Mauna Kea telescopes.

A Cool Conversation at 30,000 feet…

The second flight of the trip, I would be sandwiched in the middle seat for the five plus hours as we crossed the Pacific.  I didn’t much care as I planned on being unconscious for most of the time.  But before drifting off, I engaged in one of my favorite people watching pastimes – being a “book voyeur”.   Tablets have made this much harder to do, but whenever possible I still glance around to see what people are reading.  The gentleman next to me was reading in French.  Interesting.  I don’t usually meet many Europeans on these flights.

When I awoke for pop and peanuts, the man had gotten out his laptop and was working on a clearly work-related document.  It was written in English and had a lot of acronyms.   Something about it seemed “sciency”.  So when the opportunity presented itself, I popped the obvious question.

“Are you an astronomer?”

Our destination, the Big Island of Hawaii  is made up of five volcanoes.  The largest, Mauna Kea, is considered to be the second best place in the world for viewing the stars  (the best being Cerro Amazones, Chile).  It is home to thirteen world class telescopes, one of which is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  The man in the seat next to me was an astronomer-turned-administrator who was flying in from Paris for the annual Board Meeting of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Nogwater's photo of some Mauna Kea telescopes.

Mauna Kea telescopes. Photo by Nogwater.

Perhaps I should have left him in peace, but I couldn’t resist.

“So is there anything new and exciting happening on Mauna Kea right now?” I asked.  “Or is there always something exciting happening on Mauna Kea?”

He assured me that it was the latter and proceeded to give me a fascinating update on the state of the universe. The big story is that the universe is expanding.  Not only expanding, but expanding at an accelerating rate. This makes no sense, and has lead scientist to conclude that there’s some stuff we don’t know about, including some energy that seems to work in the opposite direction as gravity.  The stuff and the energy have been labeled “dark matter” and “dark energy”.  In this case, the word dark is being used as a euphemism for unknown.

Cool! The universe should be mysterious.

Visiting Mauna Kea

If you’re an armature astronomer, a little bit geeky, or just a curious person, a visit to Mauna Kea could be one of the highlights of your time in Hawaii.  You’ve never seen the sky like this.

Tiffany Mueller's photo of the night sky looking south from Mauna Kea.

Starry night. Photo by Tiffany Mueller.

You can arrange with a private tour company to take you to Mauna Kea, but their prices tend to be astronomical (sorry) and their services really aren’t necessary since there is a free stargazing program at the Visitor Center every night between from 6:00 – 10:00 PM.

Try to select a night when there is little or no moon.  And don’t worry if there are clouds in the sky when you start out on Saddle Road.  By the time you get to the visitor’s center, you’ll be above them.  Dress warm.  Things get chilly at 9,300 feet, and you’ll end up wanting to stay the whole four hours.  Snacks are available in the visitor center store  (the assortment of candy has been carefully selected for their names- Milky Way,  Star burst, etc), but it’s worth bringing picnic. If you’re coming in from the Hilo side, the ‘Imiloa Center makes an excellent preview.

The Summit

There are three ways to get to the summit of Mauna Kea- hike, take one of those expensive tours, or drive up in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  The summit is at 14,000 feet and it’s a good idea to stop and hang out at the visitor’s center first to acclimate to the altitude. (Also, don’t go within 24 hours of going diving.).  Prepare for cold weather – it snowed when I went, and enjoy watching the sunset from above the clouds.

Tiffany Mueller's photo of a Mauna Kea sunset.

Mauna Kea sunset. Photo by Tiffany Mueller.

On Saturdays and Sundays, escorted summit tours (everyone caravans in their own vehicle) depart from the visitor’s center at around 1:00 PM, and include a tour of at least one of the observatories.  This is totally worth doing, especially if it means you get to see the Keck.

The Keck (there are actually two of them, called Keck I and Keck II) are an awesome bit of engineering.  Telescopes work by gather light onto a mirror.  The bigger the mirror, the more light they can collect, the more they can see.  The problem is that a mirror can only be so big.  Beyond a diameter of about 8 meters, a mirror will collapse under its own weight.  The Kecks get around this problem by having 36 hexagonal shaped mirrors fit and move together as one.

Big Dubya's photo of the inner workings of the Keck telescope.

Inside the Keck. Photo by Big Dubya.

Infinity and Beyond

In case you’ve already done so much traveling that you’re feeling this world is not enough, take heart! The upcoming decades promise to bring plenty of new out of this world discoveries.  A new Thirty Meter Telescope is planned for Mauna Kea and could be ready by 2018. Not to be outdone, the European Extremely Large Telescope (39 meters) is under construction in Cerro Amazones and is expected to be operational by 2022.  And the European Space Agency has just launched the GAIA space telescope on a five year mission to catalogue and monitor the Milky Way, to seek out new properties and information, to boldly map what no man has mapped before.

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