TMT gears up

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Five tractor-trailers carrying heavy equipment slowly ascended Mauna Kea early Tuesday morning as construction of Hawaii’s most advanced observatory prepared to get underway.

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Five tractor-trailers carrying heavy equipment slowly ascended Mauna Kea early Tuesday morning as construction of Hawaii’s most advanced observatory prepared to get underway.

The machinery will be used to finish clearing the future site of the Thirty Meter Telescope near the 13,796-foot mountain’s summit, said Sandra Dawson, TMT spokeswoman. She said she didn’t know when that work will begin.

Heavy snowfall delayed arrival of the equipment earlier this month, but the weather on Hawaii’s tallest peak was cooperating enough to move ahead with the $1.4 billion project, she said.

The observatory, the largest yet to be built on the mountain, is expected to capture its first images in 2024. A larger 39-meter-telescope is scheduled to be complete that same year in Chile.

After a “lengthy seven-year public agency review,” TMT partners were excited to see the project move forward, Dawson said. The TMT International Observatory, based in California, is supported by researchers from the United States, Canada, India, China and Japan.

While expected to keep Hawaii at the forefront of astronomy, the project also has faced strong opposition from Native Hawaiian groups opposed to further development on a mountain they consider sacred.

TMT will be the 13th observatory on Mauna Kea. It will be about 40 percent larger than either of Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter telescopes, and will collect about nine times more light.

About 20 protesters were present Tuesday, said Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for University of Hawaii, which leases the summit. No disruptions were reported.

In October, dozens of protesters disrupted the telescope’s groundbreaking ceremony.

Attempts to reach protesters were unsuccessful.

The Mauna Kea access road was closed at midnight Monday to allow the oversized trailers to traverse the winding path up the mountain, Meisenzahl said. It was reopened about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday after the last trailer returned.

Six plaintiffs are continuing to appeal decisions to grant the project a conservation district use permit and a sublease for the site.

Those appeals are pending in 3rd Circuit Court and the state Intermediate Court of Appeals, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a spokesperson for the plaintiffs.

Dawson said the project has all of the regulatory approvals it needs to move ahead with construction.

While she wasn’t on the mountain Tuesday, Pisciotta, a former telescope technician, said she expects protests to continue.

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“It makes you feel pretty sick,” she said, knowing that construction was moving forward. “It makes you feel that more determined, that justice needs to occur.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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