Hawaiian law could break years of astronomy impasse

Gemini North telescopic dome on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA.

There are 13 observatories on Maunakea, including the Gemini North Telescope (right) and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (left).Credit: David Nunuk/Science Photo Library

The state of Hawaii has found a new way to manage Mount Maunakea, which has many world-class astronomical observatories on its summit. A law signed into law by the governor of Hawaii on July 7 relieves the University of Hawaii of its role as the main agency overseeing the land on which the telescopes are located and gives that responsibility to a newly formed group with a much broader representation of the population Community, including native Hawaiians.

Many are hoping that the postponement of astronomy in Hawaii will provide a way forward after a years-long impasse regarding the future of telescopes on Maunakea. Since 2015, some local Hawaiians have temporarily blocked the road to the summit, mainly to prevent construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) from beginning – a next-generation observatory that will feature a giant light-gathering mirror to make astronomical discoveries. The sit-ins sparked widespread debate about tribal peoples’ rights to have a say in the management of lands sacred to them but used for purposes such as science.

The new Maunakea Authority will involve native Hawaiians in making decisions about how the mountain will be managed, with an emphasis on mutual stewardship and protecting Maunakea for generations to come. The board will have 11 voting members, one of whom must be an active practitioner of Native Hawaiian cultural traditions and one of whom must be a descendant of a cultural practitioner associated with Maunakea. There are also spots for representatives from astronomy, education, land management, politics and other fields.

“I’m very hopeful for the new entity,” says Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a Native Hawaiian elder who has helped run roadblocks on the mountain. “It’s beyond my imagination where we would be at this point because we’ve fought for so long to be heard.”

The University of Hawaii has managed most of the lands around Maunakea’s summit since 1968, when the state granted it a 65-year lease to operate a science reserve focused on astronomy. Maunakea has ideal skies for astronomical observations due to its elevation of 4,200 meters and its stable and dark night sky. The university now has until July 1, 2028 to transfer all of its administrative responsibilities, including a complex set of subleases, permits and other agreements, to the new authority. says Doug Simons, director of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Manoa, Hawaii.

A way forward

Maunakea is used for a number of purposes including tourism, hunting, and environmental studies, in addition to cultural practices and astronomy. It currently houses 13 observatories, two of which are currently being decommissioned to reduce the impact on the mountain.

The new law emerged from a proposal by Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Scott Saiki, aimed at breaking the Maunakea impasse. It formed a working group that recommended changes in Maunakea’s management, leading to the final plan to remove the University of Hawaii as the primary manager.

The group was successful because it created a framework of mutual respect, says Rich Matsuda, associate director of external relations at WM Keck Observatory in Waimea, Hawaii, who was a member. “Things were often presented as culture versus science,” he says. β€œIt’s kind of a false dichotomy and an insulting framing. Different knowledge systems and perspectives do not have to be contradictory.”

The law states that astronomy is the state policy of Hawaii. “The state says that astronomy is important to Hawaii and that the state is investing in astronomy but investing even more in managing Maunakea as a special place — that combination is absolutely critical to me,” said John O’Meara, Chief Scientist von Keck, which has two 10-meter telescopes on Maunakea. “It’s reason to be optimistic.”

The Fate of a Telescope

Many steps remain. The first is to identify individuals for the new Maunakea administrative body β€” they will likely be appointed by the governor β€” and then set them up to handle all of the administrative and managerial responsibilities that the university has overseen. State legislatures must also allocate funds to fund the group beyond the $14 million allocated for the first year.

And then there is the question of the TMT. It has a permit to proceed with construction but has not yet done so due to tensions on the mountain. Last November, the project received a much-needed boost when the ten-year US survey of funding priorities in astronomy and astrophysics recommended it go ahead. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is now considering funding the project, which does not have enough money to fully build the telescope with its partners in the US, China, Canada, India and Japan.

If the NSF decides to join the TMT, at an estimated cost of $800 million, at least a quarter of telescope time would be accessible to observers from the United States. It would also trigger a federal review of how construction of the telescope might affect Maunakea, which would need to be completed before work could begin.

At least for Wong-Wilson, the discussion about the TMT can go on for now. “There’s nothing off the table,” she says.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: