Two large white domes on a barren reddish landscape.

Enlarge / Keck 1 and Keck 2, near the summit of Mauna Kea. (credit: Eric Berger)

The giant volcanoes of Hawaii’s Big Island held a special place for the Polynesians who first settled there, with the peak of Mauna Kea being reserved for that society’s elite. But in recent years, they’ve become home to a new kind of elite: some of the best telescopes humanity has designed. For the past several years, those legacies have clashed through a mix of protests, hearings, and legal maneuvers.

Scientists wanted to build one of our next-generation giant telescopes on Mauna Kea and received approval from the state to do so. But native Hawaiians and their supporters, disturbed by the ever-growing population of observatories and poor past stewardship of the mountain, protested and appealed. Now, the state’s Supreme Court has issued what appears to be a comprehensive ruling that upholds the latest construction approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources. This appears to clear the last hurdle astronomers faced before starting construction.

A contentious history

Scientists have been building telescopes with state approval on top of Mauna Kea for decades, despite its significance to the Polynesians who first settled the islands. Over time, however, three trends set the stage for the current controversy. One was that a telescope, once built, tended not to come down, and the people doing the building didn’t always plan to keep the hardware unobtrusive or minimize the environmental damages of construction. At the same time, cultural awareness among those who could trace their ancestry to the first Hawaiians increased, as did our knowledge of their political and religious practices. Work on Mauna Kea identified many shrines and features that are of cultural and/or religious significance.

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