Back on Top

I’ve rarely felt more like an astronomer than I did during my postdoc in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, freezing my butt off and oxygen-starving my brain atop Mauna Kea at 13,800 ft (4200 m) above the Big Island’s tropical beaches. Its resident telescopes — six at the time, something like 14 now, depending on how you count — have always evoked a strong emotional resonance in me. I’ve written about it before (click here) but MK is always worth a revisit.

Our motivation this time was a visit from Laura and Brian, our old friends from Honolulu, who despite their decades in the islands had somehow never made it to the summit. Fortunately our Lincoln Behemoth Navigator has four wheel drive, so up we went, not without a little wariness: conditions at the summit were reported as below freezing temperatures and nearly 50 mph (80 kph) winds. We did have the good sense to bring along long pants and assorted sweaters and jackets.

Our first stop was the visitor center at Hale Pohaku at 9200 ft (2800 m) altitude. That site was chosen carefully: it is just below the elevation at which altitude sickness sets in for those who are susceptible to it. We stayed long enough to put on warm clothes, use the facilities, and — in my case — purchase my new favorite teeshirt and cap:

Maunakea 2019-025

I worked at the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), whose name you can see on the cap and whose relative telescope mirror size you can at the upper right on the shirt. (Imparting this fact to the cashier got me a 10% discount on my purchase, which pleased me no end.) At the time I worked here, UKIRT’s 3.8 m mirror was the largest on the mountain; now it is not even close. Here is what it looks like from the outside.

Maunakea 2019-020

I spent some 200 nights inside that dome.

The view at the summit is spectacular and rather Martian-looking, an expanse of lifeless rusty volcanic rubble and cinder cones.

Maunakea 2019-013-Edit

Maunakea 2019-008-Edit

But we couldn’t linger; the weather wouldn’t allow it. Here is a worker chipping ice off one of the domes:

Maunakea 2019-007

…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

Maunakea 2019-018

And if you want to get up close and personal with the weather, here is what the guardrail of the summit road looked like as we parked in the lee of one of the domes:

Maunakea 2019-021

As I said, we could not linger.

There is a lot of controversy at the moment surrounding Mauna Kea’s astronomy enterprise. There are very advanced plans to build the largest telescope of them all, the Thirty Meter Telescope, known as the TMT. For my non-metric readers, that is a mirror nearly 100 feet across, a truly giant and enormously capable instrument that would break new astronomical ground but take up a very visible spot on the mountain. But the island hosts a vocal minority of activists who view all of the telescopes — and certainly this planned one — as a desecration of a sacred place: Mauna Kea reaches to the sky, close to the gods. Their view is certainly not universal: there are many Hawaiian traditionalists who feel that since their ancestors were voyagers, the telescopes on the mountain are another form of voyage, honoring the ancient tradition by sending our eyes and minds to the stars. Needless to say, I subscribe pretty strongly to this view. But as a result of the uproar there is a real question as to whether the TMT will be built here; the planners are seriously consider siting the telescope in the Canary Islands (where there are already several other observatories) to avoid the controversy.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Back on Top

  1. Steve Evans

    In the T-shirt photo, am I the only one who all I can see is a couple of pasties designed by a bee hive colony?

  2. Don Dement

    Much enjoyed by the dormant astronomer in me – thanks for your time posting, as usual. DKD

  3. Michael Weiss

    Wow! We were just at the Visitors’ Center three weeks ago but did not ascend higher. Carol and I loved the shirts and caps too, and you got the best ones. Very cool — no pun intended. It was noticeably cooler at 9200 ft than it had been at sea level 90 min earlier, even through the drive up was so gradual that we really did not realize we had gotten so high. Is there still a controversy about a new telescope with the indigenous peoples? best Mike

    On Sun, Feb 10, 2019 at 1:08 PM Rich and Alice Go Globetrotting wrote:

    > richandalice posted: “I’ve rarely felt more like an astronomer than I did > during my postdoc in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, freezing my butt off and > oxygen-starving my brain atop Mauna Kea at 13,800 ft (4200 m) above the Big > Island’s tropical beaches. Its resident telescopes –” >

    • Hi Mike! (Please email me your IU email address.) Yes, the TMT controversy rages on, and on, and on. There’s a real question about whether it’l ever get built here.

      The change on conditions between 9200′ and 13,800′ can be very dramatic because Hale Pohaku (the visitor center) is close to the level at which the inversion layer forms. The summit can be tens of degrees colder and far windier than HP.

  4. I can sort of understand the controversy but… science. It’s a scientific endeavour, not another sodding shopping mall!

    Working up there must’ve been incredible. I once used to be active on an Italian web forum where an astrophysicist – the nickname, gamma_ray_burst, was a giveaway – sometimes explained his gallivants in Chile. Had I had a brains that’s a career I’d have loved to get into. But alas…

    • As you know, there’s never a shortage of aggrieved people.

      And yes, working up there was an amazing experience, albeit a physically uncomfortable one. I’ve often wondered how many brain cells I lost as a result of a 40% oxygen deficit.

  5. Awesome post! I always love going up there anytime I’m visiting the big Island. I really does feel like you are on another planet. Glad you guys were able to make it despite the high winds. I’ve been up there a few times at night to take photos of the stars with my tiny camera. I even have a few UKIRT, which I didn’t know the name of before reading this post. Loved the info!

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