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Big Island Stargazing: Astronomy Atop Mauna Kea

mauna-kea-stargaze

On a trip from the sunny beaches of Kona to the windswept peak of Mauna Kea, I discover the world’s best stargazing — and see Saturn as if it were only a mile past the moon.

In This Hawaii Article You Will Discover:

  • Where To Stargaze
  • How to Prepare for Mauna Kea
  • How to See Saturn Up-Close

I am freezing. This is Hawaii. Something’s not right here. It would seem at 2,800 metres above sea level — all bets are off.

I’m here at the Mauna Kea Visitors Center, at the end of the paved road up Hawaii’s massive, 4,200-metre (13,800 feet) prominent peak. Above me, the sky is clear and a wily, rental-insurance-voiding dirt road winds its way up to the famous observatories that sit at its summit — the world’s largest optical and infrared arrays and the best stargazing spot on the globe.

Mauna Kea is unique in the world as it is the only road-accessible, high-altitude mountain that’s also far enough away from light pollution to provide such prime astronomical observation. Sure, mountains in Patagonia might also suffice — but how would one get a 10-metre-diameter mirror atop one of those peaks? Here in Hawaii, they simply ship it from the mainland, then drive it to the top.

Hilo, the Island’s largest city, is also known as the world’s “darkest city;” they use special streetlamps to keep light-pollution to a minimum. One more reason the stargazing here is so fine.

mauna-kea-sunset

Sunset above the clouds…

Interestingly, plans are in effect to build a new, nine-storey, multi-billion-dollar telescope; however, Mauna Kea is also a sacred site for Hawaiians and many don’t want any further intrusion on this, the Home of the Gods. The science community must be in constant consultation with the native Hawaiians to ensure proper respect and care of this sacred land is always paramount.

Some feel the intrusion has already gone too far; but the astronomers claim the benefits are too great to ignore. But, of course, this is not a new battle…

Driving from Keauhou Bay, on the sunny Kona Coast, had been an in-depth observation of Hawaii’s 13 climactic zones. The readout on the dashboard of our convertible read 30 degrees Celsius when we pulled out of our hotel’s parking lot. By the time we were passing the coffee plantations, at about 2,000 feet of elevation, we had to put the top up due to rain-showers; the temperature had dropped 10 degrees. At the windy, bumpy, rollercoaster-like Saddle Road, which leads to Mauna Kea State Park and onward to Hilo, the temperature was in the teens. Here, at the Visitors Center, as we watch park staff set up telescopes while the sun sets below the marshmallow blanket of clouds sitting about 500 metres below us, it’s about four degrees Celsius — and dropping in unison with the sun.

So, if you plan on doing some stargazing on the Big Island, dress warm.

webb-mauna-kea

Dress warm if you head up Mauna Kea!

Erin and I had arrived too early. The real stargazing doesn’t happen until 8:30 p.m., and it’s just past 6:00, so we wander the grounds, watch some of the astronomy documentaries inside the centre, sip hot chocolate and anxiously wish that damn sun would go away already. Hoping for a serene stargazing experience, I lament the three busloads of high school kids that soon arrive.

By a little after 7:00 p.m., the telescopes are set up. By 8:00, Saturn is visible through a couple of the “Big Daddies” — the largest scopes of the bunch. And it is amazing — the view of Saturn is clear as a photograph. The rings are plainly visible; I can even see the space between the famous “halo” and the gas giant itself. It’s quite striking; I find myself taken aback, having to look a second time to absorb the experience.

For a Trekkie like myself, it’s the next best thing to being aboard the Enterprise.

The rest of the telescopes are fixated on stars, galaxies, and Venus — far less interesting than Saturn, a view I return to again and again. I try to get a photo through the lens; it fails.

mauna-kea-observatory

This is one of the only places on Earth to get a good look at Saturn.

At 8:30 p.m., it is pitch dark, and the Ranger begins her presentation via an amazing green laser pointer that stabs like an infinite Lightsaber into the night sky — it allows easy identification of stars and constellations while she speaks, like the light is actually reaching the stars themselves. However, the yammering, iPhone-wielding and utterly annoying teenagers are spoiling it for us. (Was I ever like this?)

The International Space Station passing overhead incites a few tolerable oohs and ahs. But it’s all a little too raucous for me. Beautiful — stars as bright as I’ve ever seen and surely more plentiful than I’ve ever seen — but Christ, kids, shut up and put down the smartphones! Cars arriving and leaving blind our night-oriented eyes, to add injury to insult.

Alas, it’s no so bad — worthy of the trip to be sure, if only for the incredible Saturnian vista, but it’s our bad luck for coinciding with an end-of-year school field trip.

Erin and leave with a plan. Halfway down the mountain road, we park in a large pullout. Thanks to our car’s drop-top, we lower the roof and our seats at once — with plans to enjoy a private stargazing session until the near-zero temperatures force us to leave.

mauna-kea-ISS

The streak is the International Space Station passing overhead.

The night sky is ablaze; it seems more white than black. Constellations are visible as if drawn by hand. The Milky Way seems tangible; a swath of glowing cosmic dust across the eastern sky. A shooting star streaks into the atmosphere and strobes like a camera’s flash. The North Star beams in from behind us like a lighthouse.

Eventually, the cold night permeates our thin sweatshirts, and we fire up the engine and crank up the heat. We attempt to make the return trip top-down (and heat up), but the wind is frigid.

Driving back to Keauhou Bay, I watch the dashboard thermometer climb in opposition to our descent; by the time we hit Wendy’s drive-thru for a midnight snack, it’s 26 degrees Celsius again. Mauna Kea stargazing — incredible, but tomorrow is a beach day for sure.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

1 comment… add one
  • what is csl Jan 7, 2017

    You are awesome. Truly. I love reading your blog. Your writing almost always makes me smile and today it made me laugh, too. As a home gardener/farmer and camper, I truly appreciate this ensemble, and find the humor in it's truth! Thanks.

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