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Bring Back the Peace Beneath the Stars
The fight over the placement of the new telescope on Mauna Kea has destabilized an amateur astronomer's visits to the mountain.

About the Author

  • Andrew Cooper
    Andrew Cooper is an amateur astronomer and engineer for the W. M. Keck Observatory. After living and working on Mauna Kea for more than eight years, he has come to love this place.

It has been over three months since the protest began. Three months of standoff with the protesters who would not see another telescope built on Mauna Kea.

It has been my habit over the last eight years to spend a night under the stars, high on the mountain, each time the new Moon arrives. On the nights when there is no moonlight the sky is dark, truly dark. The stars shine undiminished, the universe is open to be explored. I have used binoculars, small telescopes, cameras or simply my eyes.

It is with my handmade 18-inch telescope that I can truly gaze into the depths of space. This simple device of plywood and glass allows me to see galaxies millions of light years into the past. No camera, just the eyepiece and my eye directly receiving photons that have traveled across the breadth of the universe. With this telescope I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies, giving me a glimpse into the indescribable vastness of space.

I wonder when I can again go to the mountain and feel only peace under the stars.

Often I would set up in the patio right at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. For the first couple hours I would talk with visitors, showing them the wonders our universe has to offer. After the information station closes, the visitors depart, driven back toward their hotels by the cold mountain air. I have a heavy winter jacket, ski-pants and a thermos of hot tea; everything I need to be comfortable under the night sky. So that is when I have the rest of the night to myself — just me, the mountain and the stars.

Hours spent wandering from galaxy to cluster to nebulae. When I tire, or the camera is running under computer control, I often just lay back and contemplate the sky for hours. Just looking up, it gives one a completely different understanding of the universe. To combine study of the science with simply looking out, it changes you.

Sometimes I do not go to the visitor center when I just do not want to deal with the evening crowd. I want only the night. So I set up somewhere nearby, on one of the little side roads. There are places where one will not see another human or the light of any vehicle from sunset until dawn invades the sky. These places I usually keep secret, sharing them with no one; they are my places on the mountain.

I have not gone to the mountain to spend a night since the protests began. In part it is the disruption of the protest camp, their lights and activity in the night have ruined the information station for proper observing. You need true darkness, with no white artificial light, to allow your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. Only then does the night open up to you.

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A night beneath the stars on Mauna Kea can offer a window into the past.

Even in the isolated places away from the protest camp the peace of the mountain has been shattered. The dissension and animosity has changed this place. Right or wrong I have come to blame the protesters for this.

When the protests first arrived I waved as I passed the camp each day. I found time to talk. I can no longer do that; I resent what they have done to the mountain I have come to love. Many I have met have truly exemplified Kapu Aloha, but so many others do not. Their understandable frustration has fermented into something unsettling.

I will keep the kapu. When I go there I try to respect their views, even if I disagree. Still, I wonder when I can again go to the mountain and feel only peace under the stars.