Hawaii’s Big Island Lands World’s Largest Telescope

Astro-tourism takes another step forward in the islands

By: By Marty Wentzel

Sunset at the observatories on Mauna Kea volcano. // (c) Hawaii Forest & Trail/Big Island Visitor Bureau

Sunset at the observatories on Mauna Kea volcano. // (c) Hawaii Forest & Trail/Big Island Visitor Bureau

Savvy stargazers already know that Mauna Kea is the world’s preeminent site for studying the heavens. So it comes as no surprise that the Big Island volcano was recently chosen as the home of the world’s most powerful telescope. Called the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), it’s slated to begin searching the stars as early as 2018.

The 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea currently lays claim to 13 world-class telescopes thanks to its elevation, clear air and lack of light pollution. At present, two of those — the twin W.M. Keck Observatory telescopes — are the world’s most powerful eyes into deep space. In infrared wavelengths, they are on a par with the orbiting Hubble telescope. The Kecks’ light-gathering mirrors are each 10 meters in diameter. The TMT’s mirrors will have nine times the light-collecting area.

Like other astronomical telescopes, the TMT will be a sort of time machine, allowing people to peer some 13 billion light-years into deep space. Contemplating such mind-boggling matters is especially dazzling while standing on the chilly top of Mauna Kea, gazing at a sky full of impossibly bright stars.

Capitalizing on the world’s growing interest in astro-tourism, several companies on Hawaii’s Big Island take guests to the summit of Mauna Kea for stargazing adventures. On the way up, they stop at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, perched 9,300 feet above sea level. There, they stargaze through portable telescopes, learn about the ancient tradition of astronomy in Hawaii, explore the visitor’s center, sip hot drinks and peruse the books, DVDs and posters for sale.

For clients who prefer to learn about the Hawaiian skies at sea level, the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, in Hilo, features a planetarium along with hands-on exhibits about the past, present and future of astronomy on Hawaii’s Big Island. And since 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, Imiloa is celebrating with special programming and planetarium shows throughout the year.

In addition, there are some great stargazing programs at Big Island resorts, including the Fairmont Orchid, Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel and Hilton Waikoloa Village. Also, Kona Village’s stargazing evenings feature internationally acclaimed astronomy artist Jon Lomberg, who collaborated with renowned astronomer Carl Sagan on his book, Cosmos, and on the film from his book Contact. It’s just one of the many ways that clients can enjoy a stellar vacation on Hawaii’s Big Island.



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