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Stargazers and astronomy enthusiasts visiting Hawaii often wonder – where is the best place to go see the observatory? With ideal weather conditions and limited light pollution, the Hawaiian islands offer some of the world’s best celestial viewing opportunities.

If you want to know the top spots to visit an observatory in Hawaii, you’ve come to the right place.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The two main professional observatories in Hawaii open to the public for viewing are located at the summits of Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island and Haleakala on Maui.

There are also smaller educational observatories like the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo.

In this comprehensive guide, we will provide detailed information on the locations, sizes, equipment capabilities, and public viewing options at the major observatory sites in Hawaii, as well as other astronomy centers and stellar attractions that space fans can explore.

Observatories on Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island

Mauna Kea Observatories Overview

Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island is home to some of the world’s most advanced and powerful telescopes. Over a dozen world-class observatories sit atop the dormant volcano, taking advantage of excellent viewing conditions – clear skies, minimal light pollution, and a high altitude of 4,207 meters (13,803 feet).

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT)

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) started operations in 1979 and was one of the first major optical/infrared telescopes built on Mauna Kea. With a 3.6 meter primary mirror, it continues to produce amazing images and data on galaxies, exoplanets, and more.

An important discovery made using CFHT was the first brown dwarf star in 1995.

W. M. Keck Observatory

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter telescopes, known as Keck I and Keck II. When the first Keck telescope saw “first light” in 1993, it became the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope.

Revolutionary segmented mirror design allows the massive telescopes to make extremely detailed observations. Some highlights include the first images of exoplanets and evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Subaru Telescope

The Subaru Telescope is operated by astronomers from Japan, Taiwan, and Princeton University. Its 8.2 meter primary mirror makes it one of the largest single-mirror telescopes in the world. Since achieving first light in 1999, Subaru has studied dark matter, discovered galaxies billions of light years away, and advanced the search for potentially hazardous asteroids.

Gemini North Telescope

An international partnership operates the Gemini North Telescope on Mauna Kea along with a twin telescope in Chile. Gemini North’s flexible, high-resolution 8.1 meter mirror probes the universe in optical and infrared light.

Key discoveries include some of the most distant galaxies ever seen (over 13 billion light years away) and new insights into supermassive black holes.

Haleakala Observatories on Maui

Haleakala Observatories Overview

The Haleakala Observatories refer to a collection of advanced telescopes and research facilities located on the summit of the dormant Haleakala volcano in Maui, Hawaii. At 10,023 feet above sea level, the summit provides excellent astronomical seeing conditions and dark skies ideal for conducting critical space surveillance, asteroid tracking, and other scientific studies.

There are two primary observatories here: the Pan-STARRS facility run by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and the Maui Space Surveillance Complex operated by the US Air Force Research Laboratory.


The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) is a wide-field astronomical imaging facility developed by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. Pan-STARRS consists of advanced telescopes and cameras capable of surveying the entire visible sky multiple times per month to detect moving or variable objects like asteroids.

Some key details about Pan-STARRS:

  • The Pan-STARRS telescopes have discovered over 5,200 near-Earth asteroids and 140 comets to date.
  • In 2017, the Pan-STARRS telescopes detected the first interstellar object passing through our solar system, named ‘Oumuamua.
  • Pan-STARRS is a partnership between research institutions in the United States and Germany. The Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg leads the German consortium.

The Pan-STARRS discoveries support NASA’s planetary defense work and lead to a greater scientific understanding of our solar system and universe.

Air Force Maui Optical Station (AMOS)

The Air Force Maui Optical Station (AMOS) is located adjacent to the Pan-STARRS facility. AMOS is operated by the Air Force Research Laboratory and is a vital national security asset that provides space situational awareness by detecting and tracking man-made orbiting objects like satellites and space debris.

AMOS consists of advanced electro-optical telescopes paired with powerful cameras and computers.

Some key facts about the AMOS facility:

  • Has contributed over 95 million observations to the military’s Space Surveillance Network database since opening in 1987.
  • Capable of tracking objects as small as a basketball more than 20,000 miles in space.
  • Supports missile warning, missile defense, and other space control operations for US Strategic Command.

Other Astronomy Attractions in Hawaii

Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii

The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo is a world-class museum that brings astronomy and Hawaiian culture together. This innovative center has stunning exhibits that allow you to explore the connections between Hawaiian navigators and the stars.

You can also journey through time and space in their planetarium shows.

Imiloa, which means “exploring new knowledge” in Hawaiian, is the perfect place to learn about the history of astronomy in Hawaii. Did you know that ancient Polynesians used the stars to voyage across the Pacific Ocean? Imiloa shares these stories and more through their interactive exhibits.

One highlight is the Science on a Sphere room, where NASA images are projected on a giant suspended globe. It’s a visual treat! Visitors of all ages will enjoy discovering Imiloa and the key role Hawaii has played in astronomy.

Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) is your gateway for exploring the epic volcanic landscape of Mauna Kea. At nearly 14,000 feet elevation, Mauna Kea offers stunning views of lava fields, volcanic cones and Lake Waiau – the highest alpine lake in the United States!

The knowledgeable staff at the VIS provide information, expert guidance and safety tips for visiting this special mountain. Helpful exhibits showcase the natural resources and scientific facilities on Mauna Kea as well.

We recommend watching the captivating feature film “Clash of the Gods” at the VIS theater too.

Bundle up before heading up, as temperatures can drop into the 30s at night. With proper precautions though, the short hike to Lake Waiau from the VIS is something you’ll never forget. Remember to tread lightly and respect the aina (land)!

Haleakala Visitor Center

Haleakala National Park is home to the towering Haleakala volcano on Maui. The mountain’s name means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, as legends say the demigod Maui snared the sun here to make the days longer. The sunrise views are said to be spectacular!

The Haleakala Visitor Center, at 9,740 feet elevation, is a convenient gateway for exploring the otherworldly landscape inside the summit crater. Exhibits on volcanology and Hawaiian culture set the stage for your trek.

Get trail information too – hiking around cinder cones amid the Lunar-like crater walls is an unforgettable adventure!

Time your visit for optimal sunrise or sunset viewing. Call first to check the latest weather and volcanic activity updates before heading up. With 30 miles of hiking trails, Haleakala offers exceptional star and cloud-gazing vistas as well. Make a day of it!

Planning Your Hawaii Observatory Visit

Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit an observatory in Hawaii is during the cooler, drier summer months between April and October. Temperatures average a pleasant 75-85°F during the daytime. Nights are cooler but generally stay above 60°F, providing pleasant conditions for stargazing.

It’s best to avoid visiting during the winter rainy season from November to March, when temperatures drop to 60-75°F and rain is frequent. Clouds and storms block views of the night sky. Heavy rains can also cause road closures and accessibility issues.

Admission Options

Most observatories in Hawaii offer free self-guided outdoor viewing areas that are open to the public each night. For a behind-the-scenes look, many also provide paid daily tours with expert guides that allow you to explore telescope operation rooms and educational exhibits.

For example, the Keck Observatory Visitor Gallery tour costs $27 for adults and includes access to fascinating spaces like the telescope control room. Tours often sell out days or weeks in advance, so reservations are essential.

Weather Considerations

Hawaii’s mild tropical climate enables excellent astronomical viewing conditions for most of the year. However, weather can be unpredictable. It’s a good idea to check forecasts and call ahead before visiting an observatory to ensure the skies will be clear.

Winter storms and even occasional summer clouds or rain showers can obstruct views on some nights. Many observatories have hotlines to provide updates on current visibility and viewing conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

The observatory in Hawaii that is world-famous for astronomy is the Mauna Kea Observatories, located near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Here are some frequently asked questions about this incredible scientific facility:

Where exactly is the Mauna Kea Observatories?

The Mauna Kea Observatories are situated on the summit of Mauna Kea, a 13,796 foot tall dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The summit is over 4,200 meters above sea level, making it one of the best sites in the world for ground-based astronomy.

The observatories sit across 525 acres of land leased from the state of Hawaii.

Why was Mauna Kea chosen as a site for observatories?

Mauna Kea was specifically chosen because of its high elevation, minimal cloud cover and air turbulence, very dark skies, and remote location away from major light pollution. This provides excellent conditions for studying the night sky.

Being above much of earth’s dense atmosphere also allows clearer observation of stars and galaxies.

What telescopes and observatories are located there?

There are currently 13 separate telescope observatories operated by astronomers from 11 different countries. The largest include the twin Keck Observatory telescopes, the Subaru Telescope, and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Other prominent observatories include the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT).

Can anyone visit the Mauna Kea Observatories?

Unfortunately the observatories on Mauna Kea are not open for public tours because they are specially constructed for scientific research and delicate instrumentation. Some of the visitor information stations at lower elevations like the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy offer exhibits and nightly public stargazing programs with telescopes.

Were the observatories controversial to construct?

Yes, there were concerns raised by native Hawaiian groups about constructing large telescopes on Mauna Kea, which is considered sacred land in Hawaiian culture. There were protests and legal challenges, and ultimately compromises were made to respect cultural traditions and the natural landscape more in the facility plans.

Today managers continue working with the community closely.

How many people work at the observatories?

Roughly 500 researchers, scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff work at the Mauna Kea Observatories combined during a typical day. About 120 staff also permanently live on site in dormitories to continually monitor conditions and oversee the facilities 24/7.


Hawaii offers exceptional astronomical viewing opportunities with its high-altitude observatory sites, steady air flow, and minimal light pollution. By following this guide on the two main facilities at Mauna Kea and Haleakala, as well as supporting astronomy centers across the islands, you are set to have an unforgettable stargazing experience.

Just don’t forget to book well in advance for the most popular telescope viewings, dress warmly for the cool high-elevation conditions, and flexibly adjust your plans if weather interferes. With the right preparation, you will be rewarded with astonishing views of the cosmos that will sparks wonder and curiosity.

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