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Seeing Stars: A night on Mauna Kea volcano

Tonight’s stargazing program begins when the VIS telescope patio is at its busiest with visitors and the night sky is at its star-filled brightest. VIS staffer Joe McDonough begins his talk with a rundown of Mauna Kea positives for astronomical studies. Nearly all of these boil down to location, location, location.

“Anyone north of the equator can see all of the northern-hemisphere stars. But, because Mauna Kea is so close to the equator, we can actually see 80 percent of the southern-hemisphere stars, too,” explains McDonough. “That means we can see about 85 percent of all the stars visible from Earth here.

“Also, we have 340 clear nights per year up here. ‘Clear’ meaning no clouds.”

A good place to be seeing stars indeed.

McDonough spends the next hour firing the luminous green beam of a laser pointer skyward, locating every visible planet, pointing out dozens of notable stars, and tracing zodiacal constellations so thoroughly even Leo the lion’s mane and the bodies of the Gemini twins seem as obvious to the eye as the moon. He discusses the early Hawaiians’ impeccable knowledge of the stars for long-distance navigation, and their names for individual stars and constellations: Hokulea (meaning “star of happiness,” for Arcturus), Kaheiheionakeiki (meaning “cat’s cradle of the children,” for the stars of Orion), Makalii (meaning “finely meshed netting,” for the Pleiades) and more.

The Mauna Kea VIS is open for stargazing nightly, free with no reservations required.

Even stars and constellations I’ve observed time and time again seem brand new in Mauna Kea’s crystalline skies.

“Your timing for your visit was good,” McDonough tells me later, as the crowd on the VIS patio thins out to a half-dozen at around 9 p.m. “It’s a beautiful night. It’s nice and warm. There’s no arctic wind cruising through here. And the moon isn’t too full. The only thing we’re missing is the summer Milky Way.”

Apparently brighter and more clustered with stars than its nonetheless impressive spring appearance tonight, our solar system’s home galaxy, McDonough says, is truly a sight to behold in August. Not knowing if I’ll be back for that, I steal final celestial glimpses on the patio telescopes before walking into the darkness near my rental for one last look into the perfect night sky.

I’m lost in the stars for another hour before heading down the mountain.

Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station Stargazing Program

Mauna Kea Access Road, off Saddle Road (Highway 200) • (808) 935-6268 • www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis

Photos: Jack Wolford (pg. 1, top); Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (all other photos)

(This feature was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of HAWAII Magazine.)

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