Earth Mother and Sky Father meet at the summit of Mauna Kea on the main island of Hawai’i. In Hawaiian culture, Mauna Kea is the embodiment of ancestors and the sacred center of all life.
It’s also where the University of California is fighting to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), against the wishes of the Kānaka Maoli, the Indigenous Hawaiian people.
According to the project website, the TMT would provide new observational opportunities in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics. The project is an international collaboration between a number of universities from the US, Japan, Canada, India, and China.
Without stewardship of the land in mind, the TMT comes at the expense of Indigenous lands and people, and Mauna Kea’s environmental protection is being entrusted to nations with no material stake in the land.
Because of its arid conditions and high visibility, 13 telescopes sit at the summit of Mauna Kea, and among them are UCSC’s twin telescopes inside the Keck Observatory.
The proposal of the TMT presents the opportunity to look closely at the relationships between the academic and military institutions that link present-day American settler colonialism on Hawai’i to the legacy of the Space Race. In other words, mid-20th century notions about racing to be number one in space exploration remain at the forefront of astronomical pursuits.
The latest Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey by the National Academy of Sciences notes that “the two-telescope U.S.-ELTP is needed to maintain U.S. leadership, and that it would be disastrous if no U.S.-ELTP is realized.”
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency centered on improving Native Hawaiians’ well-being, filed a lawsuit against the State of Hawaii, the University of Hawai’i (UH), and others for neglecting their legal duties through their mismanagement of Mauna Kea. The Bureau of Land and Natural Resources agreed to a 65-year lease of land on Mauna Kea which stipulated that UH had no limits on observatory building plans. Through that lease, UH has entered into a series of legal sublease agreements with other universities, including UCSC.
U.S. ELTP refers to the United States’ “Extremely Large Telescope Program.” The second telescope in the U.S.-ELTP is the Giant Magellan Telescope.
Simply put, the state of Hawai’i is legally required to act in Hawaiians’ best interests in regards to Mauna Kea, and Hawai’i’s own state agencies are suing them for failing to do so.
Again, it’s clear that the focus of such astronomy projects is not on the stars, but on political prestige, profit, and power. As the central coordinator for the UC’s involvement in the TMT, UCSC maintains a special relationship with Mauna Kea. However, ignoring student calls to divest, the UC continues to fund the project.
Protests against the project, which began as early as 2014, have not been entirely in vain. The TMT’s construction was originally slated to begin in 2015, and has been pushed back to as far as 2023. The project continues to face legal challenges both in Hawai’i and in Spain, where an alternate location for the telescope has been proposed in the Canary Islands. It is not too late for the university to divest.
And in fact, it must do more than divest.
The Keck Observatory Telescopes and the production of the TMT are both colonial projects. Continued operations of old, along with the construction of new telescopes, contributes to desecration of Indigenous burial ground and sacred land.
In attempts to return Mauna Kea to its natural state, UH and CalTech have already decommissioned their own telescopes and are soliciting comments from environmental activists on the best ways to go about telescope removal. If UCSC is serious about its commitment to Indigenous land and combating climate change, its course of action should be to follow suit.
Anything less than UCSC divesting from the TMT and decommissioning the Keck Observatory amounts to the clear support of colonial authority, the same authority that UCSC tells us must be questioned.