A groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii was disrupted Tuesday by protesters who oppose the telescope's construction. The incident was the latest in a history of tension over what native Hawaiians say is sacred ground in need of protection and what astronomers call one of the world's best places to search the stars.
A caravan of vehicles filled with dignitaries coming to witness a ceremonial blessing at the groundbreaking were blocked by protesters standing in the path to the site, news reports said.
"The groundbreaking and blessing ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), hindered by a small group of protesters for a brief time, took place," officials at Caltech, which is a partner in the project, said in a statement. "And all the partners of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Organization (TIO) are looking forward to proceeding with the production of TMT as planned."
A few of the attendees did make it to the ceremony, according to Caltech spokeswoman Judy Asbury. A few protesters also reached the site. Online videos purportedly show protesters chanting, debating with attendees and holding signs with slogans such as "Aloha 'Aina," which means 'love of the land' in Hawaiian.
Construction will not be delayed by the protest, Asbury said. The project has been in the works for more than a decade.
"We're really excited this is finally happening and we're moving forward," she said.
The Thirty Meter Telescope is a monstrous telescope that could offer an unprecedented view of the universe. Its mirror is nearly a third the size of a football field, according to Tuesday's report, and it's more than 80 times as sensitive than the formidable Keck telescopes, also on Mauna Kea.
It will allow astronomers to peer deep into the past, to understand the large-scale structure of the cosmos and to gain insight into the strange phenomena known as dark matter and dark energy. Caltech, the University of California and institutions in Canada, Japan, China and India are partners in the project.
Mauna Kea, the site for TMT, is an ideal location for giant telescopes. There are more than a dozen on the mountain, where the high altitude and minimal atmospheric turbulence offer a clear view into the heavens.
But Mauna Kea is also sacred ground for many native Hawaiians, with many shrines and burial sites. The issue is a longstanding one; a Times story in 2001 documented the tension between the two groups, and even then, the proposed telescope (an earlier iteration called the California Extremely Large Telescope) caused anger over the sensitive issue to flare.
The protests Tuesday were peaceful; many hugs were reportedly exchanged between the two groups, Asbury said.