Hawai‘i Astronomy Impacts Felt From Classrooms to Outer Space
University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (IfA) Director Doug Simons explained how Hawaiʻi is the world leader in astronomy, and UH’s role in that 50-year legacy, in a February 3 virtual presentation to the UH Board of Regents research and innovation committee. Simons also shared his personal story—how he first became fascinated by astronomy and how it brought him to Hawaiʻi more than three decades ago.
World-renowned astronomy research in Hawaiʻi is conducted on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi and Haleakalā, Maui. Maunakea, on UH-managed lands, is the most prolific astronomy complex in the world in total science impact (number of peer review scientific papers multiplied by their citations), according to Simons, and even outperforms the Hubble Telescope.
Simon stressed that astronomyʻs impact on Hawaiʻi goes far beyond scientific discoveries and the revenue that it generates.
Education and outreach
Simons highlighted the Hawaiian language-based program, A Hua He Inoa operated out of the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center at UH Hilo. Hawaiian-speaking students and educators work with language experts and Hawaiʻi-based astronomers to create names in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) for astronomical discoveries made in Hawaiʻi. The collaborative program is behind more than a handful of celestial Hawaiʻi discoveries that captured world-wide attention, including mysterious interstellar object ʻOumuamua, and Pōwehi, the world’s very first image of a black hole.
“I’m convinced that there is a real thirst for this type of discovery and it’s highly amplified by the synergy, if you will, with the A Hua He Inoa program providing these Hawaiian names,” Simons explained. “For me, it’s kind of like Maunakea having a global voice and that voice is Hawaiian. Very much as it should be.”
Also, since 2015, IfA students have helped mentor more than 500 public Hawaiʻi high school students under astronomy education program, Maunakea Scholars, a collaborative endeavor Simons helped establish when he was the director of the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope. The program enables local teens to apply for observing time across the Maunakea Observatories for their own independent research proposals.
Part of the presentation also spotlighted Hawaiʻi astronomy’s world-class capabilities and how it has led to innovative research interconnection with billion-dollar spaced- based satellites such as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS (an all-sky survey mission equipped to discover exoplanets in orbit) and the historic James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recently launched in December 2021.
Simons likens astronomical observations of our generation to the early discoveries of Polynesia.
“They were, of course, masters of exploring the ocean in search of islands and sort of the analogy for me is, our medium has changed from ocean to space itself and our islands have now turned into planets,” he explained.
The Center for Maunakea Stewardship works to achieve harmony, balance and trust in the sustainable management and stewardship of the Maunakea Science Reserve through extending Native Hawaiian and community involvement and programs that protect, preserve and enhance the cultural, natural, educational and scientific resources of Maunakea in a manner that integrates traditional Indigenous knowledge and modern science.