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Hawaiian court greenlights massive, controversial telescope partially designed by B.C. firm

An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Dynamic Structures

A B.C. company involved in designing and building what will be one of Earth’s largest telescopes hopes to see the project underway early next year.

On Tuesday, Hawaii’s Supreme Court upheld a construction permit for the group working to build the massive $1.4-billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Manua Kea, a mountain that many residents consider sacred.

Construction on the project has been stalled since 2015, after sustained protests from opponents.

READ MORE: Hawaii Supreme Court yanks permit for telescope on volcano

Canada, Japan, China and India, along with Cal Tech and the University of California, are partners on the project. Canada is contributing $250 million.

Guy Nelson is CEO of Empire Industries, which owns Dynamic Structures — the Port Coquitlam company that won the $10-million contract to design the telescope’s eye-shaped enclosure.

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He said the company is negotiating with the federal government for a second contract to fabricate the structure.

An artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
An artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Dynamic Structures

He said legal wrangling hadn’t disrupted design work, but hopes to see serious work begin on fabrication at the company’s B.C. facility in early 2019.

“We’re going to start seeing things up there that we never knew existed. It really is, I believe, and as the Canadian astronomy community would probably concur, going to be the age of astronomy with this telescope,” he told Global News.

“We’re really going to have the skies covered and start seeing things that are really going to enlighten and excite everyone of every age, especially young people.”

READ MORE: Telescope equipment coming down from Hawaiian mountain

Dymanic Structures has built more than half of the world’s large telescope enclosures, Nelson said.

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He said the enclosure they’ve designed for the TMT will be composed of 5,000 tonnes of steel.

“It looks almost like an eyeball,” he said. “I think it is very iconic, but I’m somewhat biased I must admit.”

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The TMT’s heart is a 30-metre-wide mirror, which will make it three times as wide as the world’s current biggest visible-light telescope. That massive mirror is actually constructed of more than 600 segmented, hexagonal 1.4 metre mirrors, Nelson said.

“It’s going to provide tremendous breakthroughs on finding all sorts of information on the over 200 exoplanets, Earth-like planets out there.”

Plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope have been in the works since 2009, when scientists picked Mauna Kea as the ideal location for the instrument because its summit sits above cloud levels. A backup location in the Canary Islands had been considered a less effective runner-up.

READ MORE: Canary Islands chosen as alternate site for giant Thirty Meter Telescope

The project has been highly controversial. Opponents have argued that the facility would desecrate sacred land on Hawaii’s Big Island, while supporters say it will boost Hawaii’s economy and offer educational opportunities.

A series of escalating protests by opponents beginning in 2014 resulted in work stopping on the facility in 2015, and the fight over it moving to the courts.

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Opponents had also argued that Mauna Kea is already home to several telescopes, including a large 10-metre instrument that Dynamic Structures also had a hand in building.

However, in Tuesday’s 4-1 ruling, the court found that Indigenous Hawaiian “uses on Mauna Kea have co-existed for many years and the TMT Project will not curtail or restrict Native Hawaiian uses,” and that the instrument will answer some of the universe’s most fundamental questions.

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Kealoha Pisciotta, a key opponent of the telescope, said she doesn’t know what opponents’ next steps will be, but she’s not hopeful that more legal wrangling will help.

“The court is the last bastion in democracy,” she said. “The only other option is to take to the streets. If we lose the integrity of the court, then you’re losing normal law and order, and the only other option is people have to rise up.”

Reactions to the ruling from two Indigenous Hawaiians showed how the issue has divided the community.

Telescope opponent Kahookahi Kanuha, who was arrested twice for blocking construction, said Hawaiians need to be ready to resist construction with non-violent protests. He had a message for them: “Hoomakaukau,” get ready.

Richard Ha, an Indigenous Hawaiian farmer who supports the telescope, said the long process that led to the ruling was “pono,” or righteous. He said he wants to sit down with opponents, “talk story” and find common ground.

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  • With files from the Associated Press