Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Visit to Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii

On our 40th wedding anniversary my wife and I went to Kona, Hawaii to celebrate.

When I realized that some of the great observatories were on that island we booked a ride with a tour group (

I am so glad we did as I could sit back and enjoy the ride, the views, and ask the tour guide all the questions I wanted.

We left Kona, Hawaii (sea level elevation) at about 3:00 pm and drove north up the coastal route and then headed east on the new highway towards Hilo (He-low) on what has been called the Saddle Road (because it is the "low" route between the great shield volcano Mauna Loa and the more upright Mauna Kea). The white specks on Maunakea are just a few of the observatories...

Then taking to road north to the Maunokea Visitor Information Station (which is at the 9,200 foot elevation).

Our guides...
It is best to stop there to get acclimated to the thinner air for at least 30+ minutes as the peak of Mauna Kea is just barely short of 14,000 feet ! Just a short jog at the visitor station confirmed that the air was thin!

A scope was up and running showing visitors the solar disk...

...which was blank (no sunspots).

While there we enjoyed a three cheese lasagna,
a huge brownie, both delicious!

And, of course, I had to hit the gift shop!

Cap, hoodie, patches, postcards... tourist!

After lightening my wallet we loaded back up in the tour van (very comfy) and continued up the zig-zagging road that is just barely wider than two vehicles side by side.

Great views out the large windows. Maunaloa is in the distance.
We were set at ease by the driver who has experience with this dusty, rocky road, often driving directly into the Sun. 

Finally, at the top there were the observatories! What a sight!

We got out and took in the views and the sunset in comfort as we were provided with warm parkas and gloves. They were definitely needed as there was a brisk wind ready to push you over the edge!

One obs was under repair... I can't imagine what it would be like to be on that scaffolding, that high up, and with that wind!

We stayed long enough to see the Sun set and a couple of the observatories begin to open their shutters for the night's work.

As most of these observatories (see this list) need total darkness and a dust free environment, it is required that all visitors and vehicles evacuate shortly after sunset. It gets dark quickly this close to the equator (a hair under 20 degrees N) even in summer. On the way down darkness descended and again we were grateful to have an experienced driver at the wheel.

Reaching the 9,200 foot level again near the visitor information center, we pulled over and our tour guide broke out a Celestron 11 inch SCT scope and gave the group a chance to peer into the cosmos.

Sadly, the view wasn't as great as you might have expected because the Moon was waxing and was at about first quarter, which was flooding the night sky, making dim objects harder to see. I was able to coax the guide to point it to Omega Centauri, the great globular cluster which I will never see from central Oregon. I had to use averted vision to see it in the glare of the Moon but I could make out a few of the brighter stars within it. For me, I spent a little time trying to do some wide angle night sky photography. And I put out a little effort to image Omega Centauri with my Canon t3i camera with several lenses.

A little hot chocolate later and we were back in the van about 11 pm and heading back to the city of Kona... again glad we had a driver who could stay awake while we dozed!

Back in the Kona Seaside Hotel again it was past midnight but we were contented and pleased to have put out the money for this tour. I would highly recommend it!

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