When planning our few days on Hawai’i’s Big Island, we opted to spend our Tuesday evening at the stargazing party from the patio of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. Since Tuesday’s forecast called for clear skies (and the remainder of the week called for rain), we figured it would be the best night to see the stars. After a steep and curvy (but perfectly safe) drive, we arrived in time to jog up to a viewpoint to catch the sunset. Being above the tropical inversion layer, from this height the sun sets onto the clouds. Although extremely windy, it was memorable, and I noted that we were in for a special treat, because the full moon had just begun to rise on the other side of the mountain. We hiked back down to the visitor centre to wait for darkness, and only then did I clue into the fact that a full moon is not a welcome guest at a stargazing party – it’s a gate-crashing disco ball that obscures everything else. For once, the moon was not romantic. It made the sky views from Mauna Kea seem like nothing special compared to what I would see camping back home in Alberta. After chatting with some of the observatory staff, we learned that it didn’t matter if the weather was cloudy farther down on the island – Mauna Kea’s location above the inversion layer meant that it was above the clouds, with clear skies most nights of the year.
We will try going back again on Thursday to take advantage of the hour of darkness between sunset and moonrise, now the wiser for actually looking up astronomy forecasts before going stargazing!