Artist’s concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea
Image: TMT International Observatory

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is deferring a decision on whether to stay in Hawaii or move to a back-up location in the Canary Islands while it waits to secure permits in either, the telescope’s board announced Friday.

A year ago, Gizmodo reported that the board for the TMT—slated to become the world’s most powerful telescope—was hoping to break ground on its giant observatory by April 2018. That deadline is fast slipping away, but the decision to move to an alternate site is being kicked down the road. The board isn’t ready to give up on the nearly 14,000 foot behemoth of Mauna Kea, considered the best place for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere.

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But the telescope has faced fierce opposition from some Native Hawaiians, who view the mountaintop as sacred and say it should be left untouched. The untouched part is impossible, with 13 other observatories already peppering its snowy peaks, but opponents don’t want to see another. There are concerns over the environmental impacts, the degradation of culturally-significant viewsheds, and the the continued prioritization of western science despite Native dissent. 

The telescope has already conducted what its board describes as a “very extensive” environmental impact statement that includes leaving zero waste on the mountain and choosing a site that poses “no risk” to any endangered plants or animals. It has altered its design to minimize the observatory’s visual impact, and agreed to a $1 million yearly lease, a big chunk of which will go toward stewardship of Mauna Kea.

For some, these gestures haven’t been enough. In late 2015, the telescope’s construction permit was voided by the Hawaiian Supreme Court following legal action by a Native-led coalition of opponents, that argued due process had been violated when the permit was issued. The TMT’s future in Hawaii uncertain, its board secured an alternate construction site atop the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands (still an excellent place for astronomy, but one that’s more susceptible to weather and atmospheric interference).

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Those in favor of the Hawaii site received some ostensibly good news back in September, when after a long-contested case hearing, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources decided to issue a new construction permit for the scope.

Opponents were quick to challenge that decision, though, appealing the matter to the Hawaiian Supreme Court. That appeal is ongoing, while arguments for another appeal over a consent to sublease were heard in March.

On Thursday, Hawaii’s state Senate voted in favor of a bill banning any new construction on Mauna Kea, but included a provision that the ban could be lifted following various audits. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports the bill is likely to go nowhere in the House.

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The dragged-out process and delays may put the TMT’s competitiveness at risk, with next-generation observatories expected online in the southern hemisphere by the mid-2020s. But for now, the board will continue to wait.

“A decision will be made on the planned location of the Thirty Meter Telescope as further progress is made in the legal and regulatory processes at both proposed sites,” the board said in a statement, adding that the TMT is moving forward with an environmental and permitting process in the Canary Islands.

“Ultimately the decision will be made by the Supreme Court,” Ed Stone, Executive Director of the TMT International Observatory, told Earther.

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Stone told Earther that Mauna Kea remains the TMT’s preferred site. But if it doesn’t pan out in “a timeline that’s workable,” he feels confident the permits will come through for the Canary Islands.

“We do feel that they are very welcoming to having a telescope,” he said.