Discover Hawaii's skies

An aerial overview of the Imiloa Astronomy Center, with its three titanium-sheathed domes that represent the Mauna Kea and other volcanoes.
An aerial overview of the Imiloa Astronomy Center, with its three titanium-sheathed domes that represent the Mauna Kea and other volcanoes.Tim Wright / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

For visitors to Hawaii looking for something they can't see from the beach or the golf course, an unconventional museum and planetarium near the base of massive Mauna Kea volcano offers the story of the star-filled skies that guided discoverers to the Hawaiian Islands.

But the Imiloa Astronomy Center, which is designed to resemble the island's three tallest volcanoes, is about more than outer space. Imiloa also doubles as a cultural center, with Hawaiian-language translations displayed on every exhibit and a focus on islanders' history of exploration.

Tours start with an indoor walk through a replica forest of koa trees until you reach a room dedicated to Mauna Kea, the 13,796-foot Big Island mountain. The room is filled with the sparkling stars that Polynesian voyagers used to navigate their way across the Pacific until they arrived in Hawaii. Native Hawaiian chants surround visitors as they learn about the sacred nature of the now-dormant volcano, which is the home of the snow goddess Poliahu.

Mauna Kea is also home to 13 giant telescopes that provide scientists with one of the clearest views into space of any place on earth. While there is a visitor's center on the mountain, the telescopes are off-limits to tourists.

But Imiloa makes the type of astronomy research that goes on atop Mauna Kea accessible to the general public.

Imiloa's emphasis on Hawaiian culture and history also provides a context for understanding the controversy over the mountaintop obervatories. Mauna Kea has long been a source of contention between international scientists and Hawaiians who oppose the telescopes on the summit, believing that the mountain is a holy place that should have been left untouched.

"It's not a secret that there's tension over Mauna Kea," said Kaiu Kimura, an experiences coordinator at Imiloa. "Historically, people have always had to say whether they're a cultural practitioner or a believer in science. We're trying to say that we're both."

In the museum's planetarium, the astronomy center's 22-minute signature film, "Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky," traces the journey of explorers aboard double-hulled canoes who used the stars to plot their course across the sea.

The movie tells of the births of stars and shows footage of underwater volcanoes, and it's followed by a brief star show on the planetarium's dome.

The exhibit hall brings the enormity of the skies to a comprehendible level.

A 3-D "Voyage through Space" video guides the viewer on a scientifically accurate trip through the solar system and galaxy, until you reach the edge of the universe.

Short movies tell of the origins of life, including both the Hawaiian creation chant and the big bang scientific theory that the universe began with a cosmic explosion 13 billion years ago.

You can look at yourself through an infrared camera, similar to those used in some of the telescopes on Mauna Kea. Another display shows how the mirrors of telescopes are used to see far beyond the boundaries of Earth's atmosphere.

In all, there are about 100 custom-designed exhibits in the center.

In one room, a plastic six-foot diameter globe hung from the ceiling is lit up with projection cameras using animated data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The globe shows views including the weather patterns that created Hurricane Katrina, the city lights that can be seen from space and depictions of Earth's varying climates.

Nearby, another room features information on the ukulele and the rebirth of the Hawaiian language.

"Astronomy feeds the mind, and Hawaiian culture feeds the heart," said Peter Giles, executive director for the center. "Astronomy and Hawaiian culture have always belonged together."

The $28-million Imiloa museum, whose name means "to seek and explore," had 45,000 visitors in its inaugural year since opening in February 2006, but it hasn't caught on with tourists yet. Located on the University of Hawaii-Hilo campus, about 80 percent of its visitors are Hawaii residents.

So it still qualifies as a rare find, offering something beyond the beaches, luaus, golf courses or even nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that lure most Big Island tourists.

"If you really want to understand how the volcanic islands were formed, and what the stories and genealogical history of the people are, and the role of the great star-readers, then you have to visit Imiloa," said Gloria Chun-Hoo, the museum's marketing manager. "You will reach another level of depth and understanding that you won't find anywhere else."

Imiloa was designed to resemble the landscape of the Big Island. Its structure is shaped with three titanium-clad cones to represent the three tallest of the five volcanoes that make up the island: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai.

Outside, the largest native plant garden in the state displays more than 50 species that existed before the state was overrun by foreign breeds.

"This is what Hawaii used to look like. This is the true feeling of Hawaii's ecosystem," said Hokuao Pellegrino, the cultural landscape curator. "We want people to feel the Hawaiian culture, not just as something they read about."