This sacred mountain is the focal point of a fight over a giant telescope

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, a most unusual battle between scientists and native Hawaiians over the construction of a massive observatory.

And it is all about a plan to build the largest telescope on Earth on a shield volcano. Astronomers say it can offer unique sights to view the cosmos, but it would be created on what is also considered sacred ground.

Science correspondent Miles O'Brien has our report for our weekly look at the Leading Edge of science and technology.

MILES O'BRIEN: For astronomers, it may be the ultimate focal point this side of outer space.

The 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii is home to 13 observatories that have rewritten the textbooks.

Astronomer Andrea Ghez is a frequent visitor, here to learn more about the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

ANDREA GHEZ, Astronomer, UCLA: I feel like a kid in a candy shop. We have got lots to do, lots — a lot of interesting problems that we're working on that's been enabled with advanced technology. And further advances are just going to make that all the better.

MILES O'BRIEN: Ghez uses the most powerful observatory here, the Keck, which has two 10-meter-wide mirrors.

But plans to shed more light on her star quest are stuck in a black hole of resentment and anger. It turns out what's precious to the scientists is sacred to the native Hawaiian culture.

PUA CASE, Activist: There's no word for how I feel about that mountain in English. There's no word that would be deep enough to say how I feel about that mountain.

MILES O'BRIEN: Pua Case is one of the most vocal opponents of the $1.4 billion 30-meter telescope, the TMT. It is the next big observatory on the horizon, and astronomers believe the summit of Mauna Kea is the ideal place to build it.

PUA CASE: This mountain peaks into the realm of the Sky Father to Wakea. It's where I go when I need to say my prayers, when I want to be heard, because I know my voice is closest to the heavens when I am there.

MILES O'BRIEN: Their protests emerged at the groundbreaking on October 7, 2014. Opponents successfully argued the approval process was illegally circumvented, and so the Hawaiian Supreme Court revoked the building permit, forcing the project to start the long process over.

GARY SANDERS, Project Manager, TMT: So, there's going to be 492 glass mirrors this size.

MILES O'BRIEN: Gary Sanders is project manager of the TMT. It is a multinational partnership involving science enterprises in the U.S., Canada, India, Japan, and China.

GARY SANDERS: Scientists, we love what we do. We adore it. OK? We just don't understand sometimes that those around us, while they might be pleased with it, even excited by it, may not adore it the way we do. That's a blind spot.

MILES O'BRIEN: Observatories started appearing on the summit of Mauna Kea about 60 years ago. There was always opposition, but it blossomed in the late 1990s, when NASA proposed four smaller telescopes be placed beside the big Keck mirrors to enhance their resolution.

But the idea was scuttled amid local opposition. TMT managers say they tried to learn from that experience.

GARY SANDERS: We tried as best we could to meet the concerns and actually to become part of the community, rather than mere visitors of the community.

So, when the opposition emerged, the additional opposition emerged as we began the groundbreaking and the construction, frankly, we were surprised.

WOMAN: You let Mount Fuji stand. Mount Fuji is sacred. Our Mauna Kea is just as sacred as Mount Fuji. Please hear us.

MILES O'BRIEN: The TMT project took shape while native Hawaiians were rediscovering their cultural heritage.

Peter Apo is a singer, songwriter and trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency that aims to improve the lives of Hawaiians.

PETER APO, Office of Hawaiian Affairs: The TMT issue is largely under the umbrella of what Hawaiians refer to as nationhood. That is a strong feeling that the way Hawaii became the 50th state of the nation, beginning with annexation, was illegal.

So, the TMT and other issues like it really spring from this unresolved and unreconciled question of self-determination.

ANDREA GHEZ: There's certainly an element of native rights issues, which is far bigger than astronomy. So, astronomy, I think, right now, is certainly a lightning post for these bigger issues.

MILES O'BRIEN: Andrea Ghez is focused on one of the big issues in astronomy at the very heart of the galaxy. She and her team have proven the existence of a black hole there by tracking how stars orbit around it. But, in science, the answers often spark new questions.

ANDREA GHEZ: Almost everything we see there is inconsistent with our models, so it's making us scratch our heads. But I keep reminding myself that we are only seeing the brightest things, and it would be like trying to understand the financial market if you could only see the biggest transactions.

MILES O'BRIEN: In astronomy, the solution is to build bigger and better telescopes. And a mirror 30 meters in diameter would be a hundred times more powerful than Keck's, but it would be one of the largest moving structures ever constructed. The building will be 18-stories tall.

PUA CASE: The construction, the destruction, and the desecration to a sacred place, to any mountain anywhere, you can never change that. You can never go back.

We know how grateful we are to be in this circle on this Mauna today. And you lead us, great mountain, and you tell us what to do. And we align with you in the heart.

I don't even pay that telescope no mind, because I know it won't be built. They know it won't be built. Ancestors will not allow it.

MILES O'BRIEN: So, while the TMT project pursues a new permit, it is also hedging its bets, choosing an alternate site in the Canary Islands. Astronomers say that would be a huge loss for Hawaii.

ANDREA GHEZ: It's a treasure to have something that's so valuable to our knowledge that we can achieve. It can be best done here.

PETER APO: One of the challenges that we have is that, when you use the word sacred, it means no discussion. So, they won't come to the table to discuss anything, because there will be no compromise. The TMT will not be built. So that makes it a little bit difficult to talk about anything.

MILES O'BRIEN: If the TMT moves on from Hawaii, Mauna Kea will still remain a powerful perch to study the cosmos for decades, but it could be the beginning of the end of an era of leading edge scientific discovery here.

And it may be symbolic turning point in an uphill battle for a culture that feels forgotten and unappreciated.

Miles O'Brien, the "PBS NewsHour," on Mauna Kea.

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