Wednesday 3rd July

Visit to Mauna Kea

We are now moving into the "And there's me on top of (insert your inaccessible mountain name here)"... territory. There will be lots of photographs. There will be 'amusing' anecdotes... but I hope that something of the flavour of the incidents comes over. This is, after all, partly for the poor souls who weren't there!

Mauna Kea was not too far from our hotel; you could see its giant bulk quite easily, its head swathed in cloud each morning, though as far as I know, the gleaming domes of the telescopes could not be seen - at least not without optical aid. We were accompanied by local teacher Alyce Ikeoka, who kept us informed about all sorts of background knowledge regarding plants, places, and a host of other things too diverse to mention. For instance, I learnt that there were Hawaiian cowboys, called Paniolos. The name comes from 'Hispaniolos' since the first ones were Spanish (well, actually Mexican, but they spoke Spanish). As a linguist, I love this sort of thing!
Cinder Cones on Mauna KeaWe climbed steadily but inexorably, and the land started to look less civilised and more volcanic - until at last I saw my first Hawaiian cinder cone! There's just something so desolately primeval about cinder cones. You could be on the Moon! Well, exercising a bit of poetic license you could, anyway. Their shapes scream "volcanic activity" at you, even though the activity may have been some time ago.
We were now quite high up, though not so high that anyone noticed any effects. We were due to stop soon at the Astronomy Visitor Centre at an altitude of about 9,000 feet to "acclimate" ourselves to the altitude but we made a brief stop before this to visit the traditional Hawaiian portable toilet facilities. And it was good to stretch our collective legs, too. As you can see, the high-altitude portaloo is exactly the same as its sea-level counterpart.portaloos.jpg - 59578 BytesThe site you see in the picture was close to a little military base. I dare say the military have proved themselves very useful in the past if there has been any dangerous volcanic activity! Mauna Kea is an extinct volcano these days, or so we hope, otherwise the Keck foundation, in addition to not having done its homework, will see millions of its dollars going up in smoke. There is, however, another military base in the volcanoes national park, very (extremely, actually!) close to Kilauea which is not only very much alive but is in fact the world's most continuously active volcano. Coincidence? I think not! There's an obvious Elvis connection here; Military - GI's - GI Blues - Blue Hawaii. Need I say more, or should I just put a stop to this rambling, irrelevant nonsense now? I don't even like Elvis. Elvish, yes; Elvis - mm, not really. Yes, I really think I should - it's getting, in the immortal words of John Cleese - too silly.

Many of us were quite taken with the Visitor Center, named after a Mr. Onizuka, a member of the ill-fated Challenger shuttle who came from Hawaii. Several large (to amateurs) telescopes were standing outside, though they all looked like these new-fangled equatorial mounts with all the bells and whistles. Incidentally, throughout the week, I was throwing out challenges to anyone with a "goto" facility that I could beat all that expensive technology in finding (say) five variable stars, chosen at random, or by the challenger. The offer still stands!
Inside the centre, videos on astronomy are constantly running, and there is a well-stocked shop-cum-advice centre, where they sell (of course) Mars Bars and Milky Way - I suppose in case your tummy feels like a black hole... Speaking of food, each of us had a brown paper bundle well-stocked with snacks, sandwiches and general filling stuff before the ascent. In the middle distance, high above us, we could see tiny vehicles coming down from the high reaches of Mauna Kea, raising clouds of powdered scoria from the switchback road to the summit. This road was clearly one of those specially constructed for the use of astronomers, i.e., gouged out of the rock and then left untouched.

Even before we reached the visitor center, ears had started popping, and they were going off like farts in a baked bean factory as we climbed the final ascent between the visitor center and the summit, up the very roads we had just watched the seemingly-tiny trucks come down! The strangest sensations of all by far were those encountered when our minibus doors slid back and we breathed the thin air at 14,000 feet altitude. I am a fit and fairly hardy soul, but felt decidedly light-headed and not quite with the world for a couple of minutes, so reined in my initial desire to go bounding among the endless cinder cones like a young mountain goat.

View across crater looking at telescopesEverything was so quiet up here, and any thoughts of doing my impression of Jimmy Cagney "look at me, ma! Top of the world!" were stifled. It was, seriously, a reverent quiet. Even inside the dome of a large telescope, sound gets lost easily, but it would be even more so at this altitude, with less air for sound waves to propagate through. The four sentinels in the photo here are, l to r, The Subaru Telescope (Subaru, by the way, is the Japanese name for the Pleiades, which also explains why you'll see stars on a Subaru vehicle); The Keck Twins and the NASA IRTF (InfraRed Telescope Facility). We were warned to expect relentless Sun, with of course more UV rays penetrating the thin atmosphere, but as you can see, the clouds were out in force, and the forms were changing dramatically.

yours truly outside the KeckInside the Keck dome, what really struck me was how cold everything is! That's because the dome has to be chilled to minimise temperature differences between inside and outside when the slits are opened, so even though it was cold outside, it was even colder inside! But I'm getting somewhat in advance of myself here.
Now there are those who claim technology can never be beautiful, but they've clearly not seen the mighty Keck domes - made even more inspiring by their contrast with the stark background of red scoria and cinder cones. Some idea of the majestic scale of the observatory can be gathered by looking at 'little' me in the photo!
We were met and shown around the facility by a resident astronomer, and already someone was on the verge of passing out from the effects of the thin air. In fact, they keep long padded seats here purely for that purpose, so the lady concerned was made comfortable.
Any non-astronomers reading this will need to know that nobody at a professional observatory ever looks through a telescope with their eyes these days! For one thing, many of the 'eye-end' optics are not actually there for visual purposes, but to record images in many regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Even when observing in the visual band, CCD's (Charged Couple Devices) are invariably used, as they can transmit the image to a computer, where the astronomers can manipulate and record it. They don't even have to be at the observatory, or even in the same Country. CCDs are, in addition, far more sensitive than our eyes. A final very good reason why no astronomer ever sits and gazes through the eyepiece is that, in these conditions, they would soon succumb to hypothermia!

After a tour of the telescopes, whether optical, infra-red or whatever, it was time to head down again. But, like all the amateurs present, I thought it would be rather neat to stow away somewhere and wait until the stars came out. I could even catch a star such as V1028 Cyg at minimum with the Keck. Wouldn't that look good in some future report -

"V1028 Cyg - 18.5 - Instrument = 10000mm reflector..."
If, however, I thought this was the best day so far, I hadn't planned for Saturday and the trip to the volcanoes!