Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Mauna Kea’s Amazing Gazing

(Syndicated article for the Metro newspaper group).

The building that hosts the Gemini North telescope.
It's twin sibling sits on top of a mountain in Chile.
                                                        Photo: Hans Sandberg

At 13,796 feet, not much grows and the air is mostly clear. 
                                                                  Photo: Hans Sandberg

There is probably no better place on Earth for stargazing than on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for “white mountain.”) The long dormant volcano climbs 4,205 meters (13,796 feet) over the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii, and its clear and stable atmosphere has attracted the largest collection of telescopes in the world. Giants such as the Keck twin observatories, Gemini, and Subaru, are there to help us understand the birth of planets, stars and galaxies, and to search for celestial objects so far away that their faint light may reveal secrets about the beginning of time.

The island of Hawaii is the biggest and most southern of the state’s eight islands. It’s twice as large as all of the others combined, hence the nickname - “The Big Island.” It is also the youngest -- and still growing -- as nearby Kilauea pours huge amounts of molten lava into the sea on the island’s southern shore. Mauna Kea has not erupted in 3,000 years however, which explains why eleven countries dared over the last four decades to spend more than a billion dollars building thirteen telescopes on it’s summit.

Way up there, astronomers and their expensive telescopes may be safe from eruptions, but not necessarily from Mother Nature. It is not uncommon for winter storms to deliver winds reaching over 160 km (100 miles) per hour, sometimes dumping a thick layer of snow on the volcano’s peak. Most of the time however, it is not heavy winds, but the height of Mauna Kea itself -- with its cold and thin air -- that threatens human life, as well as most other life forms.

“If you drop anything when you are exiting the car, don’t pick it up,” says Peter Michaud, a press and community relations manager for the Gemini Observatory, which runs two of the most sophisticated telescopes in the world – one on Mauna Kea, the other in Chile. With 40 percent less oxygen to breathe, bending down can lead to fainting.

The trip from Hilo to Mauna Kea starts on Saddle Road – a roller coaster-like ride that becomes a bit nauseating after driving on it for an hour. Halfway to the other side of the island, another small road continues upward to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. At 2,800 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level, this quaint visitor’s center is named after the Hawaiian astronaut who perished when the space shuttle “Challenger” exploded in 1986, but is also known to the Hawaiians as Hale Pohaku (“stone house”). The view is stunning during the day, and evening stargazers are in for a treat – seeing the Milky Way as never before. Most tourists shy away from driving the extra 1400 meters up to Observatory Hill, which is at the end of a steep, narrow, eight-mile dirt road, and can be treacherous at night.

Since both the visitor’s center and the summit are open to the public, some experienced off-road drivers do take their four-by-fours up to the top (most car rental companies explicitly prohibit taking their vehicles anywhere near Mauna Kea,) but not before pausing for at least one hour at the Onizuka Center to allow the body to adjust to the high altitude. A dedicated weather and road condition telephone hotline is updated each day for potential visitors. Hale Pohaku also has a lodge that sleeps 72, and is used for astronomers and staffers who work on the summit during the night – so that they’ll have a place to rest during the day without having to repeat the altitude adjustment over and over again.

To prevent altitude sickness, it’s suggested that visitors don’t smoke, drink alcohol or coffee -- or go scuba diving -- the day before, and eat no heavy meals right before the ascent. Drinking a lot of water is also necessary to prevent severe headaches. Warm clothing (including hats and gloves) is a must, and like airline pilots who are exposed to strong sunlight in the upper atmosphere, extra strong sunglasses (preferably with UV-filters,) and sunscreen with a factor of at least 15, is needed.

It’s a lot to remember, especially for an oxygen-starved brain. Michaud warns that people become forgetful sometimes, and wander off aimlessly. That is, until they lose their breath, and their heart starts pounding like that of an 85-year old. A photographer visiting the summit admits to opening his camera without rewinding the film while on the summit, thereby ruining his entire photo shoot.

The landscape at the summit is completely barren, except maybe for black, gray, and rust colored stones. There are no trees, no bushes, no visible vegetation or animals - but for a stray mountain goat. The area is often compared to the planet Mars, and in fact, NASA used the area to train its Mars Lander equipment. Looking down, one can see several copper red cinder cones shooting up from the steep lava slopes. And peeking out from the clouds in the distance is the active volcano Mauna Loa (of macadamia nut fame,) and Haleakala (“House of Sun,”) a 3,049 meter (10,000 ft.) high volcano on the neighbor island of Maui.

Once the sun sets, the temperature quickly approaches the freezing level -- even during the summer months -- as there are few clouds to lock in the heat. This is good news for astronomers however, who would if possible, prefer do all of their observing from the crisp clarity of outer space.

Sitting above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, Observation Hill has few clouds, and benefits from strict local laws against light pollution on the sparsely populated island. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also creates an unusually stable and clean atmosphere (something that may not be obvious as you drive through the Kona district on the island’s west coast, where coffee growers complain that ashes from ongoing eruptions cloud the sky and block the sun.)

“There is no getting around the fact that the Earth’s atmosphere is a pain to have to work through,” says Matt Mountain, director of the Gemini Observatory. But if space observation has to be earthbound, Mauna Kea is the place to be.

Hans Sandberg (at Mauna Kea)

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