construction of the advanced telescope would still go ahead as planned. But in case local opposition scrapped the project in Hawaii, they also chose La Palma in Canary Islands, Spain, as the next best location for TMT to be built.

In a statement, Henry Yang, chairman of the board, said: “After careful deliberation, the Board of Governors has identified Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain as the primary alternative to Hawaii. Maunakea continues to be the preferred choice for the location of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the TIO Board will continue intensive efforts to gain approval for TMT in Hawaii.”

La Palma is the western-most of the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco.

The construction of TMT, which its website touts as “the world’s most advanced and capable ground-based optical, near-infrared and mid-infrared observatory,” has been beset with legal problems in Hawaii. Work was suspended in April 2015 after protestors who refused to leave the area were arrested. Construction restarted in June 2015 but further protests brought a quick halt to the activity. In December, the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled that approval given by the state’s land board was based on a flawed process and temporarily halted construction. Hearings started again Oct. 21, and are expected to last a few weeks.

The telescope, expected to cost around $1.4 billion, will be one of the world’s largest when built, and with a resolution higher than the Hubble Space Telescope, would allow scientists to study the universe in its earliest days. But it needs a place to be built, one with clear skies for most of the year and little atmospheric pollution.

“We just want a mountain to start building on,” Christophe Dumas, a scientist with the TIO in Pasadena, California, told Nature.

Protests against the construction of TMT in Hawaii have come from both natives and environmentalists. At least three of the existing 13 observatories on the summit of Mauna Kea on Big Island are being decommissioned.