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A Paradise of Astronomical Proportions July 2, 2009

Posted by kanewbyscience in Astronomy, Observatory.
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EIU Astro welcomes Kristen Harvey who has her blog at:  http://kanewbyscience.wordpress.com/

Try to dream of a tropical paradise.  What do you see?  Palm trees?  Frozen drinks with umbrellas? Crashing waves?  That is what I had in mind; at least, until I discovered the paradise of astronomical proportions that sits at the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  When I planned my last two trips to the Big Island of Hawaii, I booked my time with palm trees, black sand beaches, and hikes deep within extinct lava tunnels.  I now realize that by doing this, I managed to overlook the obvious.

A state with an intense lighting ordinance to ensure for the darkest skies possible, Hawaii provides one of the clearest, most unique places to get a view of our expanding universe.  The nature of the island itself is what leads to the astronomical possibilities of this location.  Almost 14,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by ocean, the average cloud height is approximately 9000 feet, placing an observer high above the distortion of the clouds while at the summit.  The cloud layer also keeps observers free from atmospheric pollutants and excessive moisture.  This particular aspect puts Hawaii on the top ten list of clear sky proportions; producing close to 300 clear nights a year.

The summit has been an astronomical beacon since the early Polynesians who used the stars at their vantage point for navigation, astrology, agriculture, and astronomy.  Researchers have not been able to prove if the ancient Hawaiians themselves were making observations from Mauna Kea, but it is known that “kilo hoku”, or star watchers, were among the most respected of society members.  As the islands were later discovered by Captain James Cook in 1778, astronomy further developed its importance on the region.  Cook’s ships brought with them telescopes; over 100 years before the first permanent telescope was brought to the island in 1883 (West, Michael).  It was the University of Hawaii, during the 1960’s, however, that really pursued the possibility of astronomical observatories at the summit.  Mauna Kea now has thirteen functioning telescopes ranging in size and function.  This impressive list includes, arguably the most important, and notably the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world; the Keck telescopes.

A view from Mauna Kea showing the observatories that outline the summit. A view from Mauna Kea showing the observatories that outline the summit.

The summit provides opportunities for even the most amateur of astronomers.  A Visitor Information Station courtesy of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is a start.  With computers showing active feeds from Mauna Kea telescopes, videos, handouts, smaller telescopes for use by the public, tours, and stargazing programs this is an initial stop to get prepared for the actual summit.  Commercial tours are available to take you up and down the summit, although visitors and tours alike do not seem to be allowed at the summit after dark.  Several galleries along the summit are open during the day for viewing, but do not think you are going to walk up to the Keck and get your hands on a telescope.  Although galleries may be open, the telescopes themselves are off limits to the public and generally close by late afternoon as the professionals prepare for research and viewing after dusk.

Once the amateurs and tourists have left for the night, the research begins.  Exploration into the fields of astronomy being done through the use of the telescopes on Mauna Kea ranges far and wide.  From images and research on the sun and solar flares to planet formation and astrobiology, Mauna Kea is proving to be a center for education, research, and development when it comes to learning about our expanding universe.

Image of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, taken February 15, 2005 before the Cassini spacecraft's third flyby of the moon.  This image was taken with the Keck II telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea.  Photo courtesy W. M. Keck Observatory/SRI/New Mexico State University. Image of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, taken February 15, 2005 before the Cassini spacecraft’s third flyby of the moon. This image was taken with the Keck II telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. Photo courtesy W. M. Keck Observatory/SRI/New Mexico State University.

Now, as you contemplate your exotic tropical paradise once more, does it look a bit different?  I can tell you this; my next trip to the Big Island will include a visit up the Mauna Kea summit and a glance into a paradise of expanding magnitudes.

Links visited and helpful resources used while writing this post:

A Gentle Rain of Starlight: The Story of Astronomy on Mauna Kea; Text by Michael J. West

Mauna Kea Observatories

Mauna Kea Science Reserve

University of Hawaii; Institute for Astronomy

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