The Islands in Our Stars

Story by Larry Lieberman. Photo by

Ancient Hawaiians were extraordinary astronomers. In addition to navigating by the stars, they created a rich and refined vocabulary to describe celestial bodies—there are at least thirty Hawaiian words, for example, for the phases of the moon, whereas Western astronomy has a paltry eight. Having no written language, Hawaiians preserved these words in chants passed down through the generations. Now, some of the most recently discovered astronomical objects are being given Hawaiian names, both in honor of the culture and in recognition of the fact that many of these discoveries have been made with Hawai‘i-based telescopes.

But who decides what those names should be? Astronomers from places beyond the Islands might not be sufficiently versed in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) to come up with an appropriate name. To assist with that solemn responsibility, A Hua He Inoa brings together astronomers and Hawaiian language and culture experts (including Hawaiian-speaking high school and college students) to impart those names. “The Hawaiian culture has a long-standing relationship with the heavens,” says Larry Kimura, associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. “Our people were observers, and through this discerning we connect to our genealogy of history and culture. In the Hawaiian way of naming there is a thought process that has significance to this lineage. When a name is spoken in Hawaiian, it brings to light those connections.”

It was Kimura who named ‘Oumuamua in 2017, when astronomers on Maui tracked the first interstellar object ever observed to pass through our solar system, a cigar-shaped rock that zipped by on its journey through space (depicted in the artist’s conception above). Kimura’s niece, Ka‘iu Kimura, who serves as executive director of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, contacted her uncle to help with the naming. The object was moving fast, giving astronomers very little time for observation. A name was needed quickly, and ‘Oumuamua (“a scout or messenger sent from the distant past”) went viral, becoming the first Hawaiian name officially accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the governing body that oversees astronomy worldwide.

“The observatories in Hawai‘i are achieving major discoveries that are truly at the forefront of advancing our understanding,” says Ka‘iu Kimura. “The practice of naming those discoveries is another way of creating connection to the work being done on Mauna Kea. Our goal at ‘Imiloa is to enhance the process of scientific inquiry by making it more available and accessible to our communities and to students in Hawai‘i and throughout the world.”

A Hua He Inoa (“to call forth a name), led by ‘Imiloa, recently held a two-day retreat in which students from Hawaiian-language charter schools on Maui and Hawai‘i Island met with scientists and Hawaiian-language experts to create names for two more objects. The asteroid known as 2016 HO3 was rechristened Kamo‘oalewa, a name describing a celestial object with an oscillating path, which is characteristic of the asteroid. The name Ka‘epaoka‘āwela (“the mischievous, opposite-moving companion of Jupiter”), was proposed for 2015 BZ509, an asteroid revolving around Jupiter in retrograde orbit, i.e., counter to the direction of other objects. Last June the IAU officially adopted both names.

Other Hawaiian names have been applied to celestial objects, including Laniākea (“immense heaven”) for the supercluster of more than one hundred thousand galaxies that includes our Milky Way, and Powehi (“adorned fathomless dark creation”) for the black hole that was recently imaged using data from observatories around the world, including those in Hawai‘i. Both names have been widely adopted within the astronomy community and in the media and await official IAU imprimatur.

In the meantime, A Hua He Inoa continues, along with other initiatives at ‘Imiloa, to ensure that native language and culture remain prominent in Hawai‘i-based astronomy: ‘Imiloa is offering Hawaiian-language classes to researchers at Hawai‘i-based observatories (more than one hundred have signed up so far).

“Our words connect us to our past,” says Larry Kimura. “When we go beyond just the clouds and rain, out into the cosmos, we are going back into our genealogy. It means we are connected.” HH