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The Many Faces of Mauna Kea

July 18, 2012

Soon I will be venturing off for astronomical “field work”, which takes me to the beautiful island of Hawaii.

Many people, when they think of Hawaii, may envision beautiful beaches of sparkling sand; Hawaii boasts gorgeous beaches of sparkling white, black, grey, red, or even green sand, with colors reflection the various minerals of the region. Or, they may think of the amazing sea life in the reefs surrounding the Hawaiian islands, where fishes of seemingly almost any color and wandering sea turtles can be seen simply by putting your head in the water.

Astronomers often think not (only) of these oceanic pleasures, but rather of the mountain called Mauna Kea, where some of the world’s most state-of-the-art ground-based astronomical observatories reside.

Mauna Kea, or “white mountain”, stands at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in Hawaii. However, Mauna Kea also exceeds 33,000 feet from its origin on the Pacific ocean floor, making it the highest mountain on Earth as measured from base-to-peak. (Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth at over 29,000 feet, measured from sea level).

On the road to Mauna Kea

On the road to Mauna Kea, looming in the distance. Photo: R. L. Smith

Astronomy on Mauna Kea: As an astronomical observing site, Mauna Kea is one of the world’s best. For instance, the mountain is extremely dry, pure, and free of pollutants. The dry atmosphere is an important factor for observing in infrared and sub millimeter wavelengths. It is also cloud-free, yielding the one of the highest proportion of clear nights per year in the world. The extreme stability of the atmosphere at the summit permits detailed observational studies, and the absences from city lights yields a very dark sky, allowing observation of very faint and distant objects, such as far-away galaxies.

There are currently 13 working telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea. Nine are for optical and infrared astronomy, three are for sub millimeter wavelength astronomy, and one is for radio astronomy. The twin 10-meter (~33 foot) Keck telescopes, termed Keck I and Keck II, are the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world, and enable astronomers to probe the local and distant Universe with power and precision.

My research involves using a powerful instrument called NIRSPEC on the Keck II telescope for observing infrared radiation from the gas surrounding forming stars in our Galaxy.

Submillimeter Array radio observatory on Mauna Kea

Submillimeter Array radio observatory on Mauna Kea. Photo: R. L. Smith

R. L. Smith on Mauna Kea summit

R. L. Smith on Mauna Kea summit. Observatories:
L-R: Subaru, Keck I, Keck II, NASA Infrared Telescope Facility

R. L. Smith standing next to the Keck II dome on Mauna Kea

R. L. Smith standing next to the Keck II dome on Mauna Kea

Observing at the Keck Telescopes is open via a competitive proposal process, and is not open to the general public. Because many astronomers suffered from altitude sickness when observing at the summit, the Keck Observatory built a state-of-the-art observing headquarters in Waimea, a few miles from the mountain, where all visiting astronomers observing during their allocated time reside and conduct their research.

The road to Mauna Kea is precarious in parts, and requires proper vehicle arrangements and altitude acclimation partway up to the summit. Sometimes the roads are covered in ice and snow near the summit. But, winter or summer, the views are breathtaking, and worth the trip!

Road to Mauna Kea

Road to Mauna Kea. Photo: R. L. Smith

Wintry scene en route to summit

Wintry scene en route to summit. Photo: R. L. Smith

Cloud layer below summit road on Mauna Kea

Cloud layer below summit road on Mauna Kea. Photo: R. L. Smith

The Sacred Mountain: Believing that the highest points of land were the most sacred, early Polynesians deemed Mauna Kea — The highest point in Pacific Polynesia — one of its most sacred mountains. Mauna Kea was used as a site for early Hawaiian religious practices, astronomy, and tool making. Ninety-three holy Hawaiian sites have been identified along the upper regions of Mauna Kea. Long-term use of Mauna Kea as a world-class astronomical base requires balancing this need with maintaining irreplaceable landmarks in Hawaiian culture.

Interesting Flora: The highly endangered endemic plant, the Mauna Kea Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense var. sandwicense) thrives in the high elevation of this volcano. This federally declared endangered species was driven to the alpine zone of Mauna Kea by the pressures of livestock.

Mauna Kea Silversword

Mauna Kea Silversword. Photo: Brooks Rownd

Interesting Fauna: The flightless Wēkiu bug (Nysius wekiuicola) lives at over 12,000 feet on the summit area of Mauna Kea. This bug has the unusual adaptation of feeding on dead insect carcasses that are blown up to the top of the mountain. This insect has natural antifreeze in its blood to survive the cold of the mountaintop.

Wekiu bug

Wekiu bug. Photo: Institute for Astronomy, Hawaii

***Stay tuned for a new, higher-tech tour of the Mauna Kea summit, to be produced during our next observing run!***

Follow these links for more info about Mauna Kea and Hawaii:

The telescopes on Mauna Kea:
Video of tour Keck Observatory:
Live web cams at various Mauna Kea observatories:
Mauna Kea and Hawaiian culture:
Mauna Kea Silversword:
Mauna Kea Wekiu bug:
The colors of Hawaiian sand:
Hawaiian marine life:

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 19, 2012 3:12 pm

    Reblogged this on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Blogs and commented:

    By Rachel L. Smith

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