190621 telescope observatory
An artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory. Image Credit: NYT

HONOLULU: After years of protests and legal battles, Hawaii officials announced Thursday that a massive telescope which will allow scientists to peer into the most distant reaches of our early universe will be built on a volcano that some consider sacred.

The state has issued a “notice to proceed” for the Thirty Meter Telescope project, Gov. David Ige said at a news conference. In October, a state Supreme Court’s 4-1 ruling upheld the project’s permits for the $1.4 billion instrument.

“We expect that TMT construction will begin sometime 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. The state has an obligation to respect and honour the unique cultural and natural resources on this special mountain.”

Ige said four unauthorised structures were removed from the mountain earlier in the day.

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.

Scientists say the summit is one of the best places on Earth for astronomy. Several telescopes and observatories are already on the summit.

The action comes on the same day Native Hawaiian practitioners had planned to go to the summit area for a night-time solstice ceremony and to honour an elder who recently died, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian activist who has led some of the protest efforts.

“It’s on the eve of our solstice ceremonies. They know that we go up during solstice and equinox,” she said. “We were preparing to head up tonight for the solstice and to honour him.”

Before dawn Thursday morning, state and county officials drove up Mauna Kea to remove four Native Hawaiian structures.

Native Hawaiians have used the structures for years, Pisciotta said, and she considers the removal of the structures to be desecration and discriminatory.

“What’s the argument for taking them down? 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.”

She said their rights to religious freedom are being violated.

“If someone went into a church and took down the crucifix or you know the cross, how would that be treated?” Pisciotta asked.

She said police are blocking the road to the summit and are only allowing astronomers through, including Hawaiians who asked to go pray at the summit.

“They won’t let anyone up,” she said. “They said no. They may block us tonight, also.”

The new telescope, which officials say will begin to be constructed this summer, will allow astronomers to reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe.

Plans for the project date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year, around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site.

The project won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011.

Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the site in 2014. After that, the protests intensified.

Construction stopped in April 2015 after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews retreating when they encountered large boulders in the road.

A group of universities in California and Canada make up the telescope company, with partners from China, India and Japan. The instrument’s primary mirror would measure 98 feet (30 meters) in diameter. Compared with the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, it would be three times as wide, with nine times more area.

Telescope parts have been built in California and partner countries while construction on Mauna Kea was halted.