Maunakea and the TMT: A letter on astronomy’s past, present and future in Hawai‘i

Jay M., Anne Jaskot, Kevin Flaherty, Karen B., and Steven P.

The Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) represents a tremendous step forward in scientific advancement. It holds the potential to reveal unknown planets, to search for the first galaxies at the farthest reaches of the Universe and to contribute to our understanding of fundamental physics. No other proposed telescope can match the ability of the TMT to study the northern sky. The choice of Maunakea as the site of the TMT was driven in part by the desire to maximize the scientific return of the TMT. As one of the tallest, driest sites on Earth, it provides unparalleled views of the Universe.

But the contribution of the TMT to astronomy, and its placement on Maunakea, cannot be considered in a vacuum. It must be examined against the background of the history of astronomy on Maunakea. In 1964, the state of Hawaii leased 13,000 acres of land on Maunakea to the University of Hawai‘i and over the next 50 years 13 telescopes were constructed near the summit. During this time, the focus was often on scientific advances at the expense of environmental and cultural factors. In their 2018 ruling approving the construction of the TMT, the Hawaiian Supreme Court noted, “It is undisputed that even without the TMT, the cumulative effect of the astronomical development and other uses in the summit area of Mauna Kea have resulted in impacts that are substantial, significant, and adverse.” Prior to this ruling, state audits in 1998, 2005 and 2014 all cited the mismanagement of Maunakea, including damage to historic sites near the summit, and increasing slope instability as a result of construction activities. Williams College has its own complex history in Hawai‘i, dating back to the missionary movement of the 1800s. This history cannot be ignored. 

The TMT is the first observatory to attempt to address this problematic past. Before the construction of the TMT is complete, three telescopes on Maunakea will be decommissioned, with another two scheduled to be decommissioned by 2033. The TMT contributes $1 million per year toward education in the Hawai‘i community, with an additional $300,000 per year (growing to $1 million per year) going towards conservation of Maunakea. This is not to mention the over one hundred permanent jobs at the observatory in addition to the over 300 multi-year construction jobs. 

We recognize that for many people these economic factors, in addition to the scientific advances promised by the TMT, are not substitutable for the adverse historical impacts of astronomy on Maunakea. When considering the placement of the TMT on Maunakea, opinions are decidedly mixed. Polls among Native Hawaiians have found levels of support for the TMT ranging between 30 percent and 70 percent, depending on when the poll was taken. While no similar poll has been performed among the astronomical community, there are certainly astronomers who strongly support the TMT on Maunakea, as well as those who strongly oppose the construction of the TMT on Maunakea. Native Hawaiians and astronomers are not the only stake-holders in this decision. Multiple parties, ranging from employees of the other observatories on Maunakea to police officers who are charged with keeping the roads clear, are affected by the decision to build the TMT on Maunakea. 

The backup site for the TMT, the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, is adequate, but is also undeniably a worse site for astronomy. The higher temperature and lower altitude relative to Maunakea will make observations at infrared wavelengths, just beyond the edge of our vision, more difficult. This means fewer young or Earth-like planets being discovered, fewer insights into the early stages of planet formation, as well as a more limited ability to study the farthest galaxies. 

Amidst all of the complexities surrounding this dispute, we have some common ground with our colleagues from the American studies program, whose letter appeared in the Record last week, as well as others who endorse their opinion. We share in their respect for the protesters, and we agree that ignoring our problematic past, including that of astronomers at Maunakea as well as that of Williams College in Hawai‘i, is not a viable path forward. We hope that a peaceful resolution can be found among all affected parties that advances our knowledge of the Universe, while respecting Maunakea and the people for whom this area is a sacred land. 

Jay M. Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy and Chair

Anne Jaskot ’08, Assistant Professor of Astronomy

Kevin Flaherty, Lecturer in Astronomy

Karen B. Kwitter, Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Astronomy, Emerita

Steven P. Souza, Senior Lecturer in Astronomy, Emeritus