Hawaii Supreme Court revokes permit for massive telescope

Native Hawaiians have won their court challenge against an observatory that could one day be the world's largest.
By | Published: December 3, 2015 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
The summit of Mauna Kea is home to 13 observatories, and the Thirty Meter Telescope was scheduled to join them, completing construction in the early 2020s. Its fate now is uncertain.
Courtesy TMT International Observatory
On Wednesday, the Hawaii Supreme Court revoked the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) collaboration’s permit to build on the summit of Mauna Kea. This is a decision that will set the $1.5-billion observatory’s construction back months, if not years, while the collaboration begins the application process over again.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources originally granted the permit in 2011, with construction supposed to have started in April of this year. Protestors and a stay by the Hawaii Supreme Court in November, however, effectively stopped all construction efforts.

The court’s decision yesterday hinged on the board’s initial permit approval, which the court found violated due process. Protestors were granted the right to a contested hearing in order to argue their side, but the board approved TMT’s permit to build before the hearing was held, prompting one justice to liken the events to a judge ruling before the trial occurs.

The court’s decision does not prohibit the collaboration from re-applying.

Opponents of TMT, mostly Native Hawaiians, have argued that the telescope would be a desecration of the mountain, which is sacred in Hawaiian tradition. Mauna Kea is one of the premiere observing sites in the world, due to its altitude, low light pollution, and stable air currents. In particular, TMT is intended as the northern hemisphere complement to equally large telescopes beginning construction in Chile, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope.

The summit of Mauna Kea is already home to 13 observatories, several of which are slated for removal within the next few years. Part of the agreement to build on Mauna Kea has always been that the mountaintop be restored to its natural state upon completion of an observatory’s use, and Native Hawaiians have grown increasingly vocal about the absence, thus far, of such restoration. The agreement to decommission the telescopes, as well as more severe limitations on future construction projects, is part of the ongoing discussion that has arisen because of the TMT controversy.

TMT released a brief statement thanking the court for their timeliness and agreeing to abide by the ruling. Regarding the telescope’s ultimate fate, they said only, “We are assessing our next steps on the way forward.”