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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
Hawaiian applied physics/astronomy student Mailani Neal, who is currently interning at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, recently sat down with NAOJ astronomer Thayne Currie to talk about astronomy in Hawaii and supporting TMT (the Thirty Meter Telescope). From Yes2TMT: “Mailani talks about why she has advocated for TMT on the Big Island of Hawai’i and why Maunakea is a special place to her. Mailani sees no inherent conflict between Maunakea as a site for astronomy and a place of cultural significance and describes how astronomy on Maunakea has benefited Hawai’i. She speaks about why she believes that TMT is morally right and describes her positive impressions of those who work for TMT.”
I reached out to Mailani for some additional thoughts on TMT and astronomy in Hawaii. Here’s what she had to say:
Astronomy Hawaii: So, you support Thirty Meter Telescope. Is it safe to assume you would love the chance to work at TMT, especially if its built on Mauna Kea? What would it mean to you to work at such a revolutionary telescope right at home?
Mailani Neal: As a kid, I realized that astronomy was what I wanted to do with my life way before my involvement with TMT started. The idea of working at an observatory on Mauna Kea felt like having all the puzzle pieces fit together. It became my biggest dream. All the telescopes on Mauna Kea are wonderful and prestigious, but TMT is on the absolute next level in astronomy’s future. The opportunity to work at TMT, should it come for me, would exceed all of my biggest dreams.
AH: TMT will allow us to reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe. As an aspiring astronomer, what cosmological subjects do you hope to perform more research in over the course of your career? Black holes, galaxy formation, dark matter?
ML: My hopes as an astronomer would be to develop instrumentation at the highest levels of sensitivity and accuracy. This goes perfectly hand-in-hand with the observational capabilities that TMT will provide for us. The combination of high caliber instruments and seeing to depths further than we have before is going to bring us knowledge in a completely new light than before. All these subjects, black holes, galaxy and stellar and planetary formation, and dark matter, are interconnected in ways that we don’t definitively understand yet. Understanding the cause-and-effects of these subjects on each other is my greatest interest and I believe TMT is bringing us 10 steps closer to reaching that level.
AH: I was saddened to learn of the passing of Paul Coleman, the first Native Hawaiian with a doctorate in astrophysics. What do you or hope his legacy will be for native Hawaiians to continue pursuing astronomy?
ML: I had the chance to meet Paul when I was really young and just starting to follow my interest in astronomy. When my studies are difficult, I’ve been comforted in knowing that he followed this path before me. His achievements show me that this goal is attainable for me. Although he is no longer with us, I feel his mana (power) alongside me while I’m pursuing a life in astronomy and it’s now much more than just a personal journey. I feel that it is now my turn to step up to this kuleana, responsibility, that he held for our people. It’s my hope that the generations to come will recognize his connection and foresight in seeing that Hawaiians are people of the stars. I hope his legacy will awaken the spirit in us that our ancestors had to look up at the night sky and bravely venture forth in discovering new places and knowledge.
AH: Science programming is making a big comeback, with space movies becoming big hits at the box office and a second season of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s COSMOS reboot on the way. Who are or have been some scientists or science communicators that have inspired you along the way in your journey?
ML: I’ve been inspired by many great scientists and their accomplishments, but I have to admit that Bill Nye, The Science Guy has been one of the most influential science people in my life. I watched many of his programs in elementary school and it instilled my curiosity to understand the constant happenings in the world around us. I have to thank his encouragement for providing me with this foundation that all scientist posses.
AH: A lot of interviews, polls, and online comments over the last couple of years suggest that a silent majority of native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents support TMT, but are hesitant to get involved due to the sensitive nature of the subject. How do you think they can best show their support and still contribute positively for TMT and astronomy in Hawaii?
ML: I really think the best thing for all of us, regardless of our stance on TMT, is to take some time to gain perspective from both sides of the subject. To support the continuation of TMT, we need understanding and respect. There are many ways people can contribute positively for TMT and astronomy in Hawai’i without needing to directly be outspoken about it. One thing that people can do is to support political candidates that support astronomy. I also think that learning about astronomy’s influence and place in our community provides a way for people to be supportive of astronomy.
AH: As the best site for astronomy in the northern hemisphere, Mauna Kea has been called a “gateway” to the cosmos. With Big Island experiencing a rapid drop in tourism from fear of the volcano, what does Hawaii stand to lose by rejecting TMT or astronomy as a whole?
ML: A few weeks ago, I was on the summit of Mauna Kea for a few nights of observing as part of my internship. During my acclimation night, I went down to the Visitor Information Center to listen to the talk given during the nightly star gazing. I happened to ask the worker if they’ve seen a decrease in visitors with the volcano and decrease in tourism. She said that it was actually completely opposite because Mauna Kea is providing an experience for the visitors since Volcanoes National Park is no longer an option. It’s well-known that tourism is the number one contributing industry to our state, so I believe that this instance shows how the attraction of astronomy can contribute to our economic stability and well-being.
AH: What has been your favorite experience so far in your pursuit of astronomy, working with the telescopes on Mauna Kea, and being involved in supporting TMT and astronomy in Hawaii?
ML: My favourite experience so far has been participating in a program called the Hawai’i Student/Teacher Astronomy Research camp (HISTAR) at UH Manoa. I had the opportunity to participate in this program twice during high school. It introduced me to other students who share the same enthusiasm for astronomy (and science) and I’ve remained great friends with them ever since. We got to spend a week together working on projects and listening to many guest speakers that gave us great insight into field of astronomy. My first science research came from this camp and enabled me to participate in the Hawai’i State Science Fair. Participating in this program really made me feel that a career in this subject field with people like the friends I made would be the right path for me.
AH: The TMT team puts a strong focus on scholarships and science education for kids. What do you want to say to kids in Hawaii who dream of reaching for the stars?
ML: I would tell them that there’s no such thing as a dream that’s too big and that’s why you can never be discouraged. The best advice I could give them is to reach out and express their interest in astronomy to their teachers, the observatories, astronomers, and the Institute for Astronomy, because that’s what did and it has benefited me so much down the road. TMT and the astronomy community are so thoughtful in wanting to prepare this place for a good future in all aspects, not just astronomy. They love to have local kids express their interest and passion in astronomy so that they can offer experiences and advice to help these kids achieve their dreams as they have done so for me.