Seeing Stars: A night on Mauna Kea volcano

Mauna Kea 1

Sunshine! Blue skies!

The sudden appearance of these after a 25-mile ascent through rainy, fog-engulfed Big Island lava forest is a welcome, late-afternoon feast for the senses. Angst about a day of thick, gray cloud cover and heavy rains over seaside Hilo ruining my evening plans at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center begins to dissipate.

I’m driving the wide, lava-flow plateau separating massive Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes at 6,000 feet above sea level. Low-elevation clouds fall behind me on island-crossing Saddle Road. The likelihood of seeing the perfect night sky I’ve been promised seems finally possible.

The summit of Mauna Kea, a full 13,796 feet above sea level, has long been recognized as one of the best locations on Earth for astronomical observations. The 13 international telescopes constructed there over the past 45 years, and the early Hawaiians’ reverence of this highest point in the Islands as a sacred realm of the gods, are testament to that. But the summit of Mauna Kea is not easy to get to.

Wangle the four-wheel-drive vehicle required to negotiate the steep, seven-mile access road from the 9,200-foot level Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) to the summit observatories and you’ll find its telescopes closed to the general public. Plus, post sunset, you’ll be stargazing on an alpine summit often buffeted by brutal winds and temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Reason enough to be grateful that, on every evening since 2000, the VIS has been hosting stargazing on Mauna Kea for the rest of us.

A collection of telescopes is place on the VIS patio each evening for visitors to use.

Come sunset, a collection of telescopes (each purchased with public donations) is placed on the large, open-air patio of the VIS for all to use, with staff and volunteers offering guidance and stargazing knowledge. After complete darkness sets in, a staff-guided stargazing program offers a remarkably complete look at all things visible to the naked eye in Mauna Kea’s brilliant night sky.

And it’s all free of charge and accessible to anyone with a car healthy enough to make it up Mauna Kea Access Road to the VIS.

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. 

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.


Categories: Hawai‘i Island, Travel Tips