top of page
2001 - A visit to Mauna Kea Observatories
In May of 2001, Rosemary and I took a trip to Hawaii. The first part of the trip was 6 days on the Big Island (also named Hawaii). The big island has the most diverse climatology in the entire 50 states, having 8 climate zones!
ranging from humid tropical rain forest at sea level on the north coast, to semi-arid areas in the western lowlands where there are extensive lava fields, as well as dry and cool upland plains in the "saddle" area between the two giant volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. This area is home to several of the largest cattle ranches in the entire 50 states! And, on the summits of the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the climate is classified as Polar Tundra!
We spent 3 glorious days on the north coast, taking in the lush rainforests and beautiful waterfalls and scenic beaches. We also spent most of a day at Volcanoes National Park, viewing the huge caldera of the Kilauea Volcano and the miles and miles of solid lava floes.
We then spent 2 days at a resort on the Kohala Coast at the NW tip of the island, getting plenty of beach time and (carefully!) working on our suntans.
But our next to last day on the island was spent visiting an area that very few visitors to Hawaii ever venture to: The 14,000 foot summit of the extinct volcano Mauna Kea - home to the largest astronomical obsevatory complex in the world!
Taking a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea requires renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle, which I had done earlier in our trip when we were in Hilo. I had also done some advanced work, and arranged for Rosemary and I to get a guided tour of the 3.6 meter (148-inch) Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. We started out very early, leaving the Kohala Coast and driving east through lava fields, until we gradually climbed into the upland plains where the cattle country is, and then continuing uphill onto the "Saddle Road" that runs between Mauna Loa to the south and Mauna Kea to the north. About halfway along this road is the turnoff for the narrow road that leads to the sumit of Mauna Kea. About halfway up this road, at an elevation of 9,200 feet above sea level, is the Visitor Center. We spent a little over an hour at the Visitor Center, in order to acclimate to the change in elevation (which was a must, considering that we had started out that morning at sea level!!). While at the visitor center we picked up some neat souvenirs, including Mauna Kea Observatory t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, and mugs!
Then, after enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, we hopped in our SUV and started the drive to the summit. The trip was amazing. Immediately after leaving the visitor center, the landscape abrubtly changes. Soon, there is absolutely NO vegetation of any kind, and you are surrounded on both sides of the road by a continuous landscape of reddish-brown cinders! Arriving at the top, the white domes of the observatories were stark against the background that looked like the surface of Mars! It was a striking sight!
The aerial photo to the right (courtesy of Mauna Kea Observatories) gives a good idea of what we saw as we reached the summit. Our initial destination upon reaching
the summit was the dome of the Canada-
France-Hawaii telescope (to the far right in the photo). From when it saw first light in 1979, until the Keck I telescope went into operation in 1991, it was the largest visible
wavelength telescope at Mauna Kea. When
we arrived at the dome, we knocked on the door, and were met by Ralph Taroma, a
maintenance technician, who informed us
that he would be our tour guide. He gave us a very thorough tour, starting in the control room, which is located in a group of support offices in the mezzanine overlooking the telescope. He explained that this control room is not used much anymore, due to the advances in high-speed broadband internet, which now allows observers to run the scope from the CFHT office facility located in Waimea, almost 40 miles away, but at a more comfortable altitude of 2500 feet! He then took us down to the main floor of the observatory, and pointed out the main features of the 3.6 meter scope and the various "top end" assemblies, which can be interchanged to change the optical configuration of the telescope.
While on the telescope floor, Ralph took a nice photo of Rosemary and I standing beneath the Cassegrain focus of the scope.
In this photo, to the right, you can see that the mount of this scope is almost identical to that of the 200-inch on Mt. Palomar, with the declination bearing located midway between the yoke that forms the northern bearing of the polar axis and the smaller south bearing. Compare this design with that of the 4-meter on Kitt Peak, shown earlier on this page. One advantage of this design is that it makes the Cassegrain focus of the scope much more accessible for the interchanging of various camera and instrumentation packages.
On the right side of the photo, at the
smaller southern end of the polar axis, you
can see the round hole in the polar axis that allows light to be directed down to the coude focus by way of a tertiary mirror. Also, if you look closely, you can see the frost patterns on the concrete floor caused by the cooling coils that are imbedded in the floor. We had to watch our steps so as not to slip on any slick spots!
After a thorough tour of the telescope and the rest of the main floor, Ralph took us down one story, to show us the coude focus control room with its various relay mirrors, instruments and spectroscopy gratings. In another room on this lower floor he showed us the huge vacuum chamber where the 3.6 meter (148-inch) mirror is taken from time to time to be re-coated.
As we left the dome, Ralph took another picture of Rosemary and I standing outside the dome, looking westward toward other observatories on the summit. In this picture, below, can be seen (right to left) partially hidden by my
right arm, the NASA InfraRed Telescope
facility (IRTF), the twin domes of the Keck I and Keck II telescopes, the tall, cylindrical dome of the Subaru 8.2 meter telescope, and just down the hill to the left, the dishes of the Smithsonian Submillimeter Array & its support building, and, at the extreme left, the dome of the James Clerk Maxwell 15meter submillimeter dish, the
largest astronomical telescope in the world.
You'll note our jackets. They were definitely needed, as the temperature at the time this photo was snapped was a brisk 35 degrees, with about a 10 mile per hour breeze blowing out of the north! Hard to believe, but by the time we arrived back at our beachside resort that afternoon, the temperature was in the high 80's! In one day we had the opportunity to experience most of the big island's 8 climatic zones.
By now it was well past lunchtime, so we sat in our SUV and snacked on the sandwiches and drinks we had packed in our cooler.
bottom of page