An Introduction to the 13 Observatories on Mauna Kea

Big Island Guide Travel Guide

The Big Island of Hawaii is known for many things: amazing waterfalls, stunning beaches, and outdoor adventures like you’ve never experienced. But atop the island’s highest mountain, leading scientists from around the world have been conducting crucial research into the stars, the origins of the universe, and tracking unknown objects in the night sky. More than 11 countries, non-profit institutions, and scientific cooperatives have established, funded, and maintained 13 telescopes atop Mauna Kea’s arid summit, which is uniquely suited for ground-based astronomy.

While visitors aren’t typically permitted to explore and experience the observatories, there is a free stargazing tour at the mountain’s visitors center, but for those interested in the nitty-gritty details of the work these organizations are doing atop the Big Island’s crown, read on for more details on all thirteen observatories:

Optical/Infrared Telescopes

Used to detect celestial bodies within the visible and electromagnetic spectrums, optical and infrared telescopes observe objects throughout the universe that emit electromagnetic radiation. Infrared telescopes can measure objects falling between the infrared light spectrum (0.75-300 micrometers). Using mirrors and lenses to capture and view objects, these telescopes operate best at higher elevations and in dry places, which makes the arid environment of Mauna Kea’s 13,000-foot summit ideal for visible light observation. The following telescopes have been constructed over the last 50 years and continue to make advancements in tracking celestial objects in the starry skies above the Big Island and the world:

UH Hilo Educational Telescope
Operated by the University of Hawaii – Hilo
Established 2010

UH 2.2-m Telescope
Operated by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy
Established 1970

NASA Infrared Telescope Facility
Operated by NASA
Established 1979

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
Operated by Canada, France, and the University of Hawaii
Established 1979

United Kingdom Infrared Telescope
Operated by the United Kingdom
Established 1979

W.M. Keck Observatory
Operated by Caltech, the University of California
Established 1993

W.M. Keck Observatory II
Operated by Caltech, the University of California
Established 1996

Subaru Telescope
Operated by Japan
Established 1999

Gemini Northern Telescope
Operated by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile
Established 1999

Submillimeter Telescopes

A style of observational astronomy that focuses on submillimeter wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, submillimeter telescopes observe distant objects in the solar system, interstellar gas, dust, and distant galaxies. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope at Mauna Kea is the best established and most popular site for submillimeter observations from the ground, with the precipitable water vapor levels and equatorial latitude of the site make for ideal observation conditions.

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
Operated by Caltech, the National Science Foundation
Established 1987

James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
Operated by the United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands
Established 1987

Submillimeter Array
Operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Taiwan
Established 2002

Radio Telescopes

Measuring the radio frequency fields within the electromagnetic spectrum, these telescopes measure radio waves and communicate with satellites and space probes. Radio telescopes are also able to observe objects in space such as quasars and pulsars, imaging astronomical objects like galaxies, nebulae, and radio emissions from objects afar.

Very Long Baseline Array
Operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Associated Universities, Inc., the National Science Foundation
Established 1992

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