Freezing in Hawaii While Chasing the Milky Way

Yes, yes, it’s wonderfully warm and tropical here all the time… at sea level. The Big Island is built out of 5 volcanoes: 3 active (Kilauea, Hualalai, and Mauna Loa), one extinct (Kohala), and one dormant (Mauna Kea, recently compressed into a single word, Maunakea). The two “Maunas” are nearly identical in height:13,800′ or 4200 m. That’s a fine altitude at which to build observatories, above 40% of the atmosphere and almost all of the water vapor. (Water is great for taking showers but a major impediment to infrared- and millimeter-wavelength astronomy). Since Mauna Loa is an active volcano, it would be a little foolhardy to build a telescope there, leaving Maunkea as the premier astronomical observing site on the planet. Observatories have sprouted there like mushrooms, to the increasing distress of the local population who see them as desecrating the mountain.

All of which is a lead-in to the fact that Maunakea is a great place for stargazing… the very greatest, in fact, at least to a professional astronomer. (I did my postdoc there in the early 1980’s.) For the more casual observer, it can be challenging: winds can be high, and the higher you go, the colder you get. Fun fact: on average, temperature decreases by 6 degrees Celsius per kilometer in height, which for the non-metric among you translates into 1 degree Fahrenheit per 300′ in height. So you expect the summit to be about 50 degrees F colder than the beach, and trust me, it is.

And that is why at 4 AM today I was freezing my okole (the Hawaiian word for butt) in order to get these two photos of the Milky Way.

I hired local photographer Don Slocum, whom I’ve known for a couple of years and who for my money is the best photographer on the Big Island. (See his website: He’s got a four wheel drive pickup truck and knows several good off-road spots on the slope of Maunkea, at an elevation of about 9000′ (2700 m) to get shots like these. (The road to the 4200 m summit is closed off after sunset so that visitors do not interfere with the telescopes.) We set up our respective gear in the wee hours in temperatures that were slightly above freezing, in a 20 mph wind, and miserably enjoyed ourselves for about an hour and a half to get these shots.

The bright object just above the edge of the foreground hill is Jupiter. The dark clouds adjacent to the brightest part of the Milky Way are not earthly clouds but actually clouds of interstellar dust that obscure the central, star-dense core of our Galaxy. Many of them are stellar nurseries, hotbeds of star formation. I have spent literally years of my life peering into them with radio and infrared telescopes, and seeing them in a photo like this — especially one that I shot — still gives me a thrill.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Freezing in Hawaii While Chasing the Milky Way

  1. Michael Weiss

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful post, not only the photo but your sense of beauty in the universe. Best, Mike

    On Sat, Feb 29, 2020 at 9:19 PM Rich and Alice Go Globetrotting wrote:

    > richandalice posted: “Yes, yes, it’s wonderfully warm and tropical here > all the time… at sea level. The Big Island is built out of 5 volcanoes: 3 > active (Kilauea, Hualalai, and Mauna Loa), one extinct (Kohala), and one > dormant (Mauna Kea, recently compressed into a single wo” >

  2. Jeanne Isaacman

    Gorgeous photos…I think these are my favorite photos of those you have done.


    Hmm, Good thing there is no Maunakea nearby for me to stargaze upon. It is 28F in Edgewater now, so subtracting 50F from that would make it -22F at the level of my camera tripod. A little less than Hawaiian shirtsleeve weather. Jim

  4. mercedesnp

    Pretty amazing! So cool you got to do this 🙂


  5. Jeanne Alexis Beatty

    Thanks ever so much for fascinating facts, breathtaking photography, and a new vocabulary word for my life lexicon (okole)!

  6. Ilene Schafer

    Just so you know only one photo is all there. The second is cut off on my phone but it’s beautiful

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. Anonymous

    Terrific shots, Rich! A just reward for the challenging conditions!

  8. THIS is the view! I’ve seen something like this in Rapa Nui, and of course for the life of me couldn’t photograph it. Wished I had you on speed dial, the temperature was good too.

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