Big Island’s Maunakea is front-row seat to discovering what’s in the universe
July 9, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated July 9, 3:34 AM
In the spring of 2019, astronomer Doug Simons had a hard time sleeping the night after he saw the world’s first image of a black hole, taken by the international collaboration of the Event Horizon Telescope project that includes two telescopes at the summit of Maunakea.
The black center was surrounded by a ring of light, gas that’s more than a billion degrees hot and basically spiraling forever into the black hole.
Simons, now the director of the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy, was captivated by the mind-boggling physics occurring as the behemoth distorts space and time in that region of the universe — and the engineering feat required to capture its image. He thought: “Wow, it’s a different world.”
The first image of a black hole, given the Hawaiian name Pōwehi, joins other historic discoveries of astronomy:
- The first interstellar object to visit our solar system, ‘Oumuamua, in 2017.
- The accelerated expansion of the universe, which led to a Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.
- The first image of the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.
- The recent discovery of a death defying planet orbiting a red giant star on its last legs.
- And even observations like a mysterious blue swirl or green laser lights in the night sky and unique weather phenomenon such as red sprites.
The discoveries all were possible because of powerful telescopes atop the Big Island’s nearly 14,000-foot Maunakea, which is revered worldwide as one of the best places for ground-based astronomy.
Discovery after discovery, and observation after observation, whether by a single observatory or in collaboration with others locally, throughout the state or around the globe, have shown that Maunakea’s front row seat to Earth’s atmosphere and the cosmos is unparalleled.
The summit of Maunakea hosts the world’s largest astronomical observatory, with 12 telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 countries. The combined light-gathering power of those telescopes is 15 times greater than the Palomar telescope in California, which was for many years the world’s largest, and 60 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Every night observations are made from the Big Island summit and humans learn something new, said R. Pierre Martin, associate professor, observatory director and co-chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department at UH-Hilo.
Since the first telescope was dedicated and became operational on Maunakea in the 1970s, thousands of research papers — about 3,000 a year now, or close to 10 a day, according to Martin, are published. And, hundreds of thousands of observation hours have led to greater knowledge of the universe and scientific progress.
“Everyday, the astronomical data Maunakea provides us expands our understanding of the universe, ranging from our own solar system to the distant reaches of the cosmos,” said Mary Beth Laychak, director of communications and community engagement at Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope.
The astronomy sector supported by the mountain also has a large economic impact on the Big Island and the state.
The University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization reports that astronomy activities generated $68 million in labor income in Hawai‘i, $10 million in state taxes and 1,313 jobs statewide in 2019, the most recent year for which it has data.
Accounting for indirect and induced benefits and adjusting for inter-county feedback efforts, the astronomy sector had a total impact of $221 million on the output of goods and services in Hawai‘i that year.
The wide ranging impact that astronomy has on science and Hawai‘i’s economy is due to the unique geology, geography and atmospheric conditions of Hawai‘i’s tallest shield volcano. And, perhaps the most important aspect is the shape of the volcano and its surroundings.
“As a shield volcano, the gentle shape of the mauna leads to ideal wind conditions at the summit compared to turbulence at other mountains like the Rocky Mountains or the Andes, which have more jagged peaks,” Laychak said.
The Big Island’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also means air currents are incredibly stable as they move over the island, according to astronomy educator Emily Peavy.
Weather patterns lead to a distinct temperature inversion layer where cool, dry air of the upper atmosphere meets the warm, tropical and often voggy air of the lower atmosphere. Laychak said that inversion layer is well below Maunakea’s summit, which leads to often clear, cloudless nights that are ideal for observing.
Subaru Telescope Senior Staff Astronomer Ichi Tanaka and his team once spent hours taking images of distant galaxies at an observatory in Japan only to get a faint, poor view of the universe. He said the sharpness of an image can be five to 10 times better from atop Maunakea compared to the best in Japan.
The atmosphere also is much thinner above the mauna. There is much less atmosphere separating the summit from space itself, meaning there is less atmospheric interference. Maunakea’s summit is above 40% of Earth’s atmosphere, giving observatories there an advantage especially when it comes to looking in areas of the electromagnetic spectrum that aren’t possible at lower elevations.
“The atmosphere protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet light. Less atmosphere means more ultraviolet light — bad for sunburn, but great for astronomers trying to study objects that give off much of their light in the UV,” Laychack said. “Similarly at that elevation, telescopes have a unique window into infrared and microwave wavelengths that are commonly blocked at lower elevations because of water in the atmosphere.”
The mountain’s location in the Pacific and distance from major population centers also provide some of the darkest skies anywhere in the world, reducing light pollution and other human-caused “noise” that can make observations incredibly difficult. Hawai‘i County even has an outdoor lighting ordinance to lessen the amount of light beaming into the night sky.
Hawai‘i’s unique location even provides a wider view of space.
“While in places like Arizona you would only be able to see the Northern Hemisphere sky and in places like Australia you would only be able to see the Southern Hemisphere sky, our location within the tropics means that we can witness 100% of the Northern Hemisphere sky and 80% of the Southern Hemisphere over the course of an entire year,” Peavy said.
There are other locations around the globe, including in Chile, Spain and even Antarctica, that could be comparable, but they can’t compete when you add up all the benefits Maunakea provides for astronomy — along with others such as being close enough to cities so scientists and other observatory and astronomy personnel can live and work on the island. The location also helps lessen down time when maintenance is needed or other technical issues arise.
“When you add it all up, that’s how you get this sort of metric of a exquisitely good site for astronomy,” Simons said.
Tanaka said thanks to Maunakea and the observatories there, Hawai’i has become a world leader in astronomy and the people of the state can be proud of that.
It’s not only professional astronomers who can look up and into the universe from the top of the mountain.
Everyone can with instruments such as the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera. The 24/7 live feed provided by the camera looking at the sky above Maunakea helps people feel closer to the cosmos.
“I really feel that Maunakea is the Earth’s best gateway connecting human beings and the universe,” Tanaka said.
The research, discoveries and observations made thanks to the Big Island mountain’s superb conditions also bring humans closer to understanding bigger questions. Observation of Population III stars, the first stars to light up the universe that were only theoretical until observed by telescopes on Maunakea, is just one example.
Peavy said none of the heavy elements that make up the human body — iron, carbon, calcium, oxygen, etc. — would exist unless those stars were created following the Big Bang.
“When we observe these stars, we are observing our own creation in the universe,” she said. “When we look into the universe, we find our own origins.”
Editor’s Note: On July 1, the stewardship of more than 11,000 acres atop Maunakea — Hawaiʻi’s highest mountain and land sacred to many Native Hawaiians — began a five-year transition period from the University of Hawaiʻi that has managed it since 1968 to a new state agency created last year by the Hawaiʻi Legislature.
The new Maunakea Stewardship and Oversight Authority’s 11-member board is charged with formulating a master plan during that transition period to balance culture and environment with astronomy and economic benefits.
Next week, Big Island Now looks at Maunakeaʻs importance to Hawaiian culture.