Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world- taller than the mount Everest – if measured from its base – 10,200 m. However most of it is hidden below the sea level.
In 2009, on my first trip to Hawaii, I had a chance to view the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea. For some reason, it also happened to be the International Year of Astronomy. That was the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. Truly, it looks like I happen to be on another planet. For some reason, it reminded me the scene from “The Goblin Reservation” by Clifford D.Simak, where Professor Peter Maxwell is telling a story about the crystal planet he visited. Actually there is nothing in common between the summit and the crystal planet, but still I got this impression. Probably because the summit of Mauna Kea hosts the world’s largest astronomical observatory operated by astronomers from 11 countries. 13 huge telescopes stand out like a frontiers to the outer space. And this makes a sharp contrast to the barren terrain and enormous views. The combined light-gathering power of Mauna Kea telescopes is 15 times greater than of the Palomar telescope in California, which was for many years the world’s largest one.
The perception of begin on another planet actually has its ground, because Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Kilauea currently serve as the best training grounds for missions to Mars. Scientists believe that their formations and mineral compositions are very similar to those we can find on Mars.
In a press release issued 11/02/2012, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that the first Martian soil sample taken by Curiosity has minerals similar to the weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origins found in Hawaii.
Big Island (and particularly Mauna Kea) is the preferred place to train Mars rovers for a couple of reasons:
1) it has the lava fields which are similar to the types of volcanic environments expected on Mars,
2) Mauna Kea provides a lot of windblown sand and dust from glaciation that is very similar to the sand dunes observed on Mars.
The actual summit is just south east of the observatory complex.
We manage to get there 2 hours before the sunset and we had time to walk that trail that goes to the summit. There we found a US Geological Survey benchmark telling that we are at the summit of Mauna Kea — 13,796 feet above sea level. The summit is the Hawaiian sacred place. There is another trail that goes to Lake Waiau, which is also a Hawaiian sacred site. However, it was a short – one mile round trip walk, it took us about an hour to complete this trail and return back. I mean hiking in high altitudes is hard.
There are 2 the most amazing moments at the sunset, first, when telescopes start to open their domes right before the sunset, and the second when the Sun sank below the clouds, which act like a fake horizon. When the sun sets below the clouds, it is still above the real horizon. One can see bright shape of the Sun shinning through the clouds until it actually sinks below the real horizon below.
See more photos here.
Guy Webster, Rachel Hoover, Dwayne Brown (2012). NASA Rover’s First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals NASA web site
Tom Bush, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, Pierce College Puyallup, Lynn Simmons, Geophysicist, USGS at the University of Washington, & Don Swanson, Geologist, USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (2009). GEOLOGY OF KĪLAUEA VOLCANO AND
NEARBY LOCATIONS OF MAUNA LOA AND
MAUNA KEA VOLCANOES, BIG ISLAND OF
HAWAI’I Northwest Geological Society