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Seeing Stars: A night on Mauna Kea volcano

This, however, is not the only reason my rented Nissan Versa and I are chugging up the mountain this evening.

“The VIS is probably the best place in the world to view the stars with the naked eye. It’s even better than the summit,” said station manager David A. Byrne, by phone, a few days before my visit. “From sea level to summit, you lose 40 percent of your oxygen. So your eyes don’t focus as well there as at the visitor station.”

Happen to possess the cash to build a multimillion-dollar telescope? The dry, stable air of Mauna Kea’s summit is as ideal as it gets for viewing the night sky. For everyone else, however, it doesn’t get better than the downslope VIS location, with its more oxygenated air, slightly warmer temperatures and equally unobstructed views of the heavens.

The VIS under Mauna Kea's clear evening skies.

It’s quiet as I stand on the visitor station’s empty stargazing patio an hour from sunset taking in the unobstructed view of Mauna Loa far across the “saddle” plateau. While a few visitors hike up a large, nearby puu (hill) to view the sunset, I watch VIS staffers set up telescopes of various types and sizes on the patio as the sky darkens rapidly. Saturday evening programs include presentations by observatory astronomers or Hawaiian cultural practitioners discussing Mauna Kea topics scientific and sacred. On other nights, the station’s knowledgeable, mostly volunteer staff of astronomy students from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, or astronomy buffs, leads stargazing.

I peer into the viewfinder of one of the patio’s larger refractor telescopes, pointed toward Saturn by six-year volunteer Richard Hilliard. The gas giant appears pure white through the lens, seeming to stand end on end, its famous rings glowing. Hilliard points out other early evening stars for me: Betelguese, Rigel and the Southern Cross, the last of which he finds rising above the dark silhouette of Mauna Loa, after I ask about it.

“Hawaii is the only place in the U.S. where you can see the whole Southern Cross,” he says, of the well-known southern hemisphere constellation, also known as Crux. 

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