Na Hoku: Studying The Stars of Hawaii

Posted by Staff Writer on Monday, June 7th, 2021 at 12:10pm

Astronomy is a part of Hawaii’s deep-rooted history. Without it, the islands of Hawaii would not be inhabited. Throughout the Pacific, there are islands that would never have been discovered without the ancient practice of navigation and the study of stars. 

We spoke with Dr. Roy R. Gal, Associate Astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy, the University of Hawaii at Manoa to get his insight on the significance of the stars in Hawaii.

Dr. Gal studies how galaxies like our own Milky Way evolve over time, and how this varies in different places in the Universe. He uses telescopes from all over the world, including Mauna Kea, to look at far-away galaxies. 

“We see galaxies as they were a long time ago, and trace the changes over time - much like a paleontologist looks at fossil records in different layers to piece together how dinosaurs and other creatures evolved.”

Read what he had to say about Maui and Hawaii’s beautiful history in astronomy and navigation below. 

Why do you think navigation and the study of stars are important in Hawaii?

Dr. Gal: The connection between the centrality of navigation to Hawaiian culture, and the growth of astronomical knowledge via telescopes here, is a deep and meaningful one. Also, in a place where the economy is dominated by tourism and the military, having high-tech, clean economic drivers with good-paying jobs is essential. 

For astronomy, Hawaii has the world's best site for ground-based optical and infrared astronomy - Mauna Kea, and Haleakala is also superb. Five of the world's top 10 most productive ground-based telescopes (in terms of science) are on Mauna Kea. 

How does astronomy play into Hawaiian history?

Dr. Gal: Astronomy was huge in the history of Hawai'i. Astronomical observations were made on Hawaii Island by Captain Cook's crew in 1778. Expeditions in 1874 came to Hawai'i as part of a journey to make an astronomical observation - to see the transit of Venus in 1874. His crew actually set up a telescope in the area that is now Punchbowl St. 

Modern astronomy in Hawaii is an almost separate story. There was almost no modern astronomy at UH prior to 1960 or so, except for one or two people studying the Sun. Rather than recount this history here, there is a good overview here

How does the Haleakala Observatory play a significant role in the modern-day world?

Dr. Gal: Haleakala is now home to some of the most significant telescopes for specific research purposes, The Pan-STARRS 1 & 2 telescopes, developed and operated by the UH Institute for Astronomy. These telescopes are not huge; their mirrors are only 6 feet across but they have some of the world's largest digital cameras, designed and built here. 

Their job is to survey the sky, looking for things that move or change brightness. Their main mission now is to detect potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) - especially the bigger ones that could wipe out a whole city or even most of life on Earth (like the one that killed the dinosaurs). PanSTARRS can find these years before they would impact, giving us time to mount a mission to deflect the asteroid. PanSTARRS find more large asteroids and comets than any other observatory on Earth, with another one called the Catalina Sky Survey coming in second.   

The biggest discovery from Pan-STARRS has been ʻOumuamua, the asteroid from another solar system that passed through ours. 

Haleakala has a long legacy of solar telescopes (for studying the Sun). Appropriate for a place called Hale a ka Lā - House of the Sun. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), funded by the US National Science Foundation, will be the world's largest and most powerful solar telescope and should be operational very soon. 

Where could people go to learn more about the history of navigation and astronomy in Hawai'i?

Dr. Gal: For navigation, the Polynesian Voyaging Society website is great. If you want in-person visits, PVS has activities and workshops. The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo has excellent exhibits on both voyaging and astronomy, and there is of course Bishop Museum. We at the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) host public events, like our Manoa and Maui Open Houses, AstroDay in Hilo, and public talks and celestial event viewings (once COVID restrictions are eased). These are posted on our website and our Facebook and Twitter feed (@UHIfA).

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