Subaru-Asahi Star Camera atop Maunakea captures imagination of the world
March 5, 2023, 5:00 AM HST
* Updated March 5, 6:11 AM
All that snow falling atop Maunakea lately has provided yet another opportunity for the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera to shine — this time like diamonds.
The camera that livestream’s the sky above the 13,803-foot volcanic mountain on the Big Island 24 hours a day captured diamond dusts on Feb. 28 as snow and ice fell on the summit of the “White Mountain.”
The sparkly dusts are caused by the reflection of sunlight through fine ice particles. The Maunakea Visitor Information Station, at 9,200 feet in elevation, was treated to a rare dusting of its own the same day, with a thin layer of snow covering the ground for the first time in three years.
That wasn’t the only wintry image caught by the camera at the end of February.
When all the diamond dusts combined, an even more interesting — and heavenly — view appeared: a solar halo, a ring also caused by sunlight reflected by falling and blowing ice particles.
A more rare “tangent arc,” another phenomenon that results from the interaction of sunlight and fine ice particles in the atmosphere, was seen the same morning.
Tangent arcs form when cirrus clouds have well-developed columnar ice crystals. They are similar to sundogs, which many people might be familiar with during very cold winter days in the northern reaches of the mainland. The difference between the two is the orientation of their crystals. Tangent arcs appear horizontally to the sun while sundogs appear vertically.
If those frigid phenom filmed by the Star Camera aren’t enough to cull your cravings for cool cold climate occurrences, check out a the video above it captured the morning of Feb. 19 after a winter storm caused by a Kona Low. According to the video’s description, a ranger said the summit got about 4 feet of snow just from that storm.
The recent reels are part of an album of astronomical and meteorological hits produced by the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera since the beginning of 2023 that have captured the attention — and imagination — of the world. From a blue swirl on Jan. 18 to the green laser light show on Jan. 28 and red sprites on Feb. 4 to now the diamond dusts, solar halo and tangent arc, the camera installed in April 2021 at the 8.2-meter optical-infrared Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea is definitely living up to its mission.
The ultra-high sensitivity Star Camera is the main component of an outreach program launched in collaboration between the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan of the National Institutes of Natural Sciences, which operates the Subaru Telescope, and The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most popular daily newspapers.
It brings a live view of the magnificent sky above Maunakea 24 hours a day to YouTube, meaning if you can’t make it to the summit in person, you can enjoy the sky scene from the comfort of your home or on the go anywhere with a smartphone and an internet connection. It’s just like you were standing on the catwalk of the telescope dome.
“Through the live feed, we can send the beauty of the sky over Maunakea worldwide!” said Ichi Tanaka, senior staff astronomer at Subaru. “It is indeed a super amazing technological convenience.”
More than 72,000 people subscribe to the live feed and another YouTube channel managed by Subaru that shows off the camera’s amazing views and cosmic captures. Since coming online nearly two years ago, the camera has filmed several rare astronomical events, providing data that can be used for scientific research.
The camera also has spotted a possible rocket-firing cloud from an artificial satellite and a view of NASA’s low-Earth orbit flight test of an inflatable decelerator experiment. The Star Camera also captured a rare meteor outburst event in July 2021, and treated watchers to a view of the 2022 eruption on Mauna Loa’s northeast flank, the volcano’s first in 38 years.
“These views really reminded me that we are in the 21st century,” Tanaka said. “Like me, anyone who dreamed of space exploration in their childhood probably thought that the 21st century is the era of space exploration. Yes, it is, and these recent events all prove this.”
As the frontier shifts to the moon, Mars and celestial objects in our inner solar system, cutting-edge technologies will find their application in space, the astronomer said.
“These views are just a slice of such aspects of the current era,” Tanaka added.
They’ve also been blowing people’s minds.
People commenting on videos from the camera have described them as “truly remarkable,” “very cool,” “lovely to see,” “fascinating” and even “pretty weird” and “spooky.” One person simply said, “Wow.”
“This is like the best channel!” said Jeremy Phillips, commenting on the video of red sprites, a transient luminous event that takes place above thunderstorm clouds, high in the atmosphere, as they danced above the Big Island.
Due to the especially dark and often clear night skies over Maunakea, people can enjoy the view from the camera without light pollution almost every night. Without the live-stream platform, it would be impossible to share the beauty of the sky worldwide.
“And you know, every night has drama,” Tanaka said. “A slowly moving view of stars and planets, occasional meteors, artificial satellites and sometimes comets, clouds and the beautiful morning sky. They are simply beautiful.”
The camera allows people to gather and enjoy the view by chatting, sharing their excitement and knowledge and, as proven lately, occasionally find something rare. The events compiled by the camera were first pointed out by such keen viewers.
“That’s a new way of enjoying the sky,” Tanaka said, adding he never would have imagined that 10 years ago. “Just amazing.”
He’s thrilled viewers know the camera is pointed at the sky over Hawai’i, letting people around the globe experience the “true view of the starry sky” that exists in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Subaru-Asahi Star Camera brings the unfathomable expanse of the universe closer for everyone who wants to see it to experience.
“This is what we are proud of,” Tanaka said.
As an astronomer, he hopes the camera can get even more people, especially children and young students in Hawai’i, interested in the stars, planets and the deep universe behind the view it offers.
“The universe is itself so beautiful and amazing,” Tanaka said. “Learning about celestial objects is quite fun. It could be a life-long hobby that may make your life a little bit richer and wider.”
The universe can be so amazing and fun that people’s imaginations can run wild. Aliens and other space phenomenon are a common theme when people react to some of the events captured by the Star Camera. While many of the sights — including the recent blue swirl and green laser light show that have become hits among media — are extraterrestrial in nature, Tanaka made one thing clear.
“They are both really amazing views, even to me,” the astronomer said. “But I should stress that all the ‘rare’ events our camera captured recently relate to human activity.”
Except the red sprites and the shiny ice crystal dusts, halo and arc, that is. Those are completely natural.
Editor’s note: Did you vote in our recent poll asking what your favorite extraterrestrial event so far in 2023 has been? Check out the results today.