Guiding Light

Stargaze into the heavens from atop the highest peak in the Pacific atop Mauna Kea


Could you find your way in the dark, on a moonless night, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Surrounded by endless miles of blue and black abyss, floating beneath a starry canvas of light, with two carved trees lashed together keeping you mercifully afloat. Which way is forward, and which way is back? Would you know where you came from and where you are going? You could, if you knew the secrets of the Hawaiian Star Compass.

Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Hokule'a (Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe) revived the ancient art of Polynesian navigation and crossed the Pacific on a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe using the Star Compass and other traditional navigation knowledge (first voyage in 1976). These ancient teachings were passed down to him from his teacher Pius “Mau” Piailug, a master Micronesian navigator. The Star Compass was a critical navigation aid to the early ocean-going peoples of the vast Pacific. The compass split the horizon into four quarters based upon the prevailing winds. It also created 32 Hale (houses), each representing an equal arc (11.25 degrees) of the 360-degree horizon, which a navigator alone on the high seas looked out upon. The 32 Hale are broken down into four cardinal houses of North, South, East, and West, as well as seven other houses that get repeated in each quarter. For instance, the house of La is where the sun lives. When a star rises in one house, it follows an equatorial path, and then sets in the same house, but in a different quarter on the opposite side of the compass. Thus allowing a navigator with knowledge of the star and constellation movements, a reference to guide his canoe true. 

Through the use of the Star Compass, and other navigational aids such as reading swells, migratory bird direction, and weather formations, the Polynesian navigators, and those who came after them, discovered a way to literally see through the dark. Their vision eventually led them to a new home, composed of fiery peaks, majestic valleys, and lush tropical forests. It was here in Hawaii, where for the first time, they could nearly reach up and touch the heavenly bodies, which guided them to this undiscovered paradise. Realizing the importance of the stars, every member of Hawaiian society had some knowledge of the constellations. Today, many of us gaze upon the night sky, but don’t recognize the light that has so steadily shined down upon these Islands since humans first arrived. To understand the past and see the way forward, we can rediscover the veil of celestial light that began our human story here in Hawaii. 

There is no better place to start a journey back into time than on the starry summit of Mauna Kea. Just as the stars that adorn its barren peaks guided the ancient mariners, so they have remained constant and continue to this very day to guide modern day astronomers in finding their place through the depths of space and time, helping us all understand where we came from and where we are going.

Although cutting edge in its time, the Star Compass has been replaced by technologies, which have seemingly magical abilities to reach out into the “houses” of the stars. Thirteen of the most powerful optical/infrared, submillimeter, and radio telescopes in the world peer out into the great beyond every night—exploring deeper and farther into space than humankind has gone before. This includes the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world—the dual 10 meter Keck telescopes, the largest dedicated infrared telescope—the 3.8 meter United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope, and the largest submillimeter telescope in the world—the 15 meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. The combined light gathering capability of all the telescopes at the summit is 60 times greater than the well-known Hubble Space Telescope. Eleven countries and numerous universities, organizations, and foundations all manage the cutting edge instrumentation and exploration happening nightly on Mauna Kea.

These capabilities have given scientists the ability to peer farther back in time than humans have ever glimpsed (13 billion years)—detecting Gamma-ray bursts, the universes most luminous explosions, that occurred just 630 million years after the Big Bang. They have discovered photographic evidence of an exoplanetary system, a solar system just like ours, 130 light years away. Evidence found within our own Milky Way galaxy has helped us to understand the possible origins of the Earth’s oceans in newly discovered classes of ice-laden asteroids within the asteroid belt. All of this is seen from atop the “White Mountain,” as it was known to the Hawaiians.

Now, you may be hoping to get a peek through one of these incredible telescopes, but think again. Organizations spend huge sums of money and wait years to get their “window of time” through which to harness the power of these telescopes. Besides, all of the information the telescopes gather is not observed just through a lens, rather computers record the data and send the information to various departments and institutions around the world.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the top and use your own two eyes like the navigators of times past, and marvel at the celestial spectacle that is Mauna Kea. A trip to the highest point in the Pacific can easily be done with a tour company or a personal vehicle if you have 4-wheel drive. Just be careful, as the last few miles after the visitor station at 9,200-ft turns into a windy, steep, gravel road, which can be treacherous on a good day.

Before heading to the 13,796-ft summit, make sure to acclimate to the altitude by spending at least one hour at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (MKVIS). There is a great hike just across the road from the station to occupy your time, or you can watch a great presentation in the MKVIS about Mauna Kea’s environment and history. There is even a nightly stargazing session led by staff members at the station. Here, you can actually look through a number of much smaller telescopes that the staff set out for star enthusiasts.

Once you make it to the top, it becomes clear why it was no accident that Mauna Kea houses the multitude of cutting edge instrumentation allowing us to decipher the knowledge contained hidden amongst the night sky. The air above Mauna Kea is very low in turbulence and extremely dry—two important requirements for measuring infrared and submillimeter radiation. The number of clear cloud-free nights is among the highest in the world due to its unique geography and height.

With only about 185,000 residents spread across the 93-mile wide island, there is extremely low interference from light pollution. Water vapor and air pollution are also held well below the summit observatories by a tropical inversion layer about 600 meters thick that isolates the upper atmosphere from the lower. As if these alone weren’t the most ideal conditions for astronomy, the Hawaiian Islands are also located close to the equator, which allows for a greater viewing area of the night sky. The summit of Mauna Kea is by far the world’s largest and best astronomical observatory.       

The Hawaiians believed that Mauna Kea was a sacred place, for it was considered the origin of space, a place of creation where the sky and earth separated to form the heavens. The earth mother, Papahänaumoku, mated with her brother the sky father, Wäkea, and gave birth to the ‘äina (land), which would become the islands of Hawai‘i. They also produced a son Häloa, who becomes the progenitor of all the Hawaiian people. The original inhabitants of these islands came to Hawaiÿi guided by the stars and throughout their lives the heavenly bodies played a large role in how and when they made many important decisions.

Get in touch with this ancient knowledge and learn about the night skies that have guided the people who came before. Much like a navigator with a Star Compass, the more we understand the sky above us, the closer we come to knowing our own origins and how we can find our place amongst the heavenly bodies.


Four common constellations over Hawaii:

The Southern Cross, also known as the constellation Crux, is a brilliant constellation that many mainland folks never get to see. As Hawaii is the southern most state, the cross is much higher in the sky and a great treat if you are here in late December and early January. The cross is also just above Rigel Kentaurus, also know as Alpha Centauri. This is the closest star system to Earth, only four light years away! The Hawaiian called the Southern Cross Hanaiakamalama, and this brightly colored constellation was important to their ocean navigation. As it is low on the horizon, the Cross was important for locating the latitude of the Hawaiian Islands. An important star line (a Hawaiian navigational method of connecting points in the night sky) called Backbone ran from the Southern Cross to Hokupa‘a, also know as the North Star.

Scorpius is another easy to see constellation from the Islands. In Greek mythology, Scorpius killed Orion, the great hunter constellation, with a sting from its venomous tail. So the gods decided to send Orion and Scorpius to opposite sides of the sky so the hunter would not fall prey again to the Scorpion sting. In Hawaiian mythology, the constellation Scorpius is part of the demigod Maui’s magic fishhook called Kamakaunuiamaui. Maui also had a magic wa‘a (canoe) that he used to travel between islands. Feeling bad that all the people couldn’t travel from island to island he used his fishhook and canoe to pull the islands together. All was going well until a local chief, who was helping row Maui’s wa‘a, looked backwards against Maui’s orders. This defiance broke the fishhook’s pull between the Islands and they slid back to where we find them today. However, a piece of the Big Island where Kamakaunuiamaui was connected, tore off and landed in the ocean near Hilo. We now call it Coconut Island

The Pleiades star cluster, also know as the Seven Sisters, is a beautiful star cluster in the constellation Taurus, the bull. It is also one of the nearest star clusters to our planet. 

In Hawaiian, it is known as Makali'i and was important to celestial sea navigation. The bright cluster was named after a malicious chief from Kona, who took all of his people’s food, fruits, plants, and even roots, and put them in a great net, which he hurled into the heavens. Fortunately, a rat crawled up a rainbow and into the sky to bite through the net allowing the people’s bounty to rain down upon them. Thus when the star cluster rises following the new moon, it was the beginning of the important Makahiki festival, where games, friendly competition, and tax collecting, mark the changing of the season to winter. 

Classical mythology in the east paints a very sad story for the twins Castor and Pollux. Although the two had many adventures, Castor was mortal, and eventually died leaving his grief-stricken immortal brother Pollux to beg Zeus to make him mortal as well. Zeus granted this wish and allowed the brothers to remain forever together in the night sky. In Hawaiian mythology, they are known as Nanamua (Castor), “the one who looks forward”, and Nanahope (Pollux), “the one who looks behind.” Castor is a whitish green star and is the first to appear in the night sky, hence why he looks forward. Pollux is yellowish and is second to appear in the sky, so he looks back. These two stars, among the brightest in the Gemini constellation, were very important to ocean navigators particularly within the Hawaiian Islands. They used them as part of a navigational star line that guided canoes between Kauai and Oahu.   


Before You Go

Since Mauna Kea is one of the only places on Earth where you can drive from sea level to nearly 14,000 feet in about 2-hours, it is very important to acclimate to avoid altitude sickness. At this elevation, there is about 40% less oxygen than at sea level. If you are in poor health, under the age of 16, pregnant, or have a heart or respiratory problem, it is not recommended to go further than the MKVIS. Do not go to the summit within 24 hours after your scuba dive.

The MKVIS is open from 9am to 10pm, 365 days a year. Telescopes are available for public use from 10am to 10pm at the station with a solar telescope equipped with protective filters pointed at the sun for daytime viewing. Skies are clear about 90% of the year. If you plan on going on your own, make sure you have a 4WD, especially during winter conditions, and check your rental agreement. Call (808) 935-6268 for weather and road conditions or (808) 961-2180 for more information. Bring your camera and wear extra warm clothing.

For a stress-free experience, let someone else do the arduous driving for you so you can enjoy the scenery. You can take a tour with knowledgeable guides to the summit with dinner and parkas provided for a magical evening under the countless stars. Call Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (808) 322-2366 or Hawaii Forest & Trail (808) 331-3638.  

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