With a summit looming almost 14,000 feet above the ocean's surface, Mauna Kea towers as the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak. This height makes it an ideal spot to build a thirty-meter telescope, a project that has been vehemently opposed by Hawaiian natives, so much so that that they blocked the road leading to the summit to prevent construction.

Protesters started lining up Wednesday last to deter crew and equipment from making it to the Mauna Kea's summit and starting work on the Thirty Meter Telescope. The road leading up to the summit was about seven miles but crew members didn't make it past 1.5 miles before turning around. They were unable to continue because large rocks were blocking the road, some of them stone altars called ahu.

The rocks have been cleared but the road to the summit remains closed until further notice. The same is true for the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.

The TMT is not the first telescope to be built on Mauna Kea but it will be the largest, allowing scientists to see further into space (up to 100 times further to be precise) than they have ever had and better study the universe. However, the addition of the telescope is feared to not only disrupt the mountain's ecosystem but will also damage the Hawaiian culture.

On the one side, the TMT project will bring a lot of benefits to Hawaii, like jobs, tourism, contributions to science and $1 million every year as lease payment. But do these outweigh the potential strain the telescope will put on ecology and Hawaii's cultural heritage? Hawaiians have been debating the issue for a long time (since 1968, when plans of putting up the first telescope on the mountain was first announced) and it doesn't look like both sides are backing down anytime soon.

Today, there are now 13 telescopes on various points in Mauna Kea. Believed to be the point where the earth and the sky separated to create the heavens, the mountain is considered sacred ground, which is why it is home to over 250 shrines and burial sites. It was so sacred, in fact, that only priests and high chiefs were allowed to go up Mauna Kea. Now, construction equipment are headed towards its peak.

The TMT is just one of many research projects that pitted scientists against cultural groups. In the 1980s, a telescope was built as well on Mount Graham, a site sacred to the San Carlos Apache, in Arizona while the mid-2000s saw opposition from the Tohono O'odham nation against telescopes being built for the Kitt Peak Observatory.

Photo: Cucombre Libre | Flickr

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