Maui’s Night Sky
Its feet on the ocean floor, its head above the clouds, Haleakala offers an unparalleled view for contemplating the cosmos.
Wally Pacholka has made it his mission to photograph the night sky. The California-based astro-photographer used a standard 50mm lens and lengthy exposure to capture the Milky Way in its brilliant arc above Haleakala’s lunar landscape. Our neighboring planet Jupiter is the bright spot below. Two-thirds of the way out from our galaxy’s core, we see it edge-on, looking back at the light of myriad stars darkened by heaps of interstellar dust.
Far right, above the crater’s rim, stands the Southern Cross—four stars in a kite shape—pointing directly to the South Pole. Polynesian navigators sailing north to the Hawaiian Islands would have watched the Southern Cross gradually sink toward the horizon. When the distance between the top and bottom stars was the same as the distance between the bottom star and the horizon, they knew they had reached Hawai‘i’s latitude. They would have then witnessed Maui's fishhook—the tail of Scorpio, here digging into the first redness of sunrise—apparently pulling the islands out of the sea.
Night pulls the mountaintop even closer to the stars. There isn’t a tree or a cloud to shelter me from naked exposure to space. Shout, and my voice simply dies in the silence. “How small we are!” says my ego, which likes to be a big shot but gets scared of the dark. And yet something profound within me, within all of us, rejoices at the sight of the night sky. We are an integral part of something beyond grand. Our little bigness—this is what I learn at night in the crater. Under Haleakala’s sky I am infinitesimal. Afterwards, at home, I need to stoop to get in the house.
Just above the stark escarpment of Haleakala Crater, the moon pours its cold reflected sunlight into a world adapted to conditions that are close to extraterrestrial—arid cinder, unshielded sunrays, almost companionless conditions far from forest and field. Plants here look as though they are ready to ride to similar worlds across gulfs of space. Or perhaps they have just arrived? Who knows. Moonlight plays tricks on the Earth, especially when abetted by the bright spin of nearby Jupiter.
A lunar rainbow or “moonbow” arcs brilliantly over the top of Ko‘olau Gap. The crater is a daily caldron of weather. Rain falls here in every possible direction, including straight up. The gap, which runs off to the left in this view, constitutes a straight chute down to sea level at the Ke‘anae/Wailuanui area. Typically, weather comes shooting up the gap every afternoon, engulfing hikers. Then the nightly refrigeration of the cosmos pushes all weather down to Haleakala’s lower slopes.
Daily witness to this heavenly ebb and flow is Hanakauhi, the “mistmaker,” a sheer-faced peak at the brink of Ko‘olau Gap. In the moment recorded here, Hanakauhi is almost completely immersed in cloud. Only its domelike peak peeks above the clouds near the uppermost curve of the lunar rainbow.
In the clear skies above, Mars—or Hoku‘ula, the Red Star—shines aggressively.
Earth rotates. Now we’re looking at the other side of the Milky Way—stars situated on the outer third of our galaxy. Orion “the hunter” hangs in freefall. Old-days Hawaiian stargazers saw this constellation not as a hunter but as a pair of hands playing a game of cat’s cradle (hei), snaring us in imaginative nets.
To the right, just above the slate-colored ridgeline of the crater, there’s a fizzling puff of starlight, something easier to see by not looking directly at it. The Pleiades. In Hawaiian: Makali‘i. This is where we came from, they say, “they” being many advanced cultures, including the Hawaiians. These cultures watch for the day, once a year, when the Pleiades rises in the East exactly as the sun sets in the west. That’s the day we have the sun at our backs and a straight shot for home. That’s the new year, the makahiki.
If we did come from there, we came recently, in the cosmic scope of things. Makali‘i is only 50 million years old. The dinosaurs never saw it. It is actually a litter of some 250 newborn stars, a stellar nursery.
If this isn’t reality, what is?
The outpouring of new images from the Hubble Space Telescope has begun to rock our imaginations with the sheer beauty of countless cosmic organisms. But these photographs from the crater do something Hubble cannot: they include Earth. They include us as an integral part of the grand panoply. Doing so, they challenge the illusion that we are safely “here” gazing at “space,” which is “out there.” Earth is “out there,” too.
Such is the deep excitement of a night spent in Haleakala Crater. Once you’ve been exposed to the silent universe at the summit, you can never really go back “indoors.” It takes guts to look at the sky and consider: We are part of the cosmos. Even if you cover your eyes, it doesn’t go away.
Astronomer Harriet Witt, one of Maui's greatest contemplators of the cosmos, contributed significantly to our musings here. If these photographs excite your interest, join Harriet in one of her frequent tours of the night sky. For details, visit www.passengerplanet.com.
Wally Pacholka, a retired accountant, photographs the night sky, favoring locations in America’s national parks and monumental wilderness areas. He will hike all night with fifty pounds of photographic equipment on his back, working alone. He uses simple techniques, a standard 50mm lens, judicious tripod placement, and lengthy exposures that bump “naked eye” light and color by about 50 percent. Sometimes he’ll shine a flashlight on nearby objects to clarify the Earthly perspective.
Wally first brought his mission to Haleakala National Park in the summer of 2008, shooting the night sky from the crater’s rim, and returned last December, this time to spend several days camping and shooting from inside the crater for Maui No Ka ‘Oi—with spectacular results.
Log on to Wally’s website to view his night sky series of America’s national parks. You will be star-struck. www.astropics.com