Were cultural sites destroyed when building observatories?

Another of the myths that plague this conversation. While not as commonly stated as some of the other myths discussed here, it has been persistent and seems to pop up regularly.

A photo of the Mauna Kea summit area from the Preston expedition of 1892
A photo of the Mauna Kea summit area from the Preston expedition of 1892

When the 12 existing facilities were built, not only were laws waived, heiau and ahus were bulldozed into trash heaps. 

wailana in a comment on Ian Lind’s blog 14Sep2019

The myth is clearly an attempt to show that the state callously allowed the destruction of cultural properties in the past, thus showing that the state does not care for Hawaiian issues and would break its own laws.

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Were the telescopes built without permits?

This is another fairly common myth about the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea, that most of the telescopes were built without permits or issued “after-the-fact” permits after construction.

UH88 under the Milky Way
The UH88 telescope under the stars of the Milky Way

This is another myth built on a kernel of truth, the two earliest of the remaining thirteen telescopes were built without proper conservation district use permits in place. What is now Hoku Kea was built by the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories and given to the university a couple years later. The UH88 was built by the University of Hawaii in 1968.

As this was the State of Hawaii building on state land, apparently things were a bit lax. In retrospect this is no surprise, the state government was scarcely a decade old at this point and many of the administrative rules and regulations we now take for granted were still being written and implemented.

This is where the myth comes in, as somehow the other telescopes are accused of the same issue. The claim often made is that “most of these structures were un-permitted”. This is often claimed as part of the evidence for mismanagement by the university.

This is incorrect… All of the remaining telescopes were built with proper permits in place. The key permits are the Conservation District Use Permits or CDUP’s that allow the use of state land on the summit of Mauna Kea. Permit numbers and dates are listed in the table below…

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The observatories pay no rent?

There are two thing that opponents neglect to mention in this accusation. The observatories do pay the state money, quite a bit actually, about $4.4 million per year. Opponents also fail to understand why that $1 rent came about and the history of astronomy on the mauna.

The Keck telescopes at sunrise
The Keck telescopes at sunrise

In often nasty accusations, the $1 rent is used to imply that the observatories get a free ride, costing the state and county, and therefore the taxpayers. This is the part that is completely false, the observatories not only pay their share of costs, but have significantly benefited the island economy in very direct ways.

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You cannot build TMT on conservation land?

The claim is often made that TMT cannot be built as the land its would be sited on is a designated resource conservation district. This is another claim is steadily repeated by telescope opponents on social media…

A group of puʻu on the NE flank of Mauna Kea
A group of puʻu on the NE flank of Mauna Kea

 ITS CONSERVATION LAND! What part of that is so hard to understand? no more damage to our mountain.. please!! auwē!

Lynne Ven in a Facebook post

The crux of the claim is that being conservation district means that the telescope cannot be built near the summit of Mauna Kea as it is conservation land, that somehow the land is completely protected.

This claim argument depends on ignorance of the laws surrounding conservation lands. To anyone not familiar with the state land system this might make sense, but it is just is not true.

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The motivation for TMT is greed and profit?

It is said over, and over, and over… The telescopes exist to exploit the mauna, to extract profit, that they are built for greed. This is the single most repeated myth about the observatories, and it is the most insulting.

Sunset over the shoulder of Haulalai
Sunset over the shoulder of Haulalai

The fact is that the observatories make no profit, they are either government owned or operated by non-profit corporations. Actually the reverse is true, they are very good at spending money, and they spend a lot, observatories are expensive to operate with about $100 million put into the island economy.

What opponents seem oblivious to is in insisting that the telescopes are for profit it that they a being totally insulting. The insinuation of greed is as insulting as the worst things said against them. They repeat the insult over and over and do not care.

People work in astronomy to learn and explore the universe, they consider the pursuit of knowledge to be a noble goal. I have never met someone who worked in astronomy to get rich, the very idea is laughable. Like much of academia astronomy generally does not pay very well compared to some alternatives. Personally I could be making far more money working for some mainland electronics firm, and have a much smaller mortgage.

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Telescope Technicians Denied Access

Gemini Moonrise
The full Moon rising behind the Gemini North telescope

There is a developing maintenance situation at Gemini, a cooling system is failing putting very valuable equipment at risk. To deal with Gemini sought and received permission from both the state and the protesters to send a crew up that mauna to perform emergency maintenance.

Long story short, the protesters failed to honor their agreement today…

At approximately 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, July 23, a car containing technicians from Gemini Observatory was stopped by activists from entering the Maunakea Access Road. The observatory had been assured access the previous day in conversation with law enforcement, and the Office of Maunakea Management. Despite prior public statements indicating observatory technicians would not be denied access to the telescopes, activists today contradicted their earlier position. Activists told observatory personnel that without a formal, public letter from the observatories – supporting activists’ demands of the state – access for critical technical maintenance is no longer supported. 

Upon initial approach, the car of technicians was initially waived through the bamboo gate; the driver stopped to speak with an official from the Office of Maunakea Management, at which point a kupuna approached the car, stating that access was not to be allowed. Five additional activists then moved to stand in front of the car. This denial of access was contrary to the understanding of access approval by the Gemini crew members and the individual who had initially opened the gate. 

The car of technicians respectfully pulled to the side of the road at the request of the activists and waited for approximately 45 minutes.  During that time, activist leaders indicated that they were working to determine whether the technicians should be allowed access. 

Eventually, the Gemini crew members elected to turn back, given the uncertainty of eventual access. The crew was flagged down on their way away from the access point with an appeal from activists to continue to wait. The crew stopped to speak with the activists briefly before continuing to the Gemini base facility in Hilo.

The Maunakea Observatories continue to support the efforts of state and county law enforcement to restore safe and reliable access to the access road. 

About the planned technical work at Gemini Observatory today: 
Gemini Observatory uses gaseous helium in a cooling circuit to maintain stable low temperatures for two highly-delicate instruments used in astronomical observations. The cooling system has become unstable, which requires specialized technicians to shut down in order to prevent damage to the instruments and the cooling circuit itself. 

The observatory personnel planned to shut off the compressors, move one instrument at risk to a separate cooling circuit, shut down the second, disconnect specific joints in the cooling system, and perform a standard facility inspection that is usually conducted on a daily basis during normal operations. The planned technical work would have taken approximately three hours; the crew would have then come directly back to their Hilo base facility. 

Official statement from the Maunakea Observatories

On social media the protesters are trying to deny the event, claiming that the state is truly responsible. This is contradicted by the statements of the protest’s official spokesman who put his account of the incident into his daily video report.

In the report Kahoʻokahi Kanuha makes it clear that he was attempting to negotiate with the maintenance crew, asking for a statement supporting the protesters. The crew has no authority to negotiate, no authority to make statements or agreements for others. When this occurred they left as it was clear the protesters had failed to honor their agreements.

The 10 Questions?

A page asking 10 questions about Mauna Kea and the Thirty Meter Telescope is floating around social media with answers to those questions. Some of the questions are good, but the answers range from highly selective readings of the record to flat out wrong.

Saddle Water Cross Section
A hydrologic cross section of the Humu‘ula Saddle by the Humu‘ula Groundwater Research Project, University of Hawaii

I was going to ignore this as another piece of anti-TMT literature, but it has become too common and seems to be the source of some anti-TMT myths. As a result I decided to write an analysis of those answers here.

All of the supposed answers are highly slanted to the anti-TMT view. Most of the answers are simply incorrect, some are completely dishonest. There are some bits of valid argument, just enough to give the illusion of truth by a highly biased author.

Author’s note: While I admit to some bias myself, I can back up these alternate answers with some better data and references.

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There are other places where TMT could be built?

While it is true that TMT could be located at another site, no site would be quite as good as Mauna Kea.

The Thirty Meter Telescope
An artist concept of TMT at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated.

Astronomers measure the quality of a site in several ways, one of the most important is simply called ‘seeing’. This is a measure of atmospheric distortion, the amount of turbulence in the atmosphere above the telescope that distorts or blurs the image. In short it is a measure of how much stars twinkle at the site.

Seeing is measured in terms of the smallest discernible detail in arcseconds. A good site will have seing of less than one arcsecond. The best Chilean sites have seeing that averages around 0.7 arcseconds at best. Mauna Kea can have seeing that averages around 0.4 arcseconds when it is good, roughly twice as good as Chile.

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Space telescopes are better?

Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope attack the telescope in any way possible. Any argument is fodder in social media and newspaper editorials. Many of these arguments depend on a superficial level of knowledge about astronomy, this claim is a good example of this.

The Thirty Meter Telescope
The TMT with a laser guide star adaptive optics system
James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope

The claim is that a ground based telescope like TMT is not needed as a space telescope is more capable. Why spend the money? Why build TMT on Mauna Kea?

Given the stunning accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope this sounds plausible. This argument also ignores a number of fundamental realities in telescope design and use. Both have their limitations and we will discuss some of the more important ones here.

Certainly a telescope in space has a number of advantages over a ground based telescope. Not having an atmosphere to look through helps, it helps a lot. This is countered by the way ground based telescopes have developed solutions to overcome those limitations. The limitations on a space telescope are not created by the atmosphere and as such are far more practical and daunting.

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An Open Letter from the Observatories of Mauna Kea

The observatories that call Mauna Kea home have written an open letter to the community expressing our position on the ongoing events in our local community…

Aloha to our scientific colleagues around the world,

On behalf of the more than 500 people employed by the Maunakea Observatories, we offer a perspective about the Maunakea situation with the sincere hope that our words encourage greater understanding of the complex circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Staff members of the Maunakea Observatories, many of whom are born and raised in Hawaiʻi, feel a deep and personal connection to the special people and place of our Hawai‘i Island home. We live and work together in a community where our success is measured by the quality of our relationships, one of the paramount reasons life here is enriching, rewarding and inspiring. Even in conflict, our differences don’t define us; our humble, reverent appreciation of our community does. The diverse mix of scientists, technicians, engineers, administrators, and students of the Maunakea Observatories continually seek a path forward that strengthens the future of our island community. Our local staff, family members, and friends have a wide range of views and strong feelings about the events that surround us. We deeply respect all these viewpoints, which come from our family and friends, and we both believe and champion their right to express them.

In our community, we are weathering the pain of rifts in these carefully tended relationships that will take mutual respect and time to heal. We know these challenges across our island home have gained attention with our peers in the international astronomy community. We understand your expressed concerns. We also urge your appreciation of the nuances and complexity of the issues we now face.

The future of Maunakea astronomy will be defined primarily by the diverse people of Hawaiʻi. The vast majority of island residents support the Maunakea Observatories, who have been part of this community for more than 50 years. Conflict about the Thirty Meter Telescope does not change the long-standing support our Observatories have earned, but it will undoubtedly influence its future. For the benefit of the people who work on the mountain, for those who practice their culture and religion on the mountain, we look to a future beyond coexistence because that still implies barriers. We look to a future in which knowledge and worldviews hybridize to create a reality more beautiful and resilient than its progenitors.

This is beginning already, through A Hua He Inoa, the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua, black hole Pōwehi, and the unusual asteroids recently officially named Kamo‘oalewa and Ka‘epaoka‘awela by Hawaiian students. We look to a future for Maunakea where studies of the universe are buoyed by the wisdom of Hawaiian kupuna and grounded in the richness of Hawaiian culture. We are nurturing this future now as devoted members of the Hawaiʻi Island and international astronomy communities. We ask for the informed understanding and support of our international astronomy community to uphold this vision, which we believe will be an important part of everyone’s future.


Director Doug Simons, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
Director Pierre Martin, Hoku Kea Observatory
Director Jennifer Lotz, Gemini Observatory
Director Paul Ho, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (East Asian Observatory)
Interim Director Robert McLaren, Institute for Astronomy
Director John Rayner, NASA Infrared Telescope Facility
Director Michitoshi Yoshida, Subaru Telescope
Director Klaus Hodapp, UKIRT
Director Hilton Lewis, W.M. Keck Observatory (Keck I and Keck II)