Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Observatories
Reach for the stars, planets and supernovas at the Big Island’s world-renowned astronomy center.
The Big Island of Hawaii is perhaps one of the least likely places you’d expect to take star-gazing tours of the tropical heavens. But, Hawaii is home to the world’s premier astronomy site: Mauna Kea Observatories at the 13,796-foot summit of the Mauna Kea volcano.
With a worldwide reputation, the Mauna Kea Observatories, managed by the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, have more viewing surface and light-gathering power than any other astronomy site on Earth. Astronomers from around the globe compete for time on the observatories’ 13 telescopes to conduct their research, some waiting for months or even years for these state-of-the-art instruments that allow them to reach into the depths of the universe. But visitors to the Big Island can get a glimpse of the heavens with a tour of the facilities.
Starry, Starry Night
The Mauna Kea Observatories operate educational programs to inform the public about astronomy. The visitors center at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, at 9,200 feet, offers educational displays and information on the observatories. You can learn about the ongoing scientific work, find out how telescopes work and get a chance to do a little stargazing. You’ll learn that an optical telescope is used for photography. An infrared scope is used to measure infrared radiation emitted by stars, planets or galaxies, and provides information about the composition of such bodies.
The educational programs include evening stargazing sessions using portable telescopes, something youngsters and star buffs will enjoy. A typical evening’s viewing begins with a look at the moon and planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Uranus and various constellations. If conditions allow, the telescopes focus on more exotic astrological luminaries like globular clusters, double star systems, planetary nebulae and gas clouds. The stargazing programs also include seasonal stars and special events like comets and eclipses.
The Mauna Kea observatories telescopes include the W. M. Keck Observatory, with multiple telescopes, such as the twin optical-infrared multi-mirror instruments that work like a giant pair of high-tech binoculars; the Smithsonian Submillimeter Array, a multiple six-meter dish radio telescope operated by the Smithsonian Institute; and the 25-meter antenna dish of the Very Long Baseline Array, part of the 5,000-mile-long radio telescope reaching from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii.
High and Dry
At almost three miles high, the observatories are above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Less water vapor makes for very dry conditions and is excellent for infrared radiation study. Mauna Kea, at 19 degrees north latitude, is also near the equator where the northern and southern skies can be studied together.
While Mauna Kea has the best conditions for astronomy, there is one big disadvantage: the difficulty of working at the summit with only 60 percent of the normal oxygen supply. Even some of the scientists and astronomers who have to work here find it hard to adapt. You will have to breathe slowly and deeply during your visit.
Getting to Mauna Kea
For information on visitor programs on Mauna Kea, write or call Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services, 177 Maka’ala, Hilo, Hawaii 96720. Tel. 808-974-4205. Or call the Onizuka Visitors Center at 808-961-2180. Stargazing programs operate nightly at 6 p.m. and summit observatory tours are at 1 p.m. on Sat. and Sun. afternoons year round, weather permitting. Reservations are not required and the tours are free.
Visitors must provide their own four-wheel drive transportation for the hazardous mountain road. Four-wheel drive vehicles are available from several major car rental agencies in Hilo and Kona. Access the winding road to Mauna Kea via the cross-island Saddle Road, Highway 200, from either Hilo or Kona.
Weather on the mountain is subject to drastic and rapid change, especially during the winter months of December through March, and warm clothing is always necessary. High winds, snow and icy road conditions during the winter can make Mauna Kea very hazardous. Due to the thin air, which can cause altitude sickness, it is recommended that people with health problems, pregnant women and very young children not travel to the summit. Regardless of the season, when you visit Mauna Kea, come prepared with warm clothing, food and hot drinks. Visitors are advised to call ahead, tel. 808-974-4203, and check on weather and road conditions before attempting the summit drive. Full details are available at www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/.
Mauna Kea’s visitors center programs are well worth the effort required to get to the summit. At the top of Mauna Kea, you can literally reach for the stars in Hawaii.