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Stargazing atop mighty Mauna Kea.

On Hawaii, clear air and a new telescope offer unparalleled views of the heavens. Or see the stars from Maui or Oahu

SOMETIME NEXT year, we will see more deeply into the universe than we have ever seen before. This feat will occur 13,796 feet above sea level, on the summit of Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Mauna Kea, white mountain, home to the Hawaiian goddess of ice, Poliahu, has become the most important astronomical site in the world. The stellar title will be clinched when the new 10-meter (394-inch) W. M. Keck Telescope--recently completed and soon to undergo optical testing--trains its gaze toward those distant regions where the universe was born.

A visit to Mauna Kea's cinder-covered summit is not for everyone. But if you're interested in the heavens--and in a heavenly view of earth--it can be a star trek you'll long remember. If you can't make it up the mountain, you can explore Hawaiian skies from lower elevations on Oahu and Maui.


World-class stargazing got its start in Hawaii in the 1960s, when astronomers began surveying high-altitude sites for a proposed NASA telescope. It's said that one scientist was standing atop Maui's Haleakala volcano when fog closed in. Looking south toward the Big Island, he noted a taller peak rising clear above the clouds: Mauna Kea.

A star was born, or rather, a great place to view the stars was born. Mauna Kea's first big telescope--the University of Hawaii's 88-inch--became operational in 1970. Today a total of nine observatories have sprouted on the austere summit of the inactive (though not extinct) volcano.

They're operated by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and the Netherlands, and are used by astronomers from around the world who each year vie for several nights of invaluable time at the telescopes.

Lofty Mauna Kea curses those astronomers with quite literal headaches--along with nausea and light-headedness that can make adding 2 and 2 problematic. In return the mountain blesses them with the best viewing conditions in the world--above 40 percent of Earth's atmosphere and 90 percent of its water vapor.

At such an altitude, the air is extraordinarily clear, dry, and stable. Far from the lights of any major city, the night sky is inky dark; in addition, the mountain's position 20|degrees~ above the equator permits a view of 100 percent of the Northern Hemisphere's stars and 80 percent of the Southern Hemisphere's--including a straight shot into the heart of the Milky Way.

Newest and most powerful of the instruments to scan the skies from this perch is the W. M. Keck Telescope, the largest telescope in the world, built for $94 million by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California.

The Keck has four times the surface area of the telescope at California's Mount Palomar and uses never-before-tried technology: instead of one giant mirror, the Keck employs 36 smaller, hexagonal mirrors fitted into a mosaic capable of adjusting itself a hundred times a second. Test runs indicate success--to such a degree that plans have already been approved for Keck II, to rise less than 50 yards away.


The trip up Mauna Kea should be made with a few precautions in mind. Mauna Kea Observatory Support Services (MKSS), which manages the mountain, advises that the summit not be visited by children under 16, pregnant women, people with heart or respiratory conditions, or anyone who has gone scuba diving within the previous 24 hours.

Bring lots of warm clothing, sandwiches sufficient to fend off hunger, and liquids (no liquor) sufficient to help fend off altitude sickness--there's no food service anywhere on the mountain.

The summit road is well maintained but does contain a brief gravel stretch, and it is steep. As a result, MKSS requires visitors to drive four-wheel-drive vehicles.

This poses a problem. Few Big Island car rental agencies handle four-wheel-drive vehicles, and most of those won't let you drive to the top of Mauna Kea. Harper Car & Truck Rentals (1690 Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo; 808/969-1478) is the only agency we've found that permits the trip. Some tours provide transportation from Big Island hotel areas; see the listings at right.

MKSS offers Saturday and Sunday afternoon summit tours. Participants meet at 1 at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, at the 9,200-foot level, then drive their own vehicles to the summit to converge for the actual tour, which includes a look at, though not through, one of the summit telescopes.

Tours are free. Call 961-2180 before you head out to make sure the tour is running the day you want to visit.

Before or after the tour, take time to look at the astronomy, geology, and historical exhibits at the Onizuka Center, which was named for the Challenger astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who grew up on the Big Island.

The center is open Fridays through Mondays (call for exact hours, which vary by season). On Friday and Saturday nights, you can peer through the 11-inch telescope the center sets up for visitors. The Keck it isn't, but the telescope will allow you to see such celestial wonders as Jupiter's atmospheric bands and the Orion nebula.

Directions to Mauna Ken. The Onizuka Center lies off Saddle Road (State Highway 200) an hour northwest of Hilo and 1 1/2 hours northeast of Kailua-Kona. The turnoff from Saddle Road is not well signed; look for mile marker 28 (across from the hunter check-in station), then turn north and drive 6 1/2 miles to the visitor center. From the center, it's a 10-mile drive to the top.

Tours with transportation provided. Two private companies lead summit tours.

Paradise Safaris

(Box A-D, Kailua-Kona 96745; 322-2366) is the more astronomy-oriented of the two; its 7-hour Sunset Stargazing Adventure includes a summit tour, a pause to admire the mountain's spectacular sunset, and then a chance to stargaze through a portable 8-inch reflector. Cost ($95) includes hot drinks and transport from Kailua-Kona.

Waipio Valley Shuttle

(Box 5128, Kukuihaele, 96727; 775-7121) runs 6-hour daytime tours that include a look at one of the big telescopes. Cost ($75) includes lunch and transport from Hilo.


If you can't make it to the Big Island, you can still sample astronomy, Hawaiian-style, and see a few sights you can't see at home--like Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor.

On Maui, the Hyatt Regency Maui holds evening programs that let visitors peer through a 16-inch computer-operated telescope on the hotel's roof. Programs begin at 8 nightly except Wednesdays and Saturdays; cost is $10 for adults, $5 for ages 12 and under. Reservations are required; call 661-1234.

On Oahu, the popular planetarium at Honolulu's Bishop Museum is showing Monuments to the Stars, which focuses on Polynesian and Hawaiian astronomy. Shows run at 11 and 2 daily, with an added show at 7 on Fridays and Saturdays. Admission to the planetarium programs only is $2.50, free for ages under 6. On the first Monday of every month, the museum runs The Sky Tonight, which focuses on the Hawaiian night sky--first in the planetarium and then out-doors, where visitors can peer at it through the museum's 12 1/2-inch telescope. The Hawaiian Astronomical Society also sponsors star parties here once a month. For information on all these programs, call 847-3511.
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Author:Fish, Peter
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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