By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - The Hawaii Supreme Court has temporarily blocked construction of one of the world's largest telescopes on a dormant volcano, following a challenge by Native Hawaiians and environmentalists who say the project would damage sacred lands.
The state high court late on Tuesday handed down the order, which until Dec. 2 will suspend the permit for the project near the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island, court papers said.
The order follows an announcement by TMT International Observatory, the scientific team behind the Thirty Meter Telescope project, that site preparation work would begin this month. Protesters have for months gathered at the volcano in an attempt to block construction.
Astronomers consider the volcano one of the world's best places to view the cosmos. The project won approval from state officials in 2013, but there has been a contentious debate since then.
Oral arguments in the lawsuit were heard by the Hawaii Supreme Court in August. The court has not made a final ruling.
A lawyer for Native Hawaiians and the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance this week asked in a court filing for an emergency order to put the project on hold, a response to the TMT International Observatory announcement that work would start.
"We respect the Court decision and we will stand down between now and December 2," Scott Ishikawa, a TMT spokesman, said in a statement.
Broadcaster Hawaii News Now reported this week that law enforcement agencies were preparing to potentially make mass arrests of protesters at the site. Previous demonstrations this year have resulted in several arrests.
Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one of the groups seeking to block the telescope project, has said the site was considered a temple of the most supreme being for Native Hawaiians and also was a sacred burial ground.
Partners in the $1.4 billion project include scientists from Japan, Canada, India, China, and the California Institute of Technology. The group says on its website it would balance the needs of science and Hawaiian culture.
The instrument would have a primary mirror spanning 30 meters (98 feet) and rank as the most powerful optical telescope on the planet, allowing astronomers to study features at the edge of the observable universe, the TMT website says.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Grant McCool)