The sacred and the scientific clash on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea


JUDY WOODRUFF: But first, science correspondent Miles O'Brien returns to an Hawaiian mountain top, for a second report on astronomers' efforts to build a cutting edge telescope there and the controversy that's raised with native Hawaiians who regard the area as sacred.

It's part of our weekly "Leading Edge" series.

MILES O'BRIEN: This is where the heavens meet the earth, and the sacred meets the scientific. They stand in opposition here, amid a long fight to stop construction of the giant 30-meter telescope. And yet both worlds are also closely aligned with the stars.

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou: Mauna Kea is actually it's our origin place.

MILES O'BRIEN: Kealoha Pisciotta took us to her family's altar, or lele — one of hundreds of native Hawaiian stone shrines that dot the mountain:

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: We still bring offering here. These are remnants of offering from people from around the world actually.

MILES O'BRIEN: Her Polynesian ancestors were the first navigators, using the stars to find their way here in small boats more than 1,000 years ago, celebrated in the latest Disney movie, "Moana".

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: The star knowledge of our people has helped the Polynesian people circumnavigate the globe, you know, millennia before most of the discoverers were doing it.

MILES O'BRIEN: But the summit of this mountain is also arguably the best place on earth for astronomy, home to 13 world-class observatories.

MARC KASSIS, W.M. Keck Observatory: We're in the Keck 1 Dome and what we're looking at here is the back of the Keck telescope.

MILES O'BRIEN: Marc Kassis is a support astronomer at the W.M. Keck observatory. Its twin 10-meter wide mirrors are two of the largest and most productive telescopes in the world.

MARC KASSIS: This is 300 tons moving and keeping things to an accuracy of a few nanometers.

MILES O'BRIEN: There are 36 separate hexagons tightly arrayed to make a primary mirror that is much larger than can be created with a single piece of glass. It is this breakthrough innovation that made possible telescopes this powerful and precise.

MARC KASSIS: Sometimes I get a little teary-eyed when I'm talking with other people because I really like the place and excited about sharing it. For me, it's a testament to humans' curiosity about the universe and the world in which we live in.

MILES O'BRIEN: It was the tug of science that first pulled Kealoha Pisciotta to the summit of Mauna Kea. A physics major and lover of astronomy, she worked for 12 years as a technician at this observatory.

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: When I began to see the landscape being taken over, that's when I realized, "Whoa! This is no longer man operating in a natural landscape, it's man dominating the natural landscape", and that's where it started to shift for me personally, is when I started to say, "Hey, hey, you know what I mean? Astronomy is great and all, but what about all these other things?"

MILES O'BRIEN: From an astronomer's perspective, Mauna Kea is the perfect place. At 14,000 feet, the telescopes sit in very dry air, above 40 percent of the atmosphere. Steady, non-turbulent trade winds blow across the Pacific and up the gradual slope of this extinct cinder-cone volcano.

MARC KASSIS: This is the cream of the crop right here, the Mauna Kea.

MILES O'BRIEN: Nobody can top this?

MARC KASSIS: This is — this is the best place in the world to do astronomy. And, you know, astronomers have tested other places in the past and currently, and they found again that Mauna Kea is just one of the premier sites to do astronomy in the world.

MILES O'BRIEN: First light for the Keck telescopes came nearly 25 years ago. They have steadily improved them with various unique cameras and sensors ever since, and starting in 1999, the most significant technological leap of all: adaptive optics. It's a conformable mirror that corrects for the distortion created by the atmosphere that makes stars twinkle.

Peter Wizinowich is Keck's optical systems manager.

PETER WIZINOWICH, W.M. Keck Observatory: In order to correct for the turbulence in the earth's atmosphere, we basically use a source outside the atmosphere.

MILES O'BRIEN: At first, they would point the telescope at a known star and continually adjust the correction based on how it was distorted.

PETER WIZINOWICH: A thousand times a second or so, we're changing the shape of that mirror to get the ideal star image back. That star then allows us to look at objects which are much more complex like a galaxy.

MILES O'BRIEN: Those guide stars are not always in view, so in 2004, they started using powerful lasers to create points of light in the atmosphere to determine how it is shimmering.

PETER WIZINOWICH: You know, you're a little blurry right now, I correct with my glasses and I got to do that 1,000 different settings in a second.

MILES O'BRIEN: Take a look at these Keck images of Neptune. On the left, no adaptive optics used. In the middle, first generation A.O., and on the right, the state of the art. Look at Uranus without A.O. and now with it. Adaptive optics offers 100 fold increase in detail.

The only thing better is to get above the atmosphere with a space-based telescope, but their size is limited by the narrow constraints and payload of the rockets that loft them. Hubble's mirror is only 2.4 meters, or just shy of eight feet, wide.

As it happens, Hubble and Keck have worked in concert to help create a golden age of astronomy.

PETER WIZINOWICH:  Our whole understanding of the universe has changed dramatically. You know, 20 years ago, we really didn't understand or know about dark matter and dark energy, for example. And that's, you know, 95 percent of the universe the stuff we have no familiarity with. Hopefully with the next generation, maybe we'll be moving to the platinum age.

MILES O'BRIEN: Astronomers say the next generation observatory they hope to add to the celestial orchestra here, the 30-meter telescope, will offer 100-fold increase in power over Keck.

ED STONE, Thirty Meter Telescope: So, we want to see the very first stars. The price you pay is they're very faint, so you need a very large mirror to collect enough light to be able to analyze what these objects are.

MILES O'BRIEN: Ed Stone is executive director of the TMT International Observatory. They have designed a telescope with 492 hexagon segments in its primary mirror.

ED STONE: TMT will be able to make images of these very distant objects and by looking at the colors, we'll be able to tell how well they're rotating, how they're evolving to create the galaxies we see today. If we can find an atmosphere that says this place has had microbial life, that would be fantastic.

MILES O'BRIEN: Native Hawaiian opponents of the TMT successfully argued the project did not get the proper approvals for its building permit. So, the Hawaiian Supreme Court revoked it. TMT has started over, but also forged a plan B — an alternate site in the Canary Islands. But for many native Hawaiians, there is no place else.

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: There are 93 world class astronomical centers around the world. There is no place where our ceremonies like this can be done.

MILES O'BRIEN: Kealoha Pisciotta took me to the to the proposed site of the TMT the nine-acre footprint of the observatory sits in an area known as the "Ring of Shrines."

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: We don't want any more desecration to occur.

MILES O'BRIEN: So, enough is enough in your view?

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: Enough is enough, yes.

MILES O'BRIEN: And you're a person who loves astronomy and has worked here.

KEALOHA PISCIOTTA: Yes, and I do think that even astronomy needs to recognize that they have — there are physical limits and they can't work in a vacuum.

MILES O'BRIEN: But the vacuum they are so focused on, space itself, beckons.

Astronomers believe they are on the cusp of unlocking some big secrets and answering perhaps the most intriguing question of all: are we are alone in the universe?

The fight over the TMT is a reminder they are not alone on this high mountaintop.

I'm Miles O'Brien for the "PBS NewsHour" on Mauna Kea.

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