ROD THOMPSON / RTHOMPSON@STARBULLETIN.COM
Peter Giles, director of the Imiloa astronomy education center in Hilo, stands in front of the giant ball of the sun with Saturn and Jupiter suspended nearby.
High-tech exhibits give new spin on astronomy
The Imiloa center blends space science and Hawaiian lore
HILO » From horizon to horizon on the dome overhead, the planetarium of the Imiloa Astronomy Center projects a huge, laser video journey through the solar system, speeding through the rings of Saturn, swooping down to a watery planet with islands lifting their mountains out of an ocean.
Imiloa Astronomy Center
Today: Blessing, by invitation
Tomorrow: Free community opening, 1-4 p.m.
Thursday: Full opening, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Construction cost: $28 million
» Planetarium, 120 seats
» Cafe, 133 seats
» Museum store, Hawaiian and astronomy gifts
It is a stunning view of astronomy.
Then the narration announces, "Hanau ka po," "The night gave birth."
This is a rare birth indeed with 21st-century astronomy narrated in Hawaiian words from the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian story of creation.
The museumlike Imiloa center experiences its own birth at the University of Hawaii at Hilo with dedication and opening ceremonies today. Carrying a name meaning "to explore" and "to seek knowledge," the building is recognizable by its three titanium-clad cones representing three of the Big Island's five mountains.
Recognition will be given to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, unable to attend, who obtained most of the $28 million funding for the 42,000-square-foot center.
The center's creators hope today's birth will give rise to greater understanding between two cultural groups, astronomers and Hawaiians, some of whom continue to feel that Mauna Kea has been taken from them.
Astronomer Jean-Rene Roy with the Gemini Observatory said he has been coming to Hawaii for 24 years. A French Canadian from two cultures who speaks four languages, he was still confused by the Mauna Kea controversy when he moved here permanently.
"I wish I had this when I came here six years ago," he said Tuesday during a preview opening of the center. "It takes time to understand the people here. This is the kind of place where you try to come together. We don't have to agree, but we need to understand the other's perspective."
Astronomers have grown in their understanding, he said. "Astronomers understand they are guests here," he said.
And astronomers will not run the Imiloa center. "We have to play in this orchestra, but we are not directing it," he said.
Astronomer Alison Peck of the Submillimeter Array, living in Hilo for four years, said she learned from the Kumulipo exhibit. "I didn't actually know much about Hawaiian legends of creation," she said.
One person who did know about them is a volunteer guide at Imiloa, Sabrina Machado, a senior at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
"The two things I love are astronomy and the Hawaiian language," she said. "I never thought I could be somewhere where I could have both at the same time. I thought I had to choose one or the other," she said.
Every exhibit has a descriptive sign in Hawaiian first, then English. A small side room has seats where people can rest and listen to recordings of spoken Hawaiian, said center staffer Ka'iu Kimura.
Exhibits appeal to a range of ages. Cassidy Denault, 3, eagerly placed puzzle pieces showing the planets in their proper places, pulled a lever to make them fall out, then put them back in their places again and again.
A teenager sat at another exhibit by Gemini Observatory with glowing computer screens, operating simulated controls of a telescope on Mauna Kea.
Hawaiians should be a part of this, said Hawaiian elder Leilehua Omphroy. With her daughter Koa Ell and others, she presented a puppet show telling a version of the story of the fisherman Ku'ula, who instructs his son 'Ai'ai to "observe and learn."
"In ancient times we always looked to the heavens," said Ell, who works for the university Institute for Astronomy. "In modern times our astronomers are carrying on what has always been our heritage," she said. She says "our astronomers" because they continue the Hawaiian tradition of observing, she said.
Omphroy said Imiloa is filling with a good spirit. "Little by little, this place is coming alive. It's getting filled with mana," she said.