Star Light, Star Bright

Meteors, Comets and Stars: Illuminating the Night’s Sky



 

In the time of Alapa‘inui, ruling king of the island of Hawai‘i, an infant named Pai‘ea was born under a fiery comet sent by the gods to foretell the coming of the “killer of all kings.” The year was 1758. Wary of the legend, Alapa‘inui took heed of the December comet, later known as Halley’s, and ordered Pai‘ea killed. But his mother Keku‘iapoiwa hid her son deep in the safety of Waipi­‘o Valley. Pai‘ea was forgotten by the ali­i (royalty) for many years. However, he would later return as Kamehameha and would become the greatest king Hawai‘i had ever known. Just as the cosmic legend predicted, he would unite all of the Hawaiian Islands by a skillful use of force and diplomacy.

The ancient Hawaiians were master astronomers. The night sky was their legendary place of origin. It was a compass to steer their boats true, a calendar to plant their crops by, and even a guide as to when to marry or make war. The kāhuna (Hawaiian Priests) took notice of comets and meteors, such as Halley’s, and interpreted their otherworldly meaning. In modern times, the skies above Hawai'i are filled with as much mystery and interpretation as before, but our vision now extends much deeper into space. On any given day, 13 of the most powerful optical/infrared, submillimeter, and radio telescopes in the world are peering from the starry summit of Mauna Kea. Although most of these telescopes aren’t looking for comets or meteors, that doesn’t mean you can’t.

At just under 14,000 ft. and easily accessible, Mauna Kea is one of the best places in the Pacific to gaze into the heavens. On any given night, thousands of meteors crash into the Earth’s outer atmosphere and streak across the twinkling backdrop of the evening stars. Burning themselves into oblivion, meteors turn us all into little kids and daydreaming astronauts as we strain our necks in the hopes of catching the next “big one.”

But what are meteors? Actually, meteors are very similar to comets and asteroids. Of course, what then are comets and asteroids? They are basically small, relatively speaking, pieces of rock and/or ice that aren’t part of a planet. A comet is formed mostly of ice and dust and follows an orbit that often brings it close to a star. When this happens, it begins to heat up and eject an ion and dust trail that can be millions of miles long, creating the characteristic tail. Comets come from the very outer parts of the universe and can cycle through their orbits for millions of years.

Asteroids, on the other hand, are pieces of rock made primarily of metallic and carbonaceous minerals that typically orbit the Sun in the asteroid belt, located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Some have orbits extending outside the solar system and can be difficult and unpredictable when tracking their proximity to Earth’s orbit. This can be a big problem, just ask a dinosaur! Of course you can’t find one to ask, as it is theorized that several mass extinction events on Earth were probably caused by asteroid impacts. Scientists, using the telescopes on Mauna Kea, have even discovered evidence that our oceans may have originated from a previously unknown class of asteroids, covered with ice, that exist in the vast asteroid belt.

That brings us back to meteors. Simply put, meteors are small pieces of interplanetary dust that enter the Earth’s atmosphere. While in space, they are considered meteoroids. It is only when they begin to burn up in the atmosphere that they become meteors, often referred to as shooting stars. They can also originate from the dust and fragments that comets and asteroids eject as they pass by the planet. Hence, a comet can create a meteor shower as its tail ejects small pieces of dust that are pulled into the Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteors disintegrate during their fiery journey toward the surface. But, if a meteor is large enough, it will survive the passage and land on the surface. It is now classified as a meteorite.

Since ancient times, many cultures have treasured meteorites as sacred vessels with intrinsic value and cosmic powers. The Greeks built temples to them, the Native Americans used them as ceremonial objects, and the Hawaiians included them in their myths and legends. In modern times, meteorites possess great scientific value as they are the only material evidence, besides moon rocks from the Apollo missions, of the physical universe surrounding the Earth. It is estimated that 18,000 to 84,000 meteorites bigger than 10 grams fall to earth each year. This adds roughly 37,000-78,000 tons of stardust to the earth. On any given night, if the conditions are right, you are likely to see a meteor flash through the heavens.

Certainly, the top of Mauna Kea is the best place to view meteors. However, the temperature, altitude, and isolation may not be for everyone. Areas with some altitude, low light pollution, and a clear view of the sky during low moonlight offer the best conditions. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park or the Mauna Kea visitor stations are good bets for a comfortable viewing location.

The Hawaiians had many different words for meteors, comets, and asteroids— hōkū helelei (falling stars), hōkū lele (shooting star, meteor, any moving star), hōkū liilii (asteroid, small star), hōkū puhipaka (comet), and hōkū welowelo (streaming star). They understood that our origins and fates were somehow connected to them, a fact modern science has confirmed. Every molecule and element that makes up the very fiber of our beings was born deep inside an ancient star. All creatures on earth and the Earth itself are just an infinitely complex congregation of stardust ejected from these dying stars. For every meteor that streaks across the night sky, another tiny addition of stardust enters our atmosphere and may one day become a part of us. If you have ever dreamed of traveling deep into space amongst the stars, even though such a journey may be unlikely, take some consolation knowing that the billions of elements that constitute our world and live within us already have.

 

In 2012, the five best meteor showers in Hawai‘i are the Quadrantids (Dec. 28 - Jan. 13, peak Jan. 4), the Eta Aquarids (Apr. 19 - May 28, peak May 5), the Delta Aquarids (Jul. 12 - Aug. 19, peak Jul. 28), the Perseids (Jul. 17 - Aug. 26, peak Aug. 12), and the Geminids (Dec. 01 - Dec. 19, peak Dec. 13). The Quadrantids and Perseids will both be great celestial performances, but the Geminids will steal the show as they peak during the new moon.

Sidenote:

Mauna Kea is one of the few places on earth where spiritual, scientific and cosmic forces collide to create a memory that will last you a lifetime. You can take a tour with knowledgeable guides to the summit for a sublime sunset and an exploration of the night sky with their powerful telescopes. It’s a worry-free way to experience Mauna Kea with dinner and parkas provided for an amazing evening under the stars. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (808) 322-2366 or Hawaii Forest & Trail (808) 331-3638. 

If you plan on going on your own, make sure you have a 4WD and check your rental agreement. Call (808) 935-6268 for weather and road conditions or (808) 961-2180 for more information, or visit www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis. Don’t forget your camera and wear warm clothing.

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