When we were planning our trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we read about the Mauna Kea Observatory, one of the most important nighttime sky observatories on the planet. Due to its location (both its latitude and the isolation of the Hawaiian islands), and the height of Mauna Kea’s summit (13,803 feet), Mauna Kea provides some unparalleled opportunities for studying astronomy, and several countries have built incredible telescopes there. They range in size from a “little” 2.2 meter telescope to a gargantuan 15 meter telescope!!!! The general public can’t use these telescopes up on the summit of the mountain, of course, but there is a visitor information station at 9,200 feet, and the public is welcome there for FREE stargazing every evening. Through donations from the public, they have purchased several very, very powerful telescopes that are set up each evening and manned by volunteer astronomy buffs, and it’s free for anyone to go up there and look through them.
They start each evening with the showing of the movie First Light at 6:00. The movie is interesting, with information on the observatory, the telescopes, disagreements between locals and scientists, planning for the future, and other topics. However, the movie is really much too long for most visitors, especially children. The viewing space is also pretty small, and since we arrived right at 6:00 PM, we had to stand for much of the movie (until a lot of people got bored and left).
When we arrived, there was a heavy cloud cover, and I was thinking we wouldn’t be able to see any stars. A park ranger had told me that they usually get a good inversion up there, though, causing the clouds sink below the 9000 foot level, so we went in to watch the movie and hoped it would work that night. When we came out after the movie, the clouds had begun to clear and in no time at all, the sky was completely clear. Hurray! As it got darker, more and more stars appeared as well as the Milky Way. It was beautiful. It was also freezing up there. Luckily, we had packed for two climates in our carry-ons, so we were prepared.
Once it got dark enough, the volunteers set up the telescopes and let people take a look. They usually try to focus on different things in the sky so people can view different things. We got to see some of the stripes on Jupiter and three of its moons, Orion’s sword, and, best of all, a brand new supernova that had only been discovered the week before. For more info on that supernova’s discovery, try this link. If you’re interested in telescopes, here’s the scoop on the telescope, according to one of the volunteers: the telescope we used was the 16 inch Meade Schmidt-Cassagrian and the eyepiece was a Collins 3rd generation thin film image tube. It is a photo multiplier tube which is similar to the night vision used by the military. This particular type of eyepiece is also on the NASA 120-inch infrared telescope and the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea! This eyepiece gives an average gain of 100x in light signal or 5 magnitudes and increases the telescope gain like increasing the mirror diameter 10x. Now that’s a scoop!
I took a few photos through the eyepiece of the telescope. They’re not going to win any photo contests, but a volunteer said that my photo of the supernova was the first photo of it he’d seen. He was awfully excited. Turns out, however, that upon further inspection my photo wasn’t actually of the supernova. Oh well – as long as we saw it, that’s the important thing. We call these kind of photos “proof photos” at our house.
One of the volunteers, Cliff, also gave a brief “star tour” using the most kick butt laser pointer we’d ever seen! That thing was amazing. It could really reach all the way to Jupiter I think! He pointed out all kinds of stars and constellations, most of which I’ve already forgotten, although I was determined to remember them. I always want to remember constellations, but I have a hard time with those. If you have any tips or tricks for remembering them, I’d love to hear them.
I would highly recommend this experience. Seeing all those stars is spectacular. It’s a really incredible opportunity that most of us don’t have because we live in cities with way too much light pollution. (Well, that and we don’t have those cool telescopes.) There are commercial tours that will take you up to the summit for sunset and then bring you down to the visitor information center afterward for stargazing as well. They’re expensive, so we didn’t do that, but if money is no object, that would be pretty cool, too.
We’re always interested in great places to watch the stars, so if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments. Enjoy your week or your weekend!