I would not classify myself as a full-blown nerd, but I do have a bit of a geeky streak. I’d rather go to a lecture on wasps than attend a concert, and I’d rather spend the evening stargazing than at a club. If that sounds like you then Hawaii’s big island is the piece of this archipelago for you. Oahu may have killer beaches, but Hawaii has an active volcano and what may be the best observatory in the world – not the US, not the northern hemisphere, but the entire planet that we live on.
Why is that? Well, first of all it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. Hawaii is pretty much as far away from any continent as you can possible get. Secondly, there are no major cities on Hawaii. Hilo, the largest city on Hawaii, only has a population of about 40,800. There is also an island-wide lighting ordinance just to make sure that light pollution isn’t a problem. Finally, a meteorlogical phenomena called a tropical inversion keeps any moisture or clouds below the summit of the mountain. What that means is that a ring of clouds forms around the mountain, trapping moisture and atmospheric pollutants. The top of the mountain is always clear and dry, that’s the power of elevation.
That is why there are 13 incredibly powerful telescopes on top of the mountain. These are huge, massively expensive telescopes, the likes of which I will never be allowed to touch. They are owned by a variety of countries and programs including NASA, Japan, Caltech, and the UK. You can see a full list and find out details about each one here.
While I can’t use these telescopes (I wouldn’t know how even if I could), I could have admired them if I had access to a 4-wheel-drive vehicle or was willing to shell out $200 for a tour, but I’m on a budget.
Never fear, though. There is still fun to be had for those of us without deep pockets or off-roading capabilities. We forced our little compact rental car up 9,200 feet of Mauna Kea to the Onizuka Visitor Information Center. The road was pretty steep and proved a bit of a challenge for our rental. At one point Patrick commented “the pedal can’t go down anymore”, we were going 45mph.
At first glance the visitors center was unassuming. There are some informational plaques and displays on the wall and a small gift shop that specializes in warm clothes and foods. It gets nippy at 9,000 feet.
But I did not drive all the way up a mountain just to see a few information signs and buy a souvenir so here’s the exciting bit: they have a solar telescope! Yes, kids, that’s right. I looked directly at the sun, and I am not blind. That’s not all. Every night, starting at 6PM, the visitor center offers a free stargazing event. The stars here are incredible. Volunteers pull out telescopes that you actually can use and give a talk about the constellations.
It’s free. It’s awesome. If you decide to visit be sure to bundle up. I am not joking about the cold. Hot water and cups are available so stock up on hot chocolate before you head up.
What’s your favorite constellation? Let us know in the comments!