Thirty years ago, on a lonely stretch of tropical highway, night descended abruptly upon our family vacation. My father, unfamiliar with both the twisting Maui roads and our rental car as he struggled to find a knob to activate the high beams, pulled over. But as the headlights blinked off, we saw that it wasn’t completely dark outside: the rolling landscape was coated with a faint white wash, enough of a glow that we could see the guardrail’s shadow neatly defined on the road’s gravel shoulder. “Must be a full moon,” my dad said, craning his head over the steering wheel to peer up through the top of the windshield. But there was no moon that night – not even a sliver. The light was from a shimmering tapestry of 5,000 stars, all clearly visible to the naked eye.
To us kids, accustomed to seeing perhaps 50 faded dots in Vancouver’s light-polluted night sky, it was as if we had stumbled across some kind of wormhole that allowed a rare, uncensored peek at the heavens. My sister and I rolled down our windows and stuck our heads out like dogs hungry for the cosmic wind on our faces. The stars were packed so tight they seemed to collide, crumble and form a hazy contrail that arched overhead. It was my first glimpse of the Milky Way.
Hawaii has always had a cozy relationship with the stars. Celestial navigation helped guide the islands’ first inhabitants – the ocean-roaming Polynesians – to the verdant chain 1,700 years ago. But in 1964, a new breed of explorers followed. Twentieth-century astronomers had discovered that the mid-Pacific archipelago is surrounded by an exceptionally stable atmosphere and that cleansing winds blow unimpeded across thousands of kilometres of open ocean to reach the Aloha State, resulting in minimal dust, minimal turbulence and the clearest night skies on the planet. Not surprisingly, many modern-day scientists chose Hawaii’s Big Island on which to build their massive observatories, specifically the summit of Mauna Kea, a 4,205-metre-high dormant volcano that boasts one of the highest numbers of clear nights per year in the world. And today there are 13 major telescopes on the peak – a billion-dollar international research effort that makes the Big Island the epicentre of astronomy on this planet. The land-based space race has also spawned Hawaii’s newest travel niche. And so, some 30 years after my initial glimpse of Hawaii’s stars, I return to the archipelago once again, this time to gaze at Mauna Kea’s sprinkling of white domes in a week of astro tourism, complete with a private stargazing session at a five-star resort, a mountaintop trek to a giant scope and interactive fun at the supernova of this budding market: Hawaii’s new U.S.$28-million Imiloa Astronomy Center.
Perched on a hillside overlooking the former plantation town of Hilo, Imiloa is part science centre, part indigenous people’s museum. The NASA-funded facility is an attempt to stimulate tourism on the wet side of the Big Island, where Hilo presides as America’s rainiest city. The area’s generous precipitation and rich volcanic soil allow farmers here to quickly grow virtually anything. Nowhere is this botanical bonanza more apparent than in the tents of the Hilo farmers’ market where, the air suffused with the perfume of jungle, more than a hundred vendors sell their exotic crops. My wife Leila and I wander amid tables piled high with unusually large jackfruit, papaya and soursop – proof that although Hilo’s sugar industry may have collapsed in the 1990s, the fields carved from the rainforest remain active.
Clambering into our rental truck en route to Imiloa, we navigate downtown Hilo – Hawaii’s largest cluster of historic buildings. Some, such as the 1925 art deco Palace Theater and 1908 renaissance revival-style First Trust building, have been lovingly restored. Others, shanty-like structures with corrugated tin roofs, could use a coat of paint. But mostly, all eyes are on the Imiloa Astronomy Center.
The building is easy to find on the University of Hawaii Hilo campus. It is the only one anchored by three circus-tent-sized titanium cones, metallic “peaked hats” that echo the island’s volcanic land forms (though the interpretation is sharply exaggerated, for there are no pointy topped mountains on the Big Island – the land was formed by five, rounded, shield volcanoes). Imiloa’s largest “tipi” houses a planetarium, the other two a café and an entrance lobby, and stretched between the three is a 1,100-square-metre gallery packed with exhibits weaving astronomy and Hawaiian culture into a compelling story of human exploration. After all, imiloa is Hawaiian for “seeker of profound truth.”
The centre’s futuristic exterior could lead the uninitiated to expect staff sporting Star Trek uniforms. Instead, visitors in flip-flops are greeted by smiling docents wearing aloha shirts and chunky, black Kukui-nut necklaces made from the fruit of the state tree (the candle-nut). Inside the lofty atrium, rays of sunshine stream through a skylight in the main cone’s tip as families queue at the planetarium door for the afternoon showing of Mauna Kea: Between Earth and Sky. This short, animated film, which depicts the volcanic birth of the archipelago, interwoven with Polynesian beliefs about Hawaii’s creation, ends with a dramatic flyover of the Big Island’s telescope roost as staff sing a cappella, in Hawaiian, of the mountain’s snow goddess, Poli’ahu. The haunting melody is a poignant introduction to a facility that refuses to be a straightforward science fun lab.
Imiloa’s main gallery has all the high-tech toys expected in an astronomy centre, including a 1.8-metre-diameter globe that uses computers and video projectors to flicker atmospheric storms and other planetary data across its surface. But it also has a one-fifth-scale model of a Polynesian voyaging canoe docked in the middle of the floor, the twin-hulled, single-mast vessel illustrating, the basics of ancient wayfinding, how to read clouds, currents and, of course, the stars.
The last thing we examine before embarking on the 1.5-hour drive to Mauna Kea is a replica of Galileo’s 17th-century telescope. The slender, metre-long wooden tube is mounted on a tripod and trained at a grapefruit-size moon hung from the gallery ceiling. I peer through the hand-ground lens and tell my wife that the primitive spyglass has all the zoom of a loonie-store kaleidoscope. She reminds me that Galileo seemed to do all right with his simple refractor. He discovered sunspots and four of Jupiter’s moons and proved Copernicus was correct – the earth does, in fact, revolve around the sun. “Whatever,” I respond. “We’ll be peeking through way more powerful telescopes than that one.”
Of course, today’s astronomers don’t venture up a mountain to peer through telescopes. Images of the cosmos are beamed from the summit via fibre optic lines to nondescript office buildings such as the one across the street from the Imiloa. Researchers pay up to U.S.$38,000 a night to watch the scopes’ data on “TV”– at sea level.
Scientists prefer remote viewing for the same reason tourists often shy away from Mauna Kea’s vaunted peak: the drive up is long and taxing, the air at the top thin. The mountain is the tallest in the Pacific, the tallest in the world if measured from its base 6,000 metres below the ocean surface. With atmospheric pressure at the top only 60 per cent of that at sea level, altitude sickness is common. In fact, the summit is considered unsafe for children under 16, pregnant women, the obese and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart or respiratory conditions. As well, not all rental cars are allowed up Mauna Kea, and a four-by-four is mandatory for the road’s uppermost section.
The drive itself meanders through grassland interspersed with black lava fields that hardened 150 years ago after oozing down from nearby Mauna Loa. The top of Mauna Kea looks like Mars, with pebbly red soil, the occasional cinder cone and no vegetation – an inhospitable environment for observatory engineers to house ultra-sensitive instruments. The result: observatories are scattered about like overturned buckets in an abandoned sandbox; road signs come pre-drilled with baseball-size holes so that they don’t take flight in the 160-km/h winds that occasionally batter the summit; and Hawaii’s only snowplow sits parked in a shed, awaiting the next blizzard. But today, though a bank of cloud clings to the mountain’s midriff, everything is sunny and calm. The gentle blue hump of Maui pierces the cloud deck in the distance, and the silence is incredible. We are giddy to be on top of the world, where some of the world’s most amazing astronomy finds have been made.
Two of the summit’s observatories have small visitors’ galleries that afford a glimpse of their behemoth telescopes. The University of Hawaii’s 2.2-metre model is one of the smaller, older (circa 1970) eyes on the hill, but astute enough to have discovered our solar system’s Kuiper Belt in 1990. (The discovery of the far-flung debris field, which contains some massive icy bodies, paved the way for Pluto’s demotion to “dwarf planet” in 2006.) The other facility with a peekaboo room is the W. M. Keck Observatory: two adjacent, match-ing domes, each sheltering an eight-storey, 275-tonne telescope with 10-metre-diameter mirror – the largest optical telescopes in the world. We peer through a window for a -partial view of Keck I, the telescope that has confirmed the existence of more exoplanets (worlds beyond our solar sys-tem) than any other ground-based instrument.
It’s hard to believe that this cluster of spyglasses are “chipping away at the night sky,” and that, with tools like the Keck twins, today’s Galileos are pursuing the big questions: How did the universe evolve? How did galaxies form? What is the ultimate fate of the universe? The observatory’s website (http://www.keckobservatory.org) trumpets one discovery after another: “Brightest Supernova Ever Seen” (May 2007), “First Planet-Forming Disk Found in the Environment of a Dying Star,” (January 2007), “First Triple Quasar Discovered at W. M. Keck Observatory” (January 2007). The adulation continues in a Time magazine cover story from September 2006, which recounts how Caltech astronomer Richard Ellis used Keck to observe galaxies that are further away from earth than anything heretofore seen. How far? Ellis believes it has taken the light from these galaxies more than 13 billion years – a period not much younger than the universe – to reach us. He eagerly awaits a new generation of even larger telescopes so that he can continue piecing together what happened early on in the life of the universe, a mysterious 200-million-year period known as the Dark Ages, just before the first baby galaxies began to shine.
All Leila and I are after is a glimpse of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. But after heading down the mountain to the 2,804-metre level where the public is welcome to look through smaller scopes, we are hit by ferocious migraines – a delayed reaction to the altitude. Here we are on the observation patio of the Onizuka Center’s visitor information station surrounded by a half-dozen beefy, backyard telescopes. The sun is about to set. Mauna Kea park rangers are ready to unzip the covers from the keg-size lenses and begin their constellation tour of the sky – and our skulls feel like they are crumbling. We have no choice but to descend.
The moment our SUV hits beach level, our headaches evaporate. And at the Kona Village Resort, resident astronomer Jon Lomberg launches into a description of Hawaii’s night sky. He teaches us the Hawaiian names for some of the stars and orients us within the Milky Way – Earth being near the outer tip of one of the galaxy’s spiral arms.
Unfortunately, however, he can’t drag his telescope from its shed because a thin veil of cloud is threatening rain. We see about 49 stars, one less than we already know from Vancouver’s light-polluted sky. We have been on the Big Island for five days and still haven’t peered through a telescope – with the exception of Galileo’s Fisher-Price spyglass. Altitude sickness has driven us off Mauna Kea. Poor weather on the so-called Kona (“dry side”) of Hawaii has hidden the heavens from our sight.
We collapse onto the tiny wildwood bench overlooking Kahuwai Bay and listen to the waves break gently in the darkness. Our stargazing efforts have been so pathetic that we start laughing. At the same moment, a giant gash in the clouds passes overhead. Leila’s jaw flops open. It is the dazzling star carpet I had seen as a kid on Maui – wormhole to the cosmos, complete with the misty band that is our galaxy. It’s as if someone accidentally turned off the headlights.
- Budget Base Camp Arnott’s Lodge, Hilo.
Tenting,dorm bunks, semi-private and private rooms. The hostel-hotel also runs fun, affordable lava hikes in the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 1-808-969-7097
- Fit for a Hawaiian Queen Shipman House B&B Inn
One of the islands’ few surviving Victorian mansions – is perched regally on the edge of a rainforest ravine above Hilo. Guests can sleep where Jack London slept, tickle the same piano that Hawaii’s last queen, Lili`uokalani, played and enjoy a stunning variety of exotic fruit from the backyard jungle. 1-800-627-8447; http://www.hilo-hawaii.com
- A-list Stargazing Kona Village Resort is a posh, secluded retreat on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. Twice a month, Jon Lomberg, an artist whose paintings of celestial bodies have graced the covers of Carl Sagan’s books, regales guests with the myths and science behind the night sky. 1-800-367-5290; http://www.konavillage.com
- Dome-o Arigato Japan’s 8.2-metre Subaru Telescope is the only Mauna Kea observatory offering regularly scheduled public tours of its dome. The free half-hour sessions are limited to eight visitors; participants must find their own transportation to the summit. Book online at http://www.naoj.org.
- Space Shuttles Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station lists all commercial operators offering summit tours. http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis
- Mauna Kea Summit Adventures drives guests to the top for sunset views, then down to a mid-mountain secluded field where guides erect 28-centimetre Celestron telescopes — perfect for viewing the night sky. 1-888-322-2366; http://www.maunakea.com. —R.H l