Mauna Kea, the tallest peak in Hawaii, is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observations. In fact, a consortium led by Caltech and the University of California are planning to construct an 18-story telescope to contribute to the renewed interest in space exploration and discovery during the Trump administration.

However, the attempt to move forward with the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would give astronomers the ability to peer through space-time to the beginning of the universe 13 billion years ago, met with resistance from from Native Hawaiians (who view the area as sacred).

The Hawaiians were then joined by social justice crusaders.

Native Hawaiians and their supporters pledged to stop the telescope project at all cost. On July 15, five days after Gov. David Ige announced that construction on Mauna Kea was imminent, opponents mobilized. They occupied the Mauna Kea Access Road, blocking equipment trucks from ascending to the summit and drawing massive support via social media. Celebrities, including Dway ne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason (“Aquaman”) Momoa and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, showed up at the mountain. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tweeted her support. Large protests sprung up across the archipelago.

At times the presence at the base of Mauna Kea reached 2,000 people — in essence, a small city, with medic and donations tents, a large kitchen, a volunteer “university,” and prayer ceremonies three times a day.

On July 17, state police arrested 38 Native Hawaiian elders (kupuna), including Wong-Wilson, for blocking the road. They were quickly released and have returned to their folding chairs on the highway, prepared for a long stay.

It became the Hawaiian version of the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline but without the mountain of garbage.

In fact, recently released court documents indicate that some of the protesters adopted some Antifa-like tactics.

In a court declaration filed in connection with a Mauna Kea access case, Hawaii County Police Department Maj. Samuel Jelsma — the incident commander that day — described deals with protesters that fell through shortly before the arrests started to happen.

He said as kupuna [elders] were arrested in the blockade of Mauna Kea Access Road, others would occupy their seats. Then, more than 100 protesters formed with women in the front. Jelsma said the 2,000 demonstrators outnumbered police 10-to-1.

“There was a significant risk that the increasingly vocal and volatile group of protesters on both shoulders would respond with violence if law enforcement officers took the necessary action to forcefully separate protesters who were blocking the road,” he wrote, in the document.

…The incident commander also said that some activists had their faces covered and carried bamboo sticks behind their backs. He also said that some vehicles parked in the middle of Daniel K. Inouye Highway, which hindered law enforcement vehicles.

The 12 other observatories in operation on Mauna Kea were shut-down by the ensuing protests. They have since been reopened after a deal was stuck with the demonstrators.

…State authorities brokered the deal, which includes the construction of a temporary roadway built across hardened lava around the protesters’ camp on the summit access road. Law enforcement will give protesters an advance list of all vehicles going up and down—to show that they are not associated with the TMT.

Astronomers are grateful for an end to the 4-week shutdown of the existing observatories—the longest in the 5-decade history of the Mauna Kea observatories. “It was very far-reaching,” says Sarah Bosman of University College London, who lost 3 nights of time to observe distant galaxies with the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes. “Every area of astronomy was affected by this.”

Astronomers around the world compete for valuable time on these high-powered telescopes. Scientists have canceled over 2,000 hours of observational time, which has likely impacted significant research as well as the careers of those who rely on those instruments for their work.

Astronomers are concerned that the TMT has been hijacked by issues that have little to do with science.

“The state leadership really needs to be decisive, both on TMT’s access and on these broader issues faced in Hawaii,” says Thayne Currie, an astrophysicist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, who uses Mauna Kea telescopes.

The institutions that run the telescopes accommodated the native Hawaiians’ need for access to the mountain for 50 years without these issues. However, it seems the need for victim-status and virtual-signalling has rendered the units more useful as political targets instead of tools for discovery and research.

 
 
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