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On Sacred Hawaii Peak, Science Wins a Clash With Religion

Thirty Meter Telescope project gets go-ahead after years of legal battles
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 23, 2019 8:21 AM CDT
In this 2015 file photo, observatories and telescopes sit atop Mauna Kea, the site for a new $1.4 billion telescope, near Hilo, Hawaii. After years of protests and legal battles, officials announced...   (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)
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(Newser) – After years of protests and legal battles, a massive telescope that will allow scientists to peer into the most distant reaches of our early universe will be built on Mauna Kea, a Hawaiian volcano that some consider sacred. The state announced a "notice to proceed" for the Thirty Meter Telescope project Thursday, reports the AP. Hawaii Gov. David Ige said it was the final legal step in a long, often contentious, process, and that construction is expected to begin this summer. "We will proceed in a way that respects the people, place, and culture that make Hawaii unique," Ige said. "We are all stewards of Mauna Kea." Scientists say the summit is one of the best places on Earth for astronomy. The telescope would be three times as wide as the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, with nine times more area. Several telescopes and observatories are already on the summit.

But opponents say the telescope will desecrate sacred land atop Mauna Kea, the state's highest peak and a place of religious importance to Native Hawaiians. State and county officials removed Native Hawaiian structures Thursday built on land where the telescope will be constructed. Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian activist who has led some protests, said officials were only allowing astronomers through. "It's completely discriminatory. It's hostile to the Native Hawaiian people," she said. "These are places of worship and the places where we lay our offering and our prayer." The new telescope will allow astronomers to reach back 13 billion years, to the time just after the big bang. Richard Ha, a Native Hawaiian farmer who supports the project, visits Mauna Kea and respects the connection Native Hawaiians have to the place. "Once you get above the clouds, you're in a different world. It makes you feel like humans are just a small part."

(Read more astronomy stories.)

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