One of the most intractable questions in astronomy, aside from what constitutes dark matter and whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, is whether the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will ever be built on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The project, led by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology with partners abroad, aims to build by far the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. But in 2015, construction trucks headed for Mauna Kea were stopped by protesters, some wanting to stop what they called further desecration of the mountain, which is sacred to Native Hawaiians, and others angry at perceived US imperialism. Continental United. Legal challenges have been raised and resolved, but TMT is still deadlocked after thousands of people took part in new protests in 2019.
At this week’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle, the uncertain future of TMT once again took center stage, as three members of a new Hawaiian body designed to oversee the future use of Mauna Kea, for astronomy. and other activities, held a discussion at the town hall. . The panelists’ descriptions of how they built trust and came to understand each other’s positions earned a standing ovation.
Formed by state law in July 2022, the 11-member Mauna Kea Management and Supervision Authority (MKSOA) includes representatives from the observatory, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, local business and education officials, and land management experts. It arose from the recommendations of an equally diverse working group that had held virtual discussions the previous year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the next 5 years, MKSOA will assume management of Mauna Kea from the University of Hawaii (UH) and the Department of Land and Natural Resources. That state agency currently leases the mountain to UH, which in turn subleases sites to Mauna Kea’s 12 existing observatories. Under the Hawaiian law that formed the new Mauna Kea authority, astronomy is a priority of the state and management of the mountain must balance the interests of all stakeholder groups. That mandate has given some astronomers hope that TMT can move forward in a consensual manner.
But there is another player in this drama: the National Science Foundation (NSF). TMT has amassed substantial financial backing from its university sponsors and the governments of China, Japan, India and Canada, but is still far from fully funded and has called on NSF to fill the gap. TMT’s request came in association with the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), another US-led effort to build a massive new telescope. The GMT site is already being prepared in Chile but it is also in financial trouble.
Together, the two projects are seeking $3 billion from NSF in exchange for the broader American astronomical community gaining access to a large portion of the observing time from both oscilloscopes. That proposal was judged by US astronomers as their top priority for ground-based astronomy in the decennial community survey released in November 2021. NSF is now evaluating whether this is a good investment for US taxpayers. Agency officials visited Hawaii in August 2022, before the MKSOA was formed, to conduct public meetings on TMT as part of an environmental impact assessment, as required by law before committing federal funds.
After your session at the AAS meeting, Science discussed MKSOA and the past and future of astronomy on Mauna Kea with the body’s three newly appointed members: Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, executive director of the Lālākea Foundation, a Hawaiian nonprofit cultural organization; Rich Matsuda, associate director of external relations at the WM Keck Observatory; and the authority’s first president, John Komeiji, a former general counsel and vice president of Kamehameha Schools, a private K-12 school system primarily for children of Hawaiian descent. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What was it about the attempt to break ground on TMT in 2015 that moved people to action?
Noe Noe Wong-Wilson: The community felt strongly that [TMT’s] The permit was not delivered successfully. There were still processes that were not complete. So, the day the trucks physically began rolling, community members decided to take a stand. They literally stood in the way at the visitor center. It was very peaceful, but very determined.
Q: Repeated attempts to bring stakeholders to the table and resolve the matchup have failed. What prompted the state legislature to establish the task force? (Matsuda and Wong-Wilson were also on the task force.)
Rich Matsuda: I don’t think there was political will to do it before. I did not participate in those previous meetings, but they were very short term, oriented to immediate solutions. The president of the chamber, Joe Souki, had the political will to… bring people to the table to try to do something a little more thoughtful. I don’t think it would have happened without the pandemic pause. He created a kind of timeout period.
Q: What was it about the task force that allowed it to succeed where other attempts had failed?
RM: Going in, to be honest, I was not expecting a result. I stood up and said that I would be willing to be astronomy. [representative] because I wanted to create more dialogue. I felt like it was missing. But the fact that [the working group] he actually came out with recommendations which we agreed was unexpected. The ethos that was introduced, with kapu aloha [a Hawaiian process of conflict resolution] and having this mutual respect for ideas and having their input and that we’re going to behave in a certain way, that was the key. I don’t think we could have done that without having the right values and behaviors.
And this was on zoom, during the pandemic, so we couldn’t even physically feel each other’s presence. It was difficult at first because we didn’t know each other yet. But I really give credit to kupuna [Hawaiian elders] and aunt noe noe [Wong-Wilson] for making sure everyone could say what they had to say.
Q: Now that MKSOA has been implemented, what has been the reaction from Hawaiian community groups?
NNO-O.: I think a lot of people in the community are hopeful but waiting to see what happens. They are willing to give us space and time to put this together. Everyone realizes how huge, huge this company is going to be. No matter what, you’ll always have a handful of detractors, people who just can’t believe you can do anything with this format. There were people, including us, who said it would not go to the legislature or be signed by the governor. We weren’t sure that was going to happen, but it did. The process we use to get there is what will reassure you that we’re on the right track. The process is as important as the result.
Q: What has been the reaction from the Mauna Kea observatories? Is there nervousness about the lease renewal process in 2033?
RM: There is a lot of nervousness and there was before too. With authority there is a feeling of hope because there is better dialogue. Now, uncertainty is the will. [the authority] being able to do leases on time and what does that mean for observatories? Will the terms of the lease be different? We don’t have answers yet.
Q: Under an earlier plan for UH’s Mauna Kea, the number of telescopes on the summit would be reduced. Two are being discharged. There will be more?
RM: The UH master plan that was the basis for moving forward before the authority bill passed was to have a total of nine [observatories]. so three more [need to go]. But the authority has to come up with a master plan.
John Komeiji: The time for us to agree to that plan is fiscal year 2026. [UH is] it is supposed to announce, through its process, which other telescopes are going to be decommissioned. We haven’t had a discussion at the authority level yet.
Q: NSF is conducting its environmental impact assessment at TMT. Have you had any interaction with NSF?
JK: The three of us have met NSF’s Sean Jones, whose general authority covers astronomy, trying to explain to him what we’re doing and some of the reasons why. We haven’t addressed the question of his timeline yet, but there are certain time requirements that they believe are mandated by law.
NNO-O.: I think the two entities will have to align eventually, but we’re not there right now.
Q: One of the options that NSF has outlined is to invest in TMT after the various parties have agreed to a “plan to define and practice responsible astronomy in Hawaii.” Is that a positive sign?
NNO-O.: That’s a comment without comment! We have no responsibility for the NSF process, so I don’t see how we can respond to that. It would be great if we could get to a place where the authority is developed enough and can provide guidance to groups like NSF. We’re just not there yet.
Q: NSF’s timeline says it will make its final decision on TMT in 2024. Will the authority be ready to deal with that by then?
NNO-O.: They can decide what they want. We have until 2028 to make our transitions, so who knows.
JK: I don’t know if we’ll be ready, but I don’t see us doing things sequentially in the sense that we have to have authority fully established before we start talking about some of these substantive issues. At some point we are going to have to do things in parallel. Still, I look forward to collaboration. Part of the reason we’re here is that people are doing things independently, without collaboration with the community, without collaboration with each other.
Q: Are you confident that astronomers and other interested groups can coexist amicably on Mauna Kea?
NNO-O.: I dont see why not. We all have to change and adjust. It is not a question of living together, it has to be a unified purpose. If we all stand in front of the mauna and we all hold hands and agree that the most important thing is that this special place is going to be taken care of, then we can find solutions.