Our latest trek and adventure was to the top of Mauna Kea. The big island is comprised of five volcanos and Mauna Kea is the tallest, topping out at 13,796. Not quite a 14er, but technically it is the tallest mountain in the world as measured from the sea floor. It is also one of the few places in the world that you can drive from sea level to almost 14k in just two hours. - and believe me your ears feel it.
We had heard the stargazing up on the mountain was unparalleled and we were not disappointed. We headed up about three in the afternoon, where it was a balmy 84 degrees at the condo - and only 30 at the summit.
Mauna Kea is home to more than a dozen of the worlds most powerful observatories including the Keck, the Suburu and the combined Canada, French Hawaii telescope (CFHT).
According to the astronomer that we spoke with, this particular summit is one of the best in the world for observatories because of a combination of factors, including its accessibility (you can drive to the top), it is very dry, so the air molecules contain very little precipitation that refracts light, and the light pollution from nearby cities is minimal. In fact, if you have ever been to the island you probably noticed that the street lights are yellow. The cities use a low pressure sodium street light that both reduces light pollution and emit light on a particular wavelength that can be filtered out by the telescopes.
The road up is paved until you get to the visitor center, which sits at about 9600 feet. This is a good stopping point to acclimate for a few minutes and check on the weather conditions at the summit. There are also dorms here and astronomers working on the summit are required to stop here for 24 hours prior to heading up. Divers are not allowed to go up if they have been in the water in the last 24 hours. This is also where all the stargazing happens. (more on that later) as the observatories are not open to the public. The visitor center has a collection of telescopes that can be used to view the sky - once dark. Getting to this point is an interesting drive as you literally go up, through the clouds. We experienced rain, fog and at one point visibility that was less than 100 yards… but then you break through above the clouds and it is a different world.
The last bit of road from the visitor center to the summit is dirt, bumpy and VERY steep. It ascends the last 4000 feet in just four miles. On a clear day, from here apparently you can see Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i and occasionally even Oahu. Four wheel drive is strongly recommended and I was again happy to have Jethro. We only saw Maui as the marine layer below was pretty thick this particular afternoon. - maybe we'll have to come back for sunrise.
We settled in and unpacked our picnic dinner and watched the world go by, - and an amazing sunset.
One of the observatories
Maui in the distance
waiting for sunset with our summit friends
We were not disappointed
The sunset with the Subaru (left) and twin Keck observatories in frame
At one point the light literally streaked across the sky
it was one of the best sunsets we have ever witnessed
As the sky darkened, the observatories all came to life - rotating in position and opening their observatory doors.
For my Colorado peeps - yes - there was snow on the summit - but just a little….
Once the sun set - everyone hopped back into their cars for the four mile trek back down to the visitor center. Here they had hot cocoa and several telescopes set up to view the night sky,along with several people on hand to explain what you were looking at. This particular night was perfect. We chose it on purpose, on some great advice, because it was a new moon - so it was very dark. The island does not create any clouds this high up, so it was completely clear and the milky way could be seen from one horizon to the other. I wish I had a camera that could have taken a picture to share. I have spent many nights in the Colorado mountains camping and seen many starry nights - but nothing like this before!
This is not my photo - but this IS a shot of the visitor center building we were at - and what we were able to see. In fact it was almost hard to pick out constellations. I only know a few, but the big and little dipper were actually hard to see - because there were so many other stars visible in-between the constellation it was hard to recognize. The astronomers had these very cool green laser pointers that they used to show you everything. We saw several shooting stars and you could even see satellites with the naked eye slowly crawling their way across the sky.
That night we were able to clearly see Jupiter with the naked eye and several of its moons through a telescope. We saw Saturn's rings and several zodiac constellations. my favorite part, however was to just sit and look up without a telescope. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!
There were a few people that had iPads or iPhones and a pretty nifty program that I have since downloaded.
Its called The Night Sky and is only 99 cents. It uses the iPad's GPS, compass and clock to determine your position and then will overlay the constellation and its name across what you are actually seeing. - God I love technology!
the other VERY COOL thing that the visitor center had was a powerful motor driven and satellite guided telescope connected to a Microsoft Surface.
If you have never seen one of these before click the link above (but then come back!) - it is an interactive coffee table sized computer and monitor and it's pretty nifty. I took this shot with my iPhone of the surface of the 'surface' ;-) Here the astronomer had focused in on the Orion Nebula - but you could ask him to find just about anything and he would hit a couple of key strokes. the telescope would reposition and the image would then display on the screen live. You could actually see Jupiters moons moving in real time.
The evening was amazing and a not to be missed experience if you are ever here.
I spent the next day with my toes in the sand - pondering my existence on this little blue ball.
More soon! - thanks for stopping by.