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Astronomy at the 2003 Hawaii County Fair

by Gary Fujihara

Gary Fujihara, IfA’s new science education and public outreach officer, organized the November 1 “Got Sol? Solar Viewing” event held at Hilo’s Prince Kuhio Mall. Clear skies allowed hundreds of curious passersby to view sunspots and solar prominences through telescopes fitted with protective filters. Some lucky people even saw a very large solar prominence leap off the Sun.

"Astronomy was well represented, with over 100 feet of display area," said Ron Koehler, about the Mauna Kea Observatories exhibit at the Hawaii County Fair held in Hilo September 18-21. The accomplishments at the fair "included a great show for the public, the advancement of astronomy education, and the interaction of the various astronomy entities to produce a successful event."

Koehler, the general manager of Mauna Kea Support Services, has been coordinating the exhibit for ten years. During early years, he had to scrounge for materials at the IfA offices in Manoa. According to Koehler, this year was the best, because the observatories are now more concerned with outreach to the public and go out of their way to make resources and people available. Nearly 80 people from the astronomy community participated, including staff from the observatories, Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station staff and volunteers, Mauna Kea rangers, and Hilo Astronomy Club members.

The exhibits consisted of posters, scale models of the three Mauna Kea observatories, computer kiosks, video of an 8-meter mirror realuminization, Power Point presentations, and most important, people. When the Hilo skies cleared, staff and volunteers took out their telescopes to gaze at the Sun during the day and at Mars at night.

One of the perennial crowd favorites was the infrared camera demonstration. Over 700 people had their portraits taken by both infrared (heat-sensing) and optical (normal, light-sensing) cameras. Props like clear Plexiglas (transparent in the optical, but opaque in the infrared), a plain black garbage bag (opaque in the optical, but transparent in the infrared), and ice for face "painting" were effective in getting people involved with the exhibit.

Koehler hopes that future exhibits will include more hands-on, interactive activities like telescope mirror grinding. He also wants fewer observatory-specific exhibits and more of those that promote astronomy in general. Events like the Hawaii County Fair are important opportunities for those involved with astronomy to interest the public in science and to show them that some of the people who work on Mauna Kea are their neighbors. This year’s event went a long way toward achieving those objectives.