Mauna Kea's Scientists Search for Balance Between Discovery and Cultural Preservation

Jul 23, 2019

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, operated by the East Asian Observatory, is one of 13 telescopes operating on the summit of Mauna Kea.
Credit Wikipedia

There are 12 observatories operating 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea. Astronomy workers, who are members of the local community, are struggling to find a balance between pursuing scientific discovery and acknowledging cultural concerns.

Much of the scientific work being done on Mauna Kea has ground to a halt, with the summit access road blocked by protesters. The various observatories made the decision to withdraw all staff from the mountain during the first week of the protest, which is opposing the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the mountain.

Jessica Dempsey, the Deputy Director of the East Asian Observatory, says that after protests erupted in 2015, Hawaii Island’s observatories made a greater effort to listen and address concerns raised by telescope opponents.

“That listening is something which I think is really, really important to us here in every aspect. That for me is the thing that has been most important.”

Dempsey says that concerted effort to better communicate with the community has made a difference. But opponents appear to be as entrenched as ever on the issue.

She also cautioned that the solution is not as simple as taking down some telescopes to offset the TMT. Each telescope observes the cosmos in a different way. Together, they help scientists gain a fuller picture of the universe and its origins.

“Some see wide, some see deep, we see in many wavelengths. The TMT adds things that right now the current telescopes can’t do, but it is a complimentary science.”

According to Dempsey, there is no timeline for returning telescope workers, who do essential tasks like maintenance and telescope operation, to the summit. She says the decision to send staff back to the summit will be made once law enforcement has determined unimpeded access to the road is available.

In the meantime, observatory managers will do their best to maintain their billion dollar telescopes and continue hoping for a quick resolution to the standoff between police and protesters.