What I did on my holidays – Part 2 – Astronomy

I’ve been fascinated by the stars and space since a school project that I did at about age 7. The fascination stayed with me, even surviving my astronomy degree, to the extent that our wedding present from my sister was a telescope. Fortunately, Steven shares my fascination (especially considering the wedding present!) so we took some time to indulge it while we were on Hawai’i.

Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i is quite possibly the best place on Earth for making astronomical observations and since the 1960’s several of the world’s most advanced land-based telescopes have been built on its summit. The summit itself is at around 14,000 feet meaning that, while it’s possible to take a day-trip up there, it’s not really convenient or comfortable thanks to low temperatures and thinner air.

Fortunately, there is an alternative in the form of the snappily-named Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station. The station is situated on the slopes of Mauna Kea at around 9300 feet and provides all the information you could possibly need on the mountain, the telescopes, weather and road conditions. Every evening, their volunteers provide a free star-gazing session including guidance on the best place to watch the sunset, a tour of the constellations and other objects that are visible with the naked eye and several high-quality telescopes that they will set up to view the most interesting things visible that night (or anything else that you ask them to).

Steven and I enjoyed our first evening up there so much that we went back a second night while we were there, even though it was a 3.5 hour round-trip from the town that we were staying in. The sunsets were amazing (there are a couple of pictures below, some more in my Flickr set and even more that I haven’t uploaded yet), the volunteers were friendly and knowledgeable and the night skies were like nothing I’ve ever seen. The combination of being above the cloud level, as seen in the picture below, no light pollution and the thinner air creates the ideal viewing conditions. Also, because Hawai’i is much further south than London, we got to see constellations and objects that it is just not possible to see from home. We saw Saturn and some of its moons, the Jewel Box open cluster (not visible from the UK) and many, many other things, including the best views of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen.

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If you have any interest in star-gazing at all and you get the opportunity to visit Mauna Kea then you absolutely must. Don’t take one of the tours however. They’re very expensive, especially compared to the cost of petrol to drive yourself to the information centre, and the observing from the summit isn’t actually as good as the observing from the information centre thanks to the fact that your brain is much less good at processing information at 14,000 feet than it is as 9,000 feet and to the fact that the information center have better telescopes than most of the tours carry.

Another must-do if you’re interested in astronomy is the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai’i in Hilo. They try to combine Hawai’ian cultural traditions with modern-day astronomy. The mixture doesn’t always quite work but they have an excellent planetarium, some interesting information on Polynesian celestial navigation and great exhibits. Their hands-on exhibits are fantastic and had Steven and I running round like kids to see what we could play with next. Our guidebook described it as being so good that you shouldn’t necessarily wait for a rainy day to go, which was absolutely true. However, since statistically it rains in Hilo two days out of three, you probably wouldn’t have a long wait anyway.

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