To native Hawaiians, the dormant volcano is the most sacred land in the entire Pacific. It is the point where the sky and earth meet. They believe it is the site of the genesis of their people, and it is the burial ground for their most revered ancestors. Considered a temple and a house of worship, native Hawaiians believed the gods created Mauna Kea for them to ascend to the heavens.
To scientists, the mountaintop is the best location in the world to observe the stars and study the origins of our universe.
"The summit of Mauna Kea may, in fact, be the darkest site anywhere in the world ... which of course means you can see deeper into space," said Doug Simons, executive director at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. The CFHT sits with 12 other telescopes on top of the mountain.
Inspired by the images being captured from the summit, a group of astronomers wants to build the world's most sophisticated telescope at the top of Mauna Kea. It's called the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT for short, because the primary mirror of the telescope is 30 meters across. (In comparison, the famed Hubble telescope is 2.4 meters in diameter). The price for the TMT is $1.4 billion.
TMT will use adaptive optics, enabling the telescope to correct for the blurring that usually occurs as a result of the Earth's atmosphere. It will allow scientists from all over the globe to capture what they hope will be the sharpest images yet of our universe.
That is, if they can build it.
With 13 telescopes already dotting the landscape, some Hawaiians are saying enough is enough. Protesters, or protectors as they like to refer to themselves, have been camped out at the mountain base for months, committed to stopping the construction of the massive telescope.
Things have turned ugly. There have been several rounds of arrests and construction has been halted more than once.
One of the protectors, Kaho'okahi Kanuha, lived on the mountain for months and was one of more than 30 people arrested
when the TMT team started construction in April.
"This is simply not just about a telescope," Kanuha said. "It's desecration of a sacred mountain; it's desecration of cultural sites, burial grounds."
Native Hawaiians have challenged development on Mauna Kea since the 1960s when the University of Hawaii started to turn the summit into a leading site for astronomical research. Protesters believe construction has already gone too far and there should be no more new structures.
It took nearly seven years of public hearings and legal proceedings for the state of Hawaii to grant the TMT team a permit to build the telescope on the summit. There was public opposition early on, but the state felt the company met the legal criteria to grant the conservation district use permit.
Now that the TMT company is ready build, the debate over the telescope has hit a boiling point. A group of opponents decided to take their pleas to court. Hawaii's Supreme Court has taken on the case and will begin to hear oral arguments this month.
The permit granted to the TMT team is designed to "conserve, protect, and preserve" against overdevelopment and ensure structures do not have a "significant and adverse" impact on the natural and cultural resources of Hawaii. But the plaintiffs in the case believe the new telescope will negatively affect the physical environment of the mountain, as well as interfere with the rituals they practice.
"We are in favor of scientific advancement," said Kealoha Pisciotta. "But what is happening up here is scientific advancement that is required to occur at the destruction of our sacred place and of a delicate ecosystem that is found nowhere else on the planet."
Those siding with TMT argue the conversation laws are not meant to prohibit all development. The laws support "appropriate" use of the land, which is what the state of Hawaii and the TMT team say the new telescope will be.
"When we started working on this almost a decade ago, we recognized there were deeply held sensitivities of the top of the mountain," said Michael Bolte, associate director for the Thirty Meter Telescope project. "We believed there could be ways found to do the science without violating the sanctity of the mountain.
"The real question is: Can the sacred and the science coexist?"
In the spirit of finding this common ground between the scientific community and Native Hawaiians, Gov. David Ige issued a plan of action in May asking The University of Hawaii, which officially manages the mountaintop, to decommission 25% of the existing telescopes by the time TMT is completed. Ige also proposed that no more telescopes be built on the summit.
TMT will pay the state $1 million a year in rent; the current telescopes are virtually rent-free. But to the protectors, this concession is not enough. The new telescope will be built on a fresh site on the mountain, not the same site as one of the past telescopes. And in July, Ige signed new rules into law making it illegal to camp overnight on the mountain for safety reasons. Protesters believe it was an act to silence them and prevent them from protecting their land.
Regardless, many native Hawaiians said they won't rest until the project is stopped.
"Whatever day TMT and their machines decide to leave the mountain, that's when we can take a little break," Kanuha said. "We'll be here as long as it takes."