ASTRONOMY IN HAWAI`I
early Polynesian navigators were the scientists and astronomers of their
day. Such a description is borne out by
their curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon and their ingenious
development of the technology to explore the vast reaches of the Pacific. This technology encompassed not only the
skills of creating the double-hulled sailing canoes but also the means of
finding their way about the trackless ocean.
Way finding was accomplished primarily by knowledge of the stars, their
motions across the sky and their changing positions depending on latitude. These skills allowed them to discover and
populate a vast area of the Pacific we call today the Polynesian Triangle: from
Tahiti to Hawaii to Easter
Island. This “golden age” of exploration took place
perhaps as early as 1000 A. D. with Hawai`i being settled about 1500 A.D.
the time of the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778,
it appears that ocean voyaging had become a lost and mostly forgotten
art. But Cook’s arrival introduced into the local culture new technologies of
both ocean-going vessels and navigational techniques: telescopes and compasses
and sextants, for example. By the time the missionaries arrived and began the
development of a written Hawaiian language much of the ancient sea-faring
knowledge had been lost. Though the
Hawaiians must have had hundreds of names for stars and other features of the
sky they were mostly forgotten and, besides, the missionaries probably didn’t
themselves know enough to ask!
Kalakaua and the citizens of Honolulu were quite astounded and impressed by an astronomical
expedition to Hawai`i in 1874 that came all the way from England to observe a transit of Venus: a passage of Venus in
front of the Sun. A compound along Fort Street in Honolulu was set aside for placing various telescopes to
observe the phenomenon. Later, in his
travels to the US, King Kalakaua visited the Lick Observatory in California and expressed his feeling that one day Hawai`i should have such a telescope. Kalakaua, the “Merrie Monarch” who revived
Hawaiian traditions, was also very forward looking and eager to bring Hawai`i into the modern world. It
was not until 1910 that an astronomical observatory was first established in Hawai`i. It was
developed for the specific purpose of viewing the predicted coming of Comet
Halley. It was located in what is today
Kaimuki, on a hill along Seaview Avenue. It was not a
very good telescope and by 1958 it was razed before the termites did it in.
astronomy really got its start with the advent in 1957-58 of the International
Geophysical Year and the need for observations of the Sun during Hawaii’s daylight hours.
This led to the construction of a solar observatory at Makapu`u Point on
Oahu as a part of a world-wide network of solar
observations. During this period the University of Hawaii developed plans for a permanent world-class solar observatory on
Haleakala on Maui. A high
altitude site was a requisite for studying the faint glow of the corona which
normally could be seen only during a total solar eclipse. This observatory, named the Mees Solar
Observatory, was completed in 1961.
was during the final construction phase of the Haleakala observatory that an
astronomer from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, took an interest in the astronomical potential of Hawaii’s high mountains.
He was Dr. Gerard Kuiper, a world-renowned planetary astronomer. He was interested in the possibility of
establishing a planetary observatory in Hawai`i and was responding to an invitation by the Hilo
Chamber of Commerce. His evaluation of
Haleakala showed that to be an excellent site, but studies on Mauna Kea supported the possibility that it was even better. A grant from Governor Burns made possible the
bulldozing of a road to the summit.
Kuiper’s site testing led him to declare that Mauna Kea was probably the best site in the world for astronomical studies. The high altitude of the mountain (almost
14,000 ft.), its isolation in the middle of the Pacific and its freedom from
light contamination were among the factors that contributed to the perfection
of the mountain.
Kuiper proceeded to apply to NASA for funds to build an observatory on Mauna Kea. NASA, however, thought that it
should consider proposals from other interested organizations, among which were
Harvard University and the University of Hawai`i.
The outcome was that the University of Hawaii’s proposal was awarded the grant to construct an 88-inch (2.2 meters) telescope
on the mountain. It was completed in
1970. The knowledge of Mauna Kea’s outstanding qualities as an observation site spread like wild fire
among the astronomical community and within a few years several more telescopes
were constructed on the mountain. Today
there are some 13 telescopes on the mountain, constituting the world’s largest
array of astronomical telescopes at the world’s best site for exploring the
has it that the ancient Polynesian navigators looked upon Mauna Kea as a beacon guiding their voyages of discovery. Today Mauna Kea is again a beacon guiding the modern explorers to discoveries beyond
the celestial horizon.