Viewing the stars on his first visit to the summit of Mauna Kea, Peter Giles recalls, was "breathtaking -- as close as I have come to being in outer space," making him realize "how small Earth is and how its apparent rarity makes our home planet precious beyond words."
Journey through space
What: Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii
Address: 600 Imiloa Place, Hilo
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays
Admission: $14.50 for adults, $7.50 for ages 4 through 12. Kamaaina pay $10 and $5.50, respectively. Discounts also are available for school classes and groups.
On the Net: www.imiloahawaii.org
Notes: A 2,000-square-foot, 133-seat cafe with garden and Hilo Bay views is slated to open in September. Groups can rent Imiloa for special events; facilities include the 850-square-foot, 30-seat Learning Center and a 2,500-square-foot hall that accommodates 350 in theater-style seating or 220 for banquet seating. A museum store carries books, educational kits, souvenirs and original art by local artists.
"Viewing the Sky Tonight": Imiloa presents this program in its Planetarium the last Saturday each month. The one-hour presentation includes an update on solar system discoveries and images of space made by astronomers on Mauna Kea. Peter Michaud, public information officer for the Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea, will host Saturday's program, beginning at 7 p.m. The cost is $5 per person 4 and older, free for Imiloa members. Call 808-969-9711 for information.
As executive director of the Big Isle's new Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Giles now has stars in his eyes every day.
Imiloa means "to seek, explore," a fitting name for the $28 million, 40,000-square-foot exhibition and planetarium complex that spotlights the early Polynesians, who used stars to navigate the Pacific, and today's astronomers, who are probing the frontiers of the universe.
Imiloa, which opened Feb. 23, occupies nine acres in the University of Hawaii-Hilo's Science and Technology Park. Central to its design are three titanium-covered cones representing Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes.
Towering 14,000 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is a place of significance to Hawaiians. They say it is the home of na akua (the gods) and a final resting place for their ancestors, a sacred, spiritual place.
To astronomers, Mauna Kea is significant as the world's premier site for astronomical research. Thirteen observatories run by 11 countries form an otherworldly colony atop its lofty summit.
"Mauna Kea harbors the leading land-based 'eyes' into space, representing over $1 billion in capital investment and a major part of the Big Island's economy," Giles says. "Imiloa provides valuable insights into this magnificent landmark and the key role it plays in both astronomy and Hawaiian traditions."
An advisory group including representatives from UH-Hilo, Mauna Kea observatories and the Hawaiian voyaging community started developing the concepts and direction for Imiloa eight years ago. Their aim was to establish a first-class educational facility that would link Hawaiian culture and history with scientific research.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye helped secure federal funding, primarily from NASA, for the project. Construction started in 2002, and the facility and landscaping were completed last November. Imiloa opened three months later.
COURTESY OF DURRANT-MEDIA FIVE
The entrance hall at Imiloa Astronomy Center features a clear skylight at the top of the titanium cone representing Mauna Kea.
COURTESY OF KIRK PU'UOHAU-PUMMILL
At the heart of the center's Voyages gallery is the Imiloa, a one-fifth-size, seaworthy model of a voyaging canoe, part of an exhibit where visitors can test their oceangoing navigational skills.
Many of Imiloa's 100 custom-designed exhibits are interactive. You can make navigating decisions by studying waves and clouds; listen to commentary by crew members aboard contemporary voyaging canoes; view yourself through an infrared camera; and visit the Virtual Observatory, a console from Gemini Observatory's Mauna Kea control room, where conditions at various telescopes are updated every five minutes through Web camera connections.
Two stories of creation are showcased in Imiloa's Origins gallery. One is a high-tech multimedia experience based on the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant. The other describes the big bang, the mighty cosmic explosion that scientists say marked the universe's beginning 13 billion years ago.
Exhibitions in the Voyages gallery celebrate man's yearning to explore. Early Hawaiians used the canoe for their journeys across the Pacific; honoring their achievements is the Imiloa, a one-fifth-scale model of a double-hulled voyaging canoe.
Today's astronomers employ powerful telescopes to travel the cosmos. "Voyage Through Space," a three-dimensional virtual tour, whisks you back to the big bang through a simulation based on data from Mauna Kea's Subaru Telescope, operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
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The Imiloa Astronomy Center was designed by architect Mel Choy of Durrant-Media Five, Honolulu, and built by Taisei Construction Corp. A view of the center entrance at dusk is shown. The titanium domes represent the Big Island's three dominant volcanoes: Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Inset: Visitors explore scientific theories explaining the beginnings of the universe and life on Earth in the center's Origins gallery.
THE PLANETARIUM is the highlight of an Imiloa visit. Says Giles: "Our 22-minute show 'Mauna Kea: Between Earth and Sky' features spectacular footage of underwater volcanoes, volcanic eruptions, the birth of a star and a night in a Mauna Kea observatory. It's an excellent introduction to the exhibit halls."
The planetarium, which seats 120, boasts a 52-foot full-dome digital theater system with six projectors and six-channel surround sound. Next month, Imiloa will install a new laser video projection system that produces 16 million-pixel resolution.
"That's the highest resolution available in the world, double that of any video technology to date," Giles says. "The result is a sharp visual production that's as close to reality as you can get."
In Imiloa's "gardenscape" blooms the largest collection of Hawaiian plants in the world; all of its nearly 50 different varieties are indigenous or were brought here by early Polynesian settlers. Plantings mimic natural growth in five regions at various elevations, ranging from shoreline naupaka to koa and ohia trees in the upland wao akua (gardens of the gods).
Even those who never had an interest in botany, science or Hawaiian culture and history will find a visit to Imiloa informative and inspiring.
"One family recently spent an entire Saturday here and returned Sunday for another one day of browsing," says Giles. "Not everyone will make it to space or even to Mauna Kea, for that matter, but Imiloa brings them within reach of every visitor to the Big Island. It is a vital bridge that connects the explorers of Hawaii's past with those of the present and the future."
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Exhibits in the "Voyages" hall invite visitors to learn how astronomers use various tools to determine the distance, age, and composition of matter in our universe.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.