New stewardship of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that hosts some of the world’s largest telescopes, could change the face of astronomy at the summit.
The University of Hawaii has overseen the construction of 13 telescopes on the peak of Mauna Kea over the past 50 years — each one larger and more groundbreaking than the last.
But with the passage of a law inspired by Native Hawaiian protests, the volcanic summit will soon transition to new management: an 11-member board that includes a broad spectrum of voices. With the observatories’ leases up for renewal in 2033 and the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope still in limbo, the re-organization could change the face of astronomy at the summit.
At the Crossroads
Since the 1960s, Mauna Kea has come to symbolize a touchpoint between groundbreaking science and cultural traditions. The university built its first, 2.2-meter telescope on the summit in the 1960s, and in 1968 the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources gave the University of Hawaii a 65-year lease for land within a 4 km (2.5 mi) radius around it. The generous lease amounts to almost all of the summit above 11,500 ft (3,505 m).
The university has subleased land from this Maunakea Science Reserve to an increasing number of observatories over the years, including the W. M. Keck, Gemini, and Subaru observatories. The atmosphere above the mountain is dry and thin, and the skies are exceedingly dark, ideal for visible, infrared, and millimeter-wavelength observations of the universe.
The telescopes on the summit have proven invaluable to astronomy — they’ve mapped the Milky Way, confirmed the presence of the Kuiper Belt in the outer solar system, and provided hard evidence of the supermassive black hole in our galaxy’s center.
But new construction often occurred over the protest of Native Hawaiians, to whom the summit is the sacred meeting point of Papahānaumoku (Earth Mother) and Wākea (Sky Father). Protestors have also cited environmental reasons, with concerns for endangered birds and insects that make their homes in the summit’s fragile habitats. Others listed aesthetics, since the observatories affect the sightline along the summit.
In recent decades, such protests have become more powerful, resulting in the cancellation of a plan for four to six “outrigger” telescopes around the Keck Observatory. More recently, sit-ins have stymied the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) multiple times, in 2014, 2015, and again in 2019. (Protestors remained until March of 2020, when they disbanded due to COVID-19 concerns; construction likewise stalled due to the pandemic.)
Pushback wasn’t universal, though: Polls in 2019 showed that two-thirds of Hawaiian residents supported the TMT, as did half of Native Hawaiians. Nevertheless, mistrust and misinformation were at an all-time high. In response, the Hawaii house of representatives convened a working group, and that group in turn recommended the creation of the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority to oversee the summit. After a transition period of five years (starting July 1, 2023), this new group will manage all of Mauna Kea.
Now the Work Begins
Under this law, the Mauna Kea Authority will have jurisdiction over all state-leased lands on Maunakea, including the 550-acre astronomy precinct that hosts 12 of the 13 telescopes, the Halepōhaku complex that hosts visiting astronomers, and the access road that takes visitors up to the summit. The Mauna Kea Authority will also have jurisdiction over the remaining 9,450 acres of what are now designated conservation lands.
The 11-member Authority will contain one representative each from the Board of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaii County, the University of Hawaii, and the Mauna Kea Observatories. Five additional members will have experience in resource management, education, business and finance, and Native Hawaiian practices, including practices that involve Mauna Kea specifically. The Hawaiian House of Representatives may also appoint two members to the board. The Authority will take action based on majority vote.
Prospects for Renewal
The members haven’t been appointed just yet, but once they are they’ll have their work cut out for them. “There are many open issues for the Authority to address; foremost would be the nature of the new lease for the Observatory beyond 2033,” says chief scientist John O’Meara (Keck Observatory).
Lease negotiations for telescopes not already set to be decommissioned will begin in 2028, because while the leases run out in 2033, it can take years to decommission a telescope. Under previous agreements, the University of Hawaii is already planning to remove five telescopes and restore their sites — no new telescopes will be placed there.
The first of these is Caltech’s Submillimeter Observatory, which closed in 2015. “It took seven years to get the permits to decommission that telescope,” says TMT executive director Robert Kirshner. “Nothing is simple!”
The next site to be restored is the Hōkū Keʻa Observatory, which holds a 36-inch teaching telescope, then the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Observatory, and a fifth telescope yet to be determined.
The existing telescopes currently lease their land at the rate of $1/year — a holdover from attempts in the 1970s to bolster Hawai‘i’s faltering economy following a tsunami and other challenges. (The observatories do, however, contribute $4.4 million per year to mountain maintenance, which includes everything from plowing the access road to funding the study of wēkiu insects that live among the summit’s cinder cones.) Under current agreements, the Thirty Meter Telescope would pay $1 million per year in rent once built. One can imagine similar agreements being put in place for other existing telescopes.
The Thirty-Meter Elephant in the Room
The other issue facing the Authority — eventually — is the Thirty Meter Telescope. For now, though, the TMT's future is in the hands of the National Science Foundation, which is conducting an environmental review for the TMT. Although the observatory has passed such reviews before, this one is part of a new process by which the TMT would receive federal funding; as such, it’s not related to the state’s Mauna Kea Authority.
The TMT International Observatory has made efforts to address concerns with the new facility, which will be larger than previous ones due to the telescope’s sheer size. The University of Hawaii has made a legally binding statement ensuring that this will be “the last new area on the mountain where a telescope project will be contemplated or sought.” The building will also not be at the summit itself but 500 feet down, down a 1-mile road. “This site has excellent properties for astronomy, was not in use for cultural activities, and makes the enclosure, just a little taller than Subaru’s, much harder to see from much of Hawaii Island,” Kirshner says.
“We will work with the new authority to support astronomy and education in harmony with the culture and environment of this special site,” he adds. “We are active in building relationships with the local community.”
Much work remains to be done, O’Meara adds: “We need to make sure that the Authority has a great start, so that everyone can participate under the mutual stewardship principle. That way we can best move forward with clear eyes.”
Editorial note (Sept. 12, 2022): Corrections were made to the make-up of the Mauna Kea Authority and the land the Authority will oversee based on the approved bill.