CANADA-FRANCE-HAWAII TELESCOPE was built in 1979. Although the catwalk is not open to visitors, a similar view can be had from the publicly accessible catwalk at the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter telescope. Both telescopes have been instrumental in recent discoveries of Jupiter's many satellites. Image: RICHARD J. WAINSCOAT
It is with some trepidation that I turn onto Saddle Road after a half-hour drive north from Kona on Hawaii's Big Island. Only one rental car company--Harper's Car and Truck--will let renters use their vehicles on this road without limiting coverage, so I am expecting a pockmarked dirt nightmare. But Saddle Road, which crosses the top part of the island, is smooth and paved. Its 50 miles are merely narrow, empty of gas stations and stores, and unlit at night. A short distance from two major cities and several smaller ones, Saddle Road seems isolated, cut off from the world.
Turning off at mile marker 28 only intensifies that feeling, as it becomes possible to peer beyond this world. It is here that more than 106,000 people come every year to visit Mauna Kea, a long-quiet volcano, sacred to Hawaiians, atop which astronomers are using the world's largest collection of telescopes to better understand the origin and evolution of the universe and the composition of everything in it.
This article was originally published with the title Stars atop a Silent Volcano.