Hawaii astronomy: Asteroid discovered by Maui observatory

Astronomers at an observatory at the summit of Haleakala on Maui have quietly made an important discovery: a previously unknown “Trojan” near-earth asteroid that is the largest yet discovered (about ¾ of a mile in diameter). Trojan asteroids are unique in that they share earth’s orbit around the sun. The space object has been named 2020 XL5.

This is significant discovery for a variety of reasons, not least among being the fact that Trojan asteroids are exceedingly hard to find. The ideal conditions to find them happen just a handful of times each month. 2020 XL5 was first viewed in 2020, but peer-reviewed studies have only recently confirmed the findings of the Pan-STARRS telescope astronomers.

Space rocks.

Don’t worry, though. The asteroid is expected to continue is path for at least another 4000 years, so we needn’t fear the end times of the Hollywood blockbuster disaster trope. 2020 XL5 isn’t a “dinosaur killer”. But the discovery does have us thinking about the importance of the modern astronomy being done at Hawaii’s many observatories, the remarkable discoveries they’ve made, and the importance of astronomy in native Hawaiian culture and cosmology.

The Pan-STARRS telescope was also among the first to spot the ‘Oumuamua space object in 2017, thus the Hawaiian name for it as determined by the International Astronomical Union. Hawaii telescopes and observatories are uniquely positioned to benefit from low light pollution and provide scientists with some of the keenest galactic eyes on the planet. There is a long list of discoveries and “firsts” at the Keck Observatories and other facilities at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Galactic eyes on the skies.

And while technological advances and Space Age headlines from Hawaii grab the world’s attention, it’s important to remember that native Hawaiians have been studying the movements of the stars and planets for more than a thousand years. Polynesian navigators used the stars on their voyages, including the one that brought the first humans who would ultimately settle in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Native Hawaiians have their own constellations, just as “western” astronomers do. But they have nothing to do with Greek or Roman mythology, obviously, and certainly do not involve venomous arachnids, galactic crustaceans, celestial saucepans, or ill-tempered three-headed dogs.

Mauna Kea observatory.

Hawaiian heiau (sacred temple sites) are oriented to the sun and stars. The sun, moon, and stars are central to Hawaiian myth and legend. The return of Halley’s comet in Hawaii skies in 1758 was said to foretell the birth a great king who would unite the islands. King Kamehameha the Great was born in 1758. What western astronomers call the constellation Pleiades is known in Hawaiian as Makalii, and it figures prominently in annual Makahiki celebrations.

Access to Hawaii’s summit observatories is severely restricted to astronomers and support staff, but others around the state are open to the public. They provide an invaluable resource for Hawaii students and a wonderful opportunity for visitors to learn about Hawaii astronomy and native Hawaiian culture. The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo and the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center are fascinating and family-friendly, as is the Bishop Museum Watamull Planetarium on Oahu.

Heavenly bodies are central to native Hawaiian cosmology and worship.

As the scientists above the clouds can attest, there is much to learn about Hawaii astronomy. From its Polynesian origins to its seemingly limitless future, Hawaii offers a lifetime of discovery for anyone who takes an interest. Let our experts here at Hawaii Aloha Travel help you chart your course through Hawaii’s night skies.  

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny