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Visiting Mauna Kea  is much more than a mere chance to watch a beautiful tropical sunset. It is  more like going to Cape Canaveral to view a rocket launch. It is about touching frontiers of our expanding Universe.

October 4, 2013

The Big Island is created by the activities of  five volcanoes – Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. The sixth one – Lo’ihi is currently busy building a new island near the south coast of the Big Island.

the best seeing on the planet


Mauna Kea observatories at sunset. We are well above the cloud layer


Keck and Subaru at sunset

Mauna Kea telescopes at sunset

Mauna Kea telescopes at sunset

The mountain’s altitude (~ 4200 meters) and its location in the middle of the Pacific ocean makes Manuna Kea an ideal place for ground-based astronomy. Currently, it hosts 13 independent multi-national astronomical research facilities.

Because of its unique location – in the middle of Pacific Ocean – Mauna Kea provides an excellent conditions for astronomical observations. The worst enemies of both professional and amateur astronomers are absent (almost) on Mauna Kea.

Light pollution is minimal.  The Big Island has a population of ~ 150,000 people (as of the 2000 census). And the population of its largest city Hilo has is about 40,000 people.  That is like my native town 40 years ago. The biggest city of the islands –  Honolulu – is 290 km away.

The observatories are located above ~40% of the Earth’s atmosphere, which means they are also above both the clouds layer and  the inversion layer.

The air flow is also much less turbulent on the summit, since  it is uninterrupted by large land forms.

Humidity is very low. A thick tropical inversion cloud layer located well below the summit isolates the upper atmosphere from the  moist ocean air. This provides air which is pure, dry (less than 10% relative humidity), and free from common pollutants, such as dust and/or smog. Seeing on Mauna Kea is often around 0.5 arcsec and even less.

Because of these excellent conditions, observations on Mauna Kea can be done at longer wavelengths reaching from visual to infrared and even to sub-millimeter ranges. These wavelengths are usually blocked by water vapor present in the atmosphere, but Mauna Kea offers the best conditions for the infrared and sub-millimeter astronomy.

Near summit

Mauna Kea, or known by its original name Mauna a Wakea (Wakea, sometimes translated as “Sky Father”) is a sacred place for Hawaiians. On the third Saturday of the month, the Visitor Center hosts Malalo o ka Po Lani, a special presentation covering cultural components that surround Mauna O Wakea. The presentation begins at 6:00 PM and is followed by the regular evening stargazing program.

Sunset at the summit

Sunset at the summit

There is no observatories on the actual summit, they all located on a flat  below.

Andrey Summit

Andrey at the summit

As you come to the first small telescope building you will note the trail to the very top of Mauna Kea.  The peak is actually on the rim of a cinder cone and the trail goes around that rim with the more direct route outlined with rock curbs.  The US Geological Survey benchmark will tell you that you’re at the summit of Mauna Kea—13,796 feet above sea level. It currently stands about 16” above the current surface of the ground but does mark the actual summit.

The summit of Mauna Kea lies above the tree line, and consists of mostly lava rock and alpine tundra. An area of heavy snowfall, it is inhospitable to vegetation, and is known as the Hawaiian tropical high shrub lands.

View from the summit

View from the summit

The summit offers some of the most amazing views. It looks like you could be on another planet. The huge telescopes below stand out in contrast to the barren terrain and the vast views all around.


Mauna Kea observatories labeled. Image copyright Richard Wainscoat (http://www.twilightlandscapes.com/Twilight_Landscapes/Astronomy_-_Visiting_Hawaii.html)

Mauna Kea observatories labeled. Image copyright Richard Wainscoat (http://www.twilightlandscapes.com/Twilight_Landscapes/Astronomy_-_Visiting_Hawaii.html)

The UHH 24/36 inch telescope is owned and operated by the University of Hawaii at Hilo and used a teaching tool for students. It is currently under renovation – the 24 inch mirror is being replaced by a bigger 36 inch mirror and the telescope is updated to be remotely operated.

The UH 88 inch (2.2.m): The oldest “large” telescope on the mountain. Built in 1970.


NASA Infrared Telescope Facility

The 3 meter NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) is dedicated primarily for planetary science. It takes advantage of the extreme clarity (at infrared wavelengths) of Mauna Kea’s dry atmosphere.

The 3.6 meter Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) was built in the late 70s. CFHT is equipped with large, prime focus cameras for optical and infrared imaging.

The 3.8 meter United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is designed solely for infrared (IR) astronomy,to work at wavelengths from 1 to 20 microns. It is largest infrared-only telescope in the world.


Gemini North at sunset. The most beautiful telescope

The Gemini North telescope ( 8.1 meter ). It is one of the international twin telescopes (the other brother is located on Cerro Pachon in Chile) designed to provide access to both hemispheres of the sky. Gemini is a primarily infrared optimized telescope, but it also provides means to observe in visible spectra. The US owns 50% of both telescopes, the remainder is shared by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

The Subaru telescope is an 8.2-meter optical-infrared telescope, operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

The 10 meter Keck Twins: are the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.

The 15m James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) is the lar


Keck and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility at sunset

gest astronomical telescope that operates in submillimetre wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (far-infrared to microwave). It is used to study our Solar System, interstellar dust and gas, and distant galaxies.


Submillimeter Array dishes look like a baby birds. It is fun to watch how they turn they antennas

The Submillimeter Array (SMA) consists of eight 6-metre radio telescopes arranged as an interferometer for submillimeter wavelength observations. The SMA is a multi-purpose instrument which can be used to observe star-forming molecular clouds, highly redshifted galaxies, evolved stars, and the Galactic Center> It also used to observe planets, asteroids, comets, and moons, and other celestial bodies.

One receiver from the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA).

Access inside the telescopes

Access inside the telescopes is limited.  These telescopes are very busy facilities with telescope time is estimated as 50K$$ for a night (Keck), so conducting tours is not something most telescopes do.

There are a few options though:

  • Keck has a small gallery which is open 10AM to 4PM Monday through Friday (with a nice restroom).  The gallery has a few posters and a viewing room where one can  take a look at the giant telescope.
  • Subaru and Gemini offer group tours of their telescopes,  but that require arrangements made beforehand.  Check their web sites or call them for current information on tours.
  • The Mauna Kea Visitor Center offers guided summit tours on Saturday and Sundays.  Meet at the Visitor Center at 1PM for a video orientation (which is also an important acclimatization stop).  You’re required to have your own 4- wheel drive vehicle, but you’ll get a guided tour of the summit and a visit to the Keck viewing gallery.


Mauna Kea telescopes at sunset

Mauna Kea telescopes at sunset

The most amazing moment which everybody is waiting for on the summit is  when the sun sank below the clouds. The clouds act like a fake horizon, so when the sun sets below the clouds, its still

over the actual horizon. So one can see 2 sunsets – one when the sun goes  through the clouds and another one when it actually sinks below the real horizon.

One of the coolest things I have ever seen!


Sunset almost