Astronomy Hawaii TMT

TMT Supporters Help Clean Up Protest Camp After Photos Expose Messy Mauna

A week after photos surfaced of abandoned tents and other trash at the TMT protest camp at the base of Maunakea, the site is finally being cleaned up. Some TMT supporters even lent a hand.

Over the past week, concerned residents of Hawaii’s Big Island took the initative to document the current landscape at the base of Maunakea, where TMT protesters have set up camp since the summer of 2019.

Photos of the site show that it appears to have been abandoned without being fully cleaned and restored, which comes in contrast with the oft-repeated message of “aloha aina” and “protect Maunakea,” mottos of the protest since the very beginning.

After Hawaii news outlets picked up the story (Tribune-Herald, KITV), there was a quick rush among protesters to clarify the status of the site; they claimed that the only items remaining were items that needed to be secured in the wake of high winds and turbulent weather conditions, which the area did indeed experience over the last couple of weeks.

However, the protest largely faded out before the photos surfaced and even before the weather kicked up, when Big Island mayor Harry Kim promised the protesters that construction of TMT wouldn’t start “at least until the end of February 2020,” a proposal dated December 26, 2019.

Some of the protesters even attended the American Astronomical Society’s 235 meeting in Honolulu, which took place from January 4-8.

Following their explanation for the status of the base camp, which many local residents considered unsatisfactory, protesters moved quickly to clean up the mauna, even receiving some assistance from TMT supporters who drove by to check out the scene.

Lisa Malakaua and Mike Nathaniel, two Hawai’i community members who support TMT, live within clear view of the mauna and decided to check out the area for themselves after noticing that a lot of “stuff” still remained at the site even after the protesters had been gone for a couple of weeks. The two provided the photos shared above and even lent a helping hand to the cleanup effort, using their pickup truck to move some of the trash to the onsite dumpster.

Astronomy Hawaii spoke with Lisa about the situation:

AH: What drove you to go visit the protest site to clean it up?

LM: We weren’t sleeping well after our January 9 visit up to the Mauna when we witnessed trash, broken down tents, wooden pallets, torn flags, illegally parked vehicles, etc… scattered all over the aina. It looked like a county dump site. I left the mountain that day with a very heavy soul. As I knew inside my puuwai that this was definitely not how you treated something spiritual or sacred.

The community may be severely divided right now, but I think there is one thing we can all agree on and that is not to dirty the feet of our beloved Mauna. We live in Mt. View so we are greeted by her everyday. So we too really love and respect her.

To assist with the clean-up was our way to lead by example. It’s one thing to complain about something you don’t like that is occurring in your community, but it’s a whole different story when you are willing to take a stance and act upon it. I’ve always said, “I wasn’t placed on this earth to participate in a popularity contest, but rather to make a difference while I am here.”

AH: What do you think the state can do to improve and/or conclude this situation?

LM: The state making right by all the people so trust can be re-established within our community. Stop recklessly and fraudulently spending taxpayers money with absolutely no conscience and/or facing any legal consequences to their unsavory actions. Be more transparent in their decision making by including the community more. Uphold the U.S. and state laws fairly and equally to everybody. To not support a particular group of a particular race while violating the civil and constitutional rights of the rest in the community. Recognize that no one or no one group in America is above the U.S. or state laws. It’s really time that our state leaders be more aggressive, engaging, respectful, and committed to their sworn oath to office and their people. In other words, it’s time that our state leaders also start leading by example.

We will continue to provide updates on Maunakea as the situation evolves.

Astronomy Hawaii

TMT Protest Site on Maunakea Left Covered in Trash

Some Big Island locals have taken the initiative to document the TMT protest site on Maunakea, which has been abadoned of people but still appears to be covered in trash leftover from the months-long protest.

Residents were dismayed to find the camp, which was heralded as a local movement meant to “protect the aina,” still littered with tents, tarps, damaged equipment, unoccupied cars, and more. The sight of the trash-lined road and lava field contrasts promises by the protesters to leave the site in pristine condition as they consider the entirey of Maunakea to be “sacred.”

The issue of this abandoned camp comes months after the Hawaii DLNR discovered that the endangered ‘anunu vine was being destroyed by the protesters’ presence. Others have expressed concern about erosion of the lava field from the heavy volume of people and cars at the site.

Hawaii’s own KITV4 reached out to leaders of the Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu (the protest’s official name) but have not received a response.

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TMT in the Community Panel at AAS235

A group of astronomers presented a panel titled “TMT in the Community” at AA235 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The panel was presented on behalf of Imua TMT, a nonprofit organization created to help spread the facts about Thirty Meter Telescope and the presence of many native Hawaiians who support the project.

Here is the full presentation, broken down by section.

Thayne Currie (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) presents part 1 of TMT in the Community: Addressing Common Misconceptions and Seeking Common Ground
Laurie Chu (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy) presents part 2 of TMT in the Community: Cultural & Educational Initiatives by Thirty Meter Telescope
Jason Chu (Gemini Observatory) presents part 3 of TMT in the Community: Investing in the Future of Hawai`i
Brialyn Onodera (Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope) presents part 4 of TMT in the Community: Outreach Initiatives Give Opportunities 4 Locals in STEM field
Amber Imai-Hong (Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory) presents part 5 of TMT in the Community: THINK Fund as a Key Provider of STEM Opportunities in Hawai`i
Andrew Repp (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy) presents part 6 of TMT in the Community: The Thirty Meter Telescope and Hawaii Secondary Education

The presentation was well-received by the audience and the group had the chance to discuss the situation with many of their colleagues who have hesitated to take part in the conversation.

The 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society wraps up today, January 8.

Imua TMT will continue their work to spread awareness of local support for the telescope, giving a voice to the many native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents who want TMT to be built on Mauna Kea.

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Astronomers and TMT Supporters Gather at AAS235 in Honolulu

Astronomers from all over the country (and the world) have gathered at the American Astronomical Society’s 235 meeting (also known as AAS235) in Honolulu, Hawaii, to share their research, learn from their colleagues, and advocate for science and astronomy in the aloha state.

Present among them is grassroots organization Imua TMT, a group that is working hard to combat the many misconceptions and false narratives surrounding Thirty Meter Telescope and the current protests, especially the claim that all native Hawaiians are against the telescope’s construction on Mauna Kea.

Imua TMT, who is unaffiliated with TMT itself, is opening each day of the convention with a sign-waving show of support outside the Hawaii Convention Center (where the event is being held) and some of its members ‒ a few who are of Hawaiian descent ‒ are presenting talks focused on TMT in the Community.

The above panel covered the following topics…

  • 1) Addressing Common Misconceptions and Seeking Common Ground (Thayne Currie)
  • 2) Cultural and Educational Initiatives by the Thirty Meter Telescope (Laurie Chu)
  • 3) Investing in the Future of Hawaii (Jason Chu)
  • 4) STEM Outreach Initiatives Supports Opportunities for Locals in Community STEM Careers (Bri Onde)
  • 5) The THINK Fund as a Key Provider of STEM Opportunities in HawaiI (Amber Lei)
  • 6) The Thirty Meter Telescope and Hawaii Secondary Education (Andrew Repp)

…and was well-received by many astronomers who attended.

There was also a presentation by highly-respected Hawaiian wayfinder Kalepa Baybayan of the Hōkūleʻa. Kalepa discussed astronomy’s important role in celestial navigation and supports the idea that Mauna Kea can be shared between cultural practitioners and scientists, both of whom place a heavy emphasis on conservation and environmental protection.

Kalepa Baybayan at AAS235
Hōkūleʻa wayfinder Kalepa Baybayan presents to a packed room at AAS 235.

In a past interview, Baybayan said about the situation:

“As a Native Hawaiian, I believe Maunakea is a deeply spiritual place. There is more than enough room for people to have their own practice, cultural practice, scientific research. We just need to have the collective will to share the Mauna.”

The second half of the convention, which wraps up on Wednesday, January 8th, will be full of additional panels covering many aspects of astronomy, including several that touch further on TMT and The US Large Telescope Program, the latest effort for research institutions to help bolster and maintain the US’s strong lead in the field of astronomy.

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Experts Clarify Claim About TMT’s Site: Hawaii is Much Better than Spain

Where should the Thirty Meter Telescope be built? Experts working in areas key for TMT’s science goals and familiar with different telescope sites around the Earth are clear: Mauna Kea offers significant advantages over a backup location in La Palma, Spain. 

“Mauna Kea will make TMT a more capable observatory than would La Palma and also allow TMT to even reveal objects invisible to upcoming NASA missions”, says Thayne Currie, astrophysicist at the NASA-Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California and expert on high-contrast imaging of extrasolar planets. 

Construction for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea is currently on hold as state officials determine a path forward to allow construction access amidst protests.   Officials from TMT say that “Mauna Kea continues to be the preferred site for TMT” over La Palma, a location in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, chosen as TMT’S backup site in case Mauna Kea is not possible.

A detailed report conducted by a team of expert astrophysicists verifies that Mauna Kea is “strongly preferred” to La Palma for TMT’s site.   They found that Mauna Kea would even give TMT distinct advantage[s] over other upcoming observatories like the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).   The report was led by Canadian astrophysicists and utilized site testing data for Mauna Kea and La Palma, international experts in relevant areas like adaptive optics, and feedback from TMT itself.

 This report squarely contradicts a recent Associated Press article claiming that “telescope experts” say that the site may not matter.   The AP article has since been reprinted by multiple Hawai’i newspapers and reported on local television news: it did not mention the Canadian report nor mention any consultations with community experts who contributed to this report.

Thermal  IR (listed as mid-infrared or MIR) site merit function of different observatories relative to TMT on Mauna Kea (set at a value = 1.0).  The thermal IR range sensed by TMT corresponds to 3 to 14 microns; the human eye can see from about 0.4 to 0.75 microns. Two functions are computed: ORM stands for Observatorio de Roque Muchachos, the site in La Palma, Spain. LCO stands for Las Campanas Observatory, the site for the 24.5m Giant Magellan Telescope.   Armazones is the site for the E-ELT (39m in diameter). TMT on Mauna Kea would be more effective than other telescopes; on La Palma, TMT would not be competitive with E-ELT. (from Table 11 in the report described in this article)

Mauna Kea’s biggest advantage over La Palma is that Maunakea is a colder and far drier site, making it far more suitable at wavelengths much longer than what the human eye can see.  These “thermal infrared” (thermal IR) wavelengths are critical for many TMT science cases. For example, light from Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars is directly detectable in the thermal IR.   The report concludes that TMT on Mauna Kea would be 4 or 5 times more effective than La Palma in the thermal IR and also more effective than the E-ELT, which is sited at Cerro Armazones in Chile.

The report also questions La Palma’s capability for adaptive optics (AO), a technology that corrects for blurring of the atmosphere due to turbulence to see rocky planets around the nearest stars and the center of our galaxy.  La Palma has been touted as second only to Mauna Kea for adaptive optics. However, the report notes factors — such as “ground-layer turbulence” — that may make La Palma’s AO performance worse than advertised: much worse than Mauna Kea and perhaps not even any better than many sites in Chile.

“La Palma is just too low, too warm, and too wet to be competitive with Mauna Kea in the thermal IR and isn’t good enough with AO to really make up the difference.  Some science, including that in exoplanets, La Palma might not be able to do at all but would be feasible from Mauna Kea”, said Currie, who is familiar with the source data for the report.    

In addition to Mauna Kea, Currie suggested that multiple sites in Chile are overall superior sites to La Palma, including the location of Europe’s Very Large Telescope as well as its the future telescope, the 39-meter E-ELT.

Mauna Kea’s advantages over La Palma remain even when space telescopes are considered. The Associated Press article states that while TMT hopes to use its advanced optics to do some key science like yield direct images of “distant planets around bright stars”, including those with life, an upcoming NASA mission, specifically the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), could provide those same data instead.   As the article claims, “data from [JWST] could be combined with La Palma to compensate for Mauna Kea’s advantages”.

Professor Ben Mazin, physicist at the University of California Santa Barbara and leading expert in exoplanet direct imaging technology, draws a different conclusion: “While this is true for some science goals, like observations of high redshift galaxies, it is not true for all the science we want to do with TMT.  JWST will have excellent sensitivity, but the small size (6-m) of the telescope means that it doesn’t have very good angular resolution. It can’t look at planets very close to a star [like rocky, Earth-like planets]. For imaging exoplanets in the near-infrared, JWST will be worse than the 10-meter Keck telescopes, let alone the 30-meter TMT.”

New technological innovations also do not necessarily undo Mauna Kea’s advantages.   The Associated Press article mentioned a concept of combining large ground-based telescopes with a very large (tens of meters) “starshade”, a circular structure with petal-like edges that blocks starlight in orbit around the Earth.  The article implied that the starshade could negate Mauna Kea’s advantage with adaptive optics.   

However, Mazin argues that this idea is too speculative to consider for planning for TMT, saying it “is at a very early developmental stage and faces technical and financial obstacles.” 

 Currie concurred, adding “even if it somehow worked, starlight would still have to pass through an atmosphere.   Advantage Mauna Kea.”

For other key science areas, not even speculative technological advances could compensate for La Palma’s shortcomings.   Mazin notes that La Palma is at a higher latitude than Mauna Kea, perhaps too high to effectively see the center of our Milky Way.   In fact, TMT was specifically designed to study the galactic center immediately after it is completed, “driving the requirements for one of TMT’s primary instruments”, said Mazin.  

The Associated Press article also quotes Avi Loeb who says that while Mauna Kea is a better infrared site but argued these shortcomings could be compensated for with technology.   Loeb is a theorist by training and best known for claiming ‘Oumuamua is an alien spaceship, which was recently refuted by a team including University of Hawai’i scientists.

Experts sharply disagreed.   “Sure, technology makes generally things better, but you can’t just magically remove all the moisture in the air above La Palma.  We don’t have a giant dehumidifier stretching up into the stratosphere,” said Currie.

Science impact for different ground-based telescopes.   Mauna Kea observatories are in red and those on La Palma are in green.

Science performance from current telescopes also implies that Mauna Kea would be a better site for TMT, concluded astronomer Roy Gal at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai’i.   He cites statistics that compare the scientific impact of ground-based telescopes across the globe, compiled annually by Dennis Crabtree of the National Research Council of Canada.

“Maunakea observatories are far and away the most scientifically productive on the planet. They account for 3 out of 5 of the most impactful, with Keck being number one. One of those top five is UKIRT, which weʻve agreed to decommission by the time TMT is operational,”  noted Gal. “This is no accident – it is a testament to the superiority of Maunakea as an astronomical site. By contrast, the highest impact telescope on La Palma is ranked eighth, and the large aperture telescope there (The Gran Telescopio Canarias, or GTC) is number 25.”

Finally,  La Palma faces its own opposition, in contradiction to the Associated Press article stating there is no significant opposition.    There is, indeed, an environmental group in the Canary Islands named Ben Magec that has already voiced their strong opposition to the project and already won one legal challenge delaying any permit for TMT despite the Spanish government’s support of the telescope.

“This could slow things down a lot [for La Palma]”, said Mazin.

You can learn more about Mauna Kea and TMT here.