The Summit of Mauna Kea
Figure 1 - Map: The Big Island of Hawaii By Vaughn & Cornelia Dragland

(* Click any picture for a full-size view.)

The first time the two of us went to Hawaii, we timed it for the best viewing of Haley's Comet, (March 1986.) The experience of seeing the comet hovering over Hilo Bay just before dawn will stay with us forever. The naked eye view was great, but in binoculars the sight was truly spectacular!

Chance would have it that the last really good total solar eclipse of the twentieth century was to pass directly over the "Big Island" of Hawaii on July 11, 1991. What a great excuse for a return visit! On the morning of the eclipse, we were set up at the Francis E. E. Brown Golf Course, near Mauna Lani, up the road from Kailua Kona. With telescopes, solar filters, and all sorts of astronomical paraphernalia, we were ready... Just before totality, the clouds parted and the seven-minute epiphany began! If you've ever experienced a total solar eclipse, you know that it's difficult to describe the feeling. It is awesome - almost spiritual.

So when we finally were able to return to our beloved Hawaiian Islands in March/April 2000, we wanted to continue the astronomical thread somehow. We checked the star charts and scanned the web sites, but there was nothing in particular happening in the sky at that time. What to do? Then we realized that we had never been up to the summit of Mauna Kea...

Mauna Kea ("White Mountain") is a dormant shield volcano on the island of Hawaii, (the largest island in the Hawaiian chain - Figure 1). Because of its unique combination of altitude, latitude, political stability, and isolation, Mauna Kea is probably the very best place in the world to put a telescope. It's high and dry, and situated at latitude 19o50' N which allows for observing 88% of the constellations in the sky. (With links to its "sister site" in Chile, astronomers can see 100%.)

We booked a tour bus that picked us up in Kona with 4 other couples, and we were off on our excellent adventure!

On the Road
The ride up the mountain was an interesting experience on its own! As our 4-wheel drive Subaru snaked up the narrow winding road, our colorful "tour guide" kept us entertained with historical anecdotes, comments on the flora & fauna, and lots of jokes. ("We have a parka and mittens for everyone to use at the top since it's so cold up there. How cold is it? It's so cold that lawyers have their hands in their own pockets!") About 3/4 of the way up, the pavement ends and the gravel begins. Our driver said that was on purpose. Even though the dust from the gravel road can sometimes affect the telescopes at the top, it serves to discourage hoards of tourists from driving up in their rental cars. Many do attempt it anyway. Our driver said you can often see them at the side of the road, waiting for the tow truck to get them back down.

In the Visitor Center
At the 9,300 ft. level we arrived at the Visitors Information Station. Here we had to wait for an hour to decompress the nitrogen level in our bodies, before venturing into the even more rarefied air at the summit. Because of the extreme altitude of Mauna Kea, (13,796 feet) astronomers and technicians must acclimatize and live at an intermediate altitude. The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (also known as Hale Pohaku - Hawaiian for "Stone House") has living facilities for up to 72 people working at the summit, as well as the visitor center and other support buildings. There is also a nifty astronomy bookstore and gift shop to make the wait enjoyable.

At the Summit
Figure 2 - Panorama of telescopes on Mauna Kea We arrived at the summit about 30 minutes before sunset, with our mittens and arctic parkas. (Figure 2) Almost immediately, we began to experience hypoxia. This is the strange sensation caused by low oxygen levels in the brain. The symptoms are mild euphoria, dizziness, a bit of anxiety, and dull wittedness. We both felt really stupid, almost embarrassed, that we found it difficult to figure out how to work the camera. But picture taking was a must. The view was utterly incredible! And as the sun began to set on the Pacific ocean, the sights became more and more amazing with each passing minute.

Figure 3 - The Kilauea Volcano It was fascinating to look in the opposite direction from the setting sun, and see the huge conical shadow of Mauna Kea resting on the bank of clouds below. It was also interesting to look across at the other large shield volcano on Hawaii - Mauna Loa ("Black Mountain").

Figure 4 - Kilauea's lava meets the Pacific On its flanks, a new active rift has formed, (Figure 3) where lava has been flowing from the Kilauea east rift at the rate of 4 cubic yards of magma per second since 1986. A few days earlier we had stood on the south shore and watched lava pour from it into the ocean. (Figure 4)

Figure 5 - The Geminii Northern telescope, with the CFH in the background At the time of writing, there were 13 observatories on Mauna Kea. Follow this link for a complete list:

Despite the hypoxia, we managed to snap a few photos of them. Pictured in Figure 5 is the Gemini Northern Telescope, an 8.1meter optical telescope owned by a group of seven countries, including Canada. To the left, in the background, is the CFHT (Canada France Hawaii Telescope).

Figure 6 - The twin Keck Telescopes Figure 7 - The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope Figure 6 shows the twin 10 meter telescopes of the Keck Observatory, (Like big binoculars!) They are owned by the University of California.

Next is the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, a sub-millimeter observatory, shown in Figure 7. With a 15 meter diameter primary mirror, the JCMT is the largest telescope in the world. It was recently involved in the discovery of the largest Kuiper Belt object yet seen, and is used in the search for more extra-solar planets.

Here is an interesting photo (Figure 8) with the twin Kecks on the left, the Gemini Observatory on the right, and in the distant background - the Island of Maui! The camera is facing west, just before sunset.

Figure 8 - The Kecks, with Maui in the distance

In the closer background, way down below, you can see the western shoreline of Hawaii. And if you look really closely, with a little imagination you can see our hotel (Figure 9) and our beach (Figure 10). Figure 9 - Our Hotel

Figure 10 - Our Beach

After Dark
Once the sun had set, we ventured back down the winding road to the Visitors Center at the 9,300 ft. level. By the time we got there it was pitch black. There wasn't as much as a match light for miles around and not a single cloud above us! While we dined on hot soup and subs, our Tour Guide unpacked his 8 inch Meade reflector from the top of the bus, and assembled it on a flat surface. This was no ordinary bus driver from Atlanta! How he managed to accomplish the setup of this complex instrument in the total darkness, is a mystery.

We looked at the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter first, since these two planets were setting quickly in the West. Then we perused the colorful Orion Nebula, and few galaxies and globular clusters whose names we've forgotten. By this time the Coma Berences had risen in the East, and we had a really great look at this wonderful "cache of jewels". Then more open clusters, binary stars, and various nebula. It was like "drinking from a fire hydrant! Too much, too fast, but what an experience!

Go there. Do it.

Links to more information

Figure 11 - Vaughn & Cornelia Dragland Vaughn and Cornelia Dragland (Figure 11) are primarily "armchair astronomers" who live in light polluted Toronto, Canada. They do a little actual observing when they can find a dark sky. They love to chase eclipses and plan to retire in Hawaii someday, (God and NASDAQ willing.) They can be reached at 416-622-8789.

Back to the list of stories