Skip to main content

Stellarium - Bringing "ka lewa lani" to your Screen

Chris Blake
September 2020

Our world
around us is constantly changing and the movement of people from place to place is often taken for granted. In the wā kahiko, traditional times, the navigation of Moananuiākea, our vast Pacific homeland, was a daunting task that required an understanding of the environment and its connection to the elements, as well as knowledge of the celestial bodies. It was done by repetitive and purposeful observations and experience with guidance from kumu, revered sources of knowledge, who were able to share this information with a select group of haumāna, learners. In recent decades, there are stories of how Pwo Navigators, Nainoa Thompson and Bruce Blankenfield, gained access to the planetarium at the Bishop Museum in order to replicate different locations around the world and study the skies to prepare for their voyages. Today, with advances in technology, we are able to replicate the skies in real time on our computers and mobile devices from any location.

Stellarium is an open-source program created by a number of like-minded individuals with a love of the stars, to share a map of the celestial bodies in our universe. It is offered in Windows, Mac, Linux and mobile formats. It is free to use and managed by developers who encourage users to contribute and enhance their product. This allows the Stellarium community to increase accuracy of the information and to share different “sky cultures” from around the world. Users can research, create, and share information for review and publishing about different cultures and how they view the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies for all users to utilize. There are over 40 different cultures represented, including many from indigenous cultures around the world including the Pacific.

In 2017, the haumāna, students, of Papa Kilo Hōkū, a course that guides the learners through the skills of non-instrument navigation and how to become connected to the environment and knowledgeable in the observations of their surroundings, were challenged to create and update the information for the “star lore” of the Hawaiian star lines to showcase their learning. This information would be available for others from our Pacific homeland and around the world to utilize. The haumāna learned the coding and processing necessary for the identification of the stars which they aligned and linked with our Hawaiian star lines. They also created the illustrations to enhance the appearance of the star lines, and developed the background information for the Hawaiian star lines which is used by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Further, the team created a landscape that replicates the star compass -- the construct that wayfinders use for orientation and direction -- and they communicated with the program developers regularly and submitted multiple iterations of the star lore in order to meet the stringent requirements for publication. This was a showcase of the student-centered learning opportunities nurtured by the class. 

Jonah Apo, a 2018 graduate from Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, was one of the haumāna on the coding team and he recalls the experience: “It took the coordination of multiple groups relying upon each other to do their part for the overall success of the end product. There were a lot of challenges, but it was worth it,” he said. Jonah shares that the most rewarding part of the project was to hear from people who were using the Hawaiian star lines information and star compass to plan and study for their voyages. It helped Jonah and the team realize that they were a part of something bigger than themselves and all the effort was worthwhile. 

The Stellarium program allows for the studying of the skies as long as there is access to a computer or a mobile device. Users can replicate the skies at any time of day, from any location on the planet and can even remove the sun and other atmospheric effects to see the celestial activity during the daytime. This technology helps the navigators be able to study different parts of the world from their computers. This tool was a great resource for the navigation team during the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage and their updating of the information assisted in their training. It continues to be utilized as an important resource and learning tool of our skies.

To learn more or to download the free program, please navigate to and click on the appropriate operating system from the menu above. This is also available on mobile devices via the Apple app store on iOS or Google Play on Android. The mobile versions do have a nominal cost. 

*lewa lani is a Hawaiian term for the “highest stratum of the heavens”