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Work on world's largest star-gazing 'scope stopped after religious protests

Hawaii Supreme Court blocks Thirty Meter Telescope

By Iain Thomson, 4 Dec 2015

Building work on the world's largest telescope has stopped after the Hawaiian Supreme Court sided with local groups and withdrew construction permits.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project broke ground last October – albeit briefly – as protesters flooded the site trying to stop the building work. Local groups claim the telescope will damage the ecology of the Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island, and violates what some Hawaiians feel is a sacred site.

Protesters took to the courts to get the project stopped, but approval of the project was granted before their case was heard. This violated due process rules, the Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled, and as such the permits have been placed on indefinite hold.

"We thank the Hawaii Supreme Court for the timely ruling and we respect their decision," said Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory board of directors, in a statement.

"TMT will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have. We are assessing our next steps on the way forward. We appreciate and thank the people of Hawaii and our supporters from these last eight-plus years."

The TMT would have been the largest telescope on the planet, with a 30-meter (98-foot) array of 493 hexagonal mirrors weighing 200 tons. It would have been the largest building on Big Island, and protesters felt that the scientific instrument would violate their land.

The telescope has been sited at the top of the 4,207.3 meter (13,803 feet) Mauna Kea volcano, which already has 12 telescopes on its summit. The clear Hawaiian air, with very little light pollution, and the volcano's massive stature, make it one of the best places in the world for star gazing.

But some locals really don't like the most significant mountain on their island being used in such a way. Historically the tops of Hawaii's volcanoes are seen as sacred sites that shouldn't be built on – and protesters are concerned that any installations will damage the ecology.

Having been up the volcano personally it's difficult to see what the latter group are concerned about – it's a dusty, arid mountaintop with very little to recommend it other than for astronomy. Astronomer volunteers regularly run free star-viewing sessions from the volcano, which are a popular tourist destination.

But ecology concerns were cited by Operation Green Rights, which staged a distributed denial of service attack against the TMT website in April, claiming that "filthy money" was responsible for "ecocide." TMT pays the Hawaiian government $1m ground rent for the site every year.

The ruling puts the deadlines for the TMT in disarray. It was due to go live in 2022, but the whole project is now in doubt. ®

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