Posts Tagged With: observatory

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.

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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.

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

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…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

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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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Hawaiian Sky

It is for several very good reasons that Mauna Kea is the premier astronomical observing site in the world: the summit is above half the atmosphere and its attendant water vapor (astronomers hate water vapor); it is accessible with good local infrastructure; and — I know this will shock you — it is dark. Very dark. The entire population of the Big island is only 150,000, and the nearest towns are tens of miles away from the telescopes, their lights often concealed under a layer of clouds. And so the night skies on the Big Island are nothing short of glorious.

You do not have to be atop a mountain to enjoy the stellar show — in fact, in some ways it’s better if you’re not. (And despite our plans, we have not made it to Mauna Kea’s summit on this trip: conditions have been too cold and windy.)  So my friend Jim and I struck out from Kona with our cameras and tripods, to a point well away from town about 10 miles inland and about 2500′ (760m) up. With the exception of a couple of hillside dwellings, it was, as they say, as dark as the inside of a dog. Dark enough, in fact, that the unwary photographer can stumble around blindly and knock over his tripod at the end of the night. Fortunately the tripod mounting mechanism made the supreme sacrifice and absorbed the blow of the fall, sparing my camera with its rather expensive lens. But now I need a new tripod mount.  In any case, here are some samples of our work from two nights ago:

Saddle Road Night Sky-005That tongue of stars sticking up from the middle is indeed the Milky Way, as you no doubt suspected. The dots of light at the very bottom of the picture, about one-third of the way in from the left, is Jim setting up his camera by flashlight. And the red glow that you are wondering about is real, neither a Photoshop fake nor the incandescent lava from a distant volcano. It is the actual color of the night sky in the opposite direction from the Sun, i.e. eastward at 9 PM when this picture was taken. I’ve exaggerated it in intensity (thank you, Photoshop) so that you can perceive it in the image. It is a well-known celestial phenomenon called gegenschein, the reflection of sunlight off of interplanetary dust orbiting in the plane of the solar system. In very dark locales it is just barely visible to the naked eye, but a long (6 second) camera exposure of the dark Hawaiian sky brings it right out. Pretty cool, huh?

If you don’t believe me — and I don’t know why you wouldn’t, since I am a professional and not to be taken lightly, dammit — here’s an equally long exposure taken in the opposite (westward) direction:

Saddle Road Night Sky-008No red glow. If you are wondering why you can see the spooky tree and the grass since I earlier stated that the scene was pitch dark, the answer is that I was standing off to the side shining my cell phone flashlight onto the tree in order to get this precise effect. (Photographers call the technique “light painting”.)

One of the things that we tend to forget in this age of crowded cities and light pollution is that there are a surprising number of glorious astronomical objects that are visible to the naked eye or in small binoculars.  The camera sees them just fine in these dark island skies, though. Here is zoomed-in portion of a shot of Orion, the hunter:

Saddle Road Night Sky-099

Those are the three stars of Orion’s belt at upper left, visible even in cities. But what’s that big blob in the middle? It is the Orion Nebula, a.k.a. M42, an enormous cloud of gas and dust 12 light-years across, a stellar nursery where massive, hot stars are condensing and igniting. Here’s what M42 looks like through an actual telescope.

M42LRGB10combLg

Obviously one cannot see that kind of detail in a photo taken with a conventional mid-sized camera with a 17mm wide angle lens, but if you look at it in my photo you can  clearly see the shape and a bit of the color. Slightly below the nebula in my picture you can also see two bright stars. The upper is called Iota Orionis. The lower is actually a double star system called Struve 747: if you look carefully at it you can see the dim companion star.

So it was a photogenic night. Here I am in situ, taking the above pictures and illuminated by the light of Jim’s flashlight:

Saddle Road Night Sky-007

You’ll note that I’m wearing a sweatshirt and long pants, not my usual attire here. But it was an unusually cool night and we were a few thousand feet up; the temperature was about 55°F (13C).

I’ll close this post with a photo that has nothing at all to do with the sky but which I feel like throwing in because it is a night shot, albeit not looking heavenward. The Aloha Theater is a venerable performing arts venue in the nearby delightfully-named town of Kealakekua (pronunciation lessons available for a small fee). It was built in 1932 and is still in use — they’re performing Beauty and the Beast as I type this — and its architecture is typical pre-war (and thus pre-tourist-boom) Hawaii. It has a pleasantly anachronistic feel to it that I tried to capture.

Aloha Theater-002This year’s stay on the Big Island is winding down; we go to Honolulu in 4 1/2 days, followed by eight days on the mainland (California and Arizona) and then home. We’re going diving tomorrow, and in the following day or two I hope to shoot some drone footage of downtown Kailua that I can post before we depart.

 

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Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:

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This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:

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Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:

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(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:

waipio-valley-001-edit

The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.

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sunset-001

 

 

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The Tallest Mountain on Earth

…is not Mount Everest. Though it is a bit of a cheat: Mount Everest, at 29,029 ft (8848 m) is indeed the highest mountain on Earth above sea level, but it sits on a plateau that is itself at an elevation of a  good 15,000 ft (4500 m) or. So measured from its base to its summit, Mount Everest is a surprisingly second-rate 14,000′ (4300 m) tall. That statistic, of course, is rather cold comfort — emphasis on the “cold” — if you are actually standing atop Mount Everest trying to breathe.

No, the tallest mountain on the planet, as measured from its base to its summit, is Mauna Kea here on the Big Island. Again, you’ve got to be a little flexible with your definitions, because the base of Mauna Kea is the ocean floor itself, a good 15,000 ft (4600 m) below my feet as I type this. Mauna Kea’s summit is at an altitude of 13,796 ft (4205 m), which means that measured from base to summit it is roughly 29,000 ft (8800 m) tall.

Mauna Kea also has the more personal distinction of being the most important geographical feature in my life because of the many observatories at its summit and the many nights (~200) I spent using them early in my career. At that time, in the early 1980’s, there were four major observatories plus a couple of much smaller telescopes. Today, there are a dozen major observatories and a whole lot of controversy about whether building any more constitutes a desecration of the summit, which has Hawaiian religious significance. But the current controversy aside, the mountain holds a lot of history and emotional resonance for me, and so it was important that we make the pilgrimage to the top.

Getting to the summit is a lot easier than it was 30+ years ago because more (though not all) of the summit access road is paved. Even so, at that altitude you’re breathing only about 60% of the oxygen that you’ve got at sea level, so you’ve got to be very careful. Most of the car rental companies on the island forbid you from taking their vehicles to the top, a restriction that is frequently ignored by tourists, often without consequence, but sometimes to their extreme detriment when either their oxygen-starved engine conks out or their wheels lose traction on the unpaved lava gravel. (I should add that at that altitude your oxygen-starved brain and cardiopulmonary systems also lose traction; many people feel woozy and headachy and have difficulty concentrating; a few experience much more serious health consequences.)

You first ascend via paved road to Hale Pohaku, the mid-level facility that serves as a visitor center and dormitory for the observatory engineers and astronomers. Hale Pohaku sits at 9000 ft (2700 m) which, given the weather patterns of the island, is typically where the cloud layer lives that traps the island’s heat and moisture below. It’s cold and dry above that point, which is why the site is the best astronomy observing locale in the world. But that also means that you drive up through the clouds to get there.

Mauna Kea Summit-016

That makes for a nasty and dangerous drive, especially on the unpaved portion of the road, but also serves up a (literally) breathtaking panorama when you break through the clouds at the top and find yourself on a sunlit Martian dessert. As you approach the very summit the road is paved again; this is to prevent vehicles from kicking up dust that could get onto the telescope mirrors. (Which, needless to say, are exquisitely precise.)

Mauna Kea Summit-018That’s Mauna Loa sticking out of the clouds at the center of the frame. It’s the same height as Mauna Kea, about 25 miles ( 40 km) to the south. It does not host any telescopes for the very sensible reason that it is an active volcano. The dome at the right side of the frame is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), where I worked for three years. It houses a 3.8 m diameter telescope.

I’ll close with a few more scenes from our visit to the summit.

Mauna Kea Summit-002 Mauna Kea Summit-020 Mauna Kea Summit-017 Mauna Kea Summit-001

The white dome at left in bottom picture is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), one of the older observatories on the mountain. The silver dome is the more recent Gemini telescope, so named because it has an identical twin sibling on an Andean mountaintop in Chile.

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