ROD THOMPSON / RTHOMPSON@STARBULLETIN.COM
Peter Giles, named director of the new Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo, stands in front of one of the center's three characteristic cone-shaped structures representing the Big Island's mountains. The $28 million museum will open next month.*
New Mauna Kea center bridges cosmos and culture
Set to open Feb. 23, the Hilo facility blends cutting-edge science with Polynesian lore
HILO » The sun has a hole in it.
It's a large, square hole in the orange and yellow sun-ball hanging in the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Inside the hole are mirrors to reflect churning lights representing nuclear fusion seething in the core of the sun.
When the $28 million, 42,000-square-foot 'Imiloa center opens to the public on Feb. 23, people will see more than the sun. They'll see the whole universe, and they'll see it in 3-D, said center Director Peter Giles.
The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan will have a permanent computer simulation, viewable with 3-D glasses, showing the origin of the universe in the big bang 13 billion years ago and continuing to the present day.
Looking at the universe is what astronomy is about. But in the 1990s an awareness grew that astronomers were busy looking at the sky but failing to look at their feet -- at the summit land of Mauna Kea where 13 observatories stand. Awareness also grew that astronomers were looking back 13 billion years to the origins of the universe but failing to look back 2,000 years to the origins of Hawaiian culture.
An idea was born to develop a Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center to show how the two cultures relate, how Polynesians from the South Pacific used their voyaging canoes to follow stars to Hawaii and how astronomers use their giant telescopes to follow paths of twinkling light into the distant past.
From the beginning of construction in 2002, the official name Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center proved to be a mouthful that no one used.
The new name, 'Imiloa, means to seek far, to explore new knowledge.
The three titanium-clad cones of the center, representing the three tallest of the Big Island's five mountains, are already becoming landmarks.
Inside, a planetarium with a laser projector will be the most advanced in the world, at least until the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles catches up a few months later, said staff member Mike Pearson.
Everywhere, inside and out, will be reminders of Hawaiian culture.
All of the landscaping is native vegetation or plants brought here by Polynesians. Sweet potatoes will be growing around the parking lot.
Visitors will enter the building at its piko, its navel, then walk through a stylized forest as if going to the summit of Mauna Kea, director Giles said.
First, they see the traditional Hawaiian view of the origin of the world from the Kumulipo, the pre-European chant telling how the world and life were born out of darkness.
Visitors seated in a dark "object theater" will watch as lights reveal objects important in ancient life, such as a full-size model of a now-extinct Polynesian pig.
Beyond that is the modern scientific view of the universe derived from astronomy. Here is where the Japanese 3-D images will jump at the eyes of beholders. Here is where the sun's nuclear fires will burn overhead.
But in this 21st-century room, Hawaiian culture stays with the viewer. Every exhibit is explained with a sign written first in Hawaiian, then in English. Turn a corner and there is a scale model of the voyaging canoe Hokule'a.
Kids who grew up with the Internet, jumping from subject to subject, will be at home in this area. Nothing is straight and right-angled; everything is curved and crooked, letting the mind jump from one exhibit to the next.
All ages are welcome, but as the center looks for guides to explain exhibits, they note that they will accept volunteers as young as 16.
Education program manager Janet Babb will be arranging tours of school children through the center.
It all adds up to what 'Imiloa's motto calls "ahu kupanaha," a heap of wondrous things.
Big Isle schools welcome astronomers
HILO » An astronomy education program called "Journey Through the Universe," to be held Jan. 20-27 in 20 Big Island schools, will involve local and national astronomers training 160 teachers and meeting with 7,000 students, according to Gemini Observatory officials.
This is the second year in a five-year program, said Gemini spokesman Peter Michaud. All observatories on Mauna Kea are providing astronomers to speak in the program.
The Big Island is one of only 10 sites in the nation conducting the program, which is sponsored by the Carl Sagan Center for Earth and Space Science Education, NASA and local organizations such as the state Department of Education, Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and Bank of Hawaii.
Besides events at schools, the program will have three family science events at the Palace Theater, UH-Hilo theater and Laupahoehoe gymnasium.