Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oh! what a day, oh! what a night!

Wow.

Observing on the mountain is intense.

It's not so much the lower atmospheric pressure, at least for me. The temperature and dryness of the air are far more pressing issues, to my mind. I don't like being cold at the best of times, and the sharp pain in my nasal passages accompanying each breath reminded me of agonizing winters spent in California where the humidity was so low my nose would hurt for days at a time. Though, having said that, I did have a good time and I'm glad I went.

Hualālai visible in the background.

After I posted last time, I had supper, then the four of us drove up to Subaru with the telescope operators. Our purpose was not to observe (that was Monday night) but to get some time up at the summit in order to acclimate better. The sunset was quite beautiful, as you can see in the picture. The mountain peak in the distance is Hualālai, the third most active of the five volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaiʻi. I was delighted to see it, because it is almost always covered in clouds, and I've only been able to see it clearly once or twice before. Cloud cover was relatively low Sunday night, allowing me to get this picture of Maui and the west Kohala coast.
Haleakalā on Maui visible on the horizon.
We didn't stay up at the summit very long Sunday night, instead coming down to Hale Pōhaku and staying up late so we could get in good naps on the morrow.


That morning (Monday), I discovered that the heater in my room very definitely did not work, as after leaving it on all night the temperature was a balmy 59.6 °F in my room when I woke up (thank goodness for the electric blanket on the bed!). The outside temperature, however, turned out to be surprisingly warm (except for a brisk wind), so after breakfast I and the two other students went on a hike in order to tire ourselves out so we could sleep well in the afternoon.

Hiking around on Mauna Kea is something I've long wanted to do and only rarely been able to. We hiked up to the summit of a puʻu (cinder cone) west of Hale Pōhaku and got some great pictures, such as the 360° panorama of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai below. You'll need to click on this one to really be able to see it, and in fact this copy that I've uploaded is a mere 20% of the size of the original on my computer, which is a whopping 16325 x 2000 pixels!
From left to right: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai.


There are all kinds of strange rocks to be found on Mauna Kea. I took pictures of these two that I thought looked exceptionally strange. The first reminds me of a giant clam, and the second made me think of an armadillo. I also found one that I initially thought was an out-of-place granite, until I turned it over and found the characteristic rough brown exterior of Mauna Kea rocks. Sometimes you find rocks from deeper down in the crust that look very different from the usual surface rocks on the mountain.



From the vantage point afforded by the puʻu, I was able to look down and snap this idyllic shot of Hale Pōhaku and the Vis:

Little House on the Big Mountain.
And the clear mid-morning skies allowed me get another picture of Hualālai over the tops of the māmane trees growing on Mauna Kea's slopes.
Subalpine māmane forests of Mauna Kea, Hualālai in background.
Māmane trees (Sophora chrysophylla) are a kind of plant in the pea and bean family found only on the Hawaiian isles. They have very pretty yellow flowers that I don't usually get to see. I think the reason for their heavy flowering may have to do with the fact that the area around the Vis recently received some moderately heavy rainfall. I also got to see some of the native, endangered palila (a type of honeycreeper) that live in the māmane forests and are only found on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea between 6,500 to 9,500 feet. They have a pretty coloration, although I didn't get to see one up close.

Māmane tree, looking south-east towards the Saddle.

While climbing (or more accurately, sliding) back down to Hale Pōhaku for lunch the three of us had a somewhat strange experience where we all smelled a strong sulfurous smell for a short time. It lasted for no more than a minute at most, and its source is currently unknown, although the simplest explanation may be that Mauna Kea is not quite extinct yet, and that pockets of gas may make their way to the surface from time to time.

After lunch and a very disorienting nap (now I remember why I don't sleep in the daytime!), it was time to ascend the summit and begin our night of observation in earnest. Since the data we were getting was not the kind I have been working with, I had no real responsibilities, and was simply able to watch and learn. The experience was quite interesting – I don't think I'd be able to observe on my own after one night watching, but I definitely feel I'd be able to learn. After some trouble getting the telescope focused at the beginning of the evening, the rest of the night passed pretty much uneventfully, with exposure after exposure flowing in from the instrument we were using (an infrared spectrometer called MOIRCS [Multi-Object Infrared Camera and Spectrograph]).

Actually, there was one rather cool event that happened, and that was that I got to use night-vision goggles for the first time. Subaru keeps a few pairs on hand in case of necessity, and the telescope operator let us try them out. It really is true what they say, that you can't see the stars as well from the summit as you can from lower in elevation (due to lack of oxygen, which your eyes need in large amounts in order to function at peak performance). However, night-vision goggles clear that all up, and then some. We first tried them out about 9 `o clock, and were able to observe several meteors that would have been too faint for the naked eye to see. The ones we saw seemed to be coming from the direction of Taurus, which had just barely climbed above the horizon, so we decided to wait and try again later when it had risen higher.

We pretty much forgot until about 5 o’ clock in the morning when I went out again. By this time, Orion and Taurus where optimally suited for viewing from our small balcony, so I turned the goggles' wide field of view on them and simply watched. And then, oh the sights! Auē, as you would say in Hawaiian. The sheer number of meteors was astounding. It seemed like every few seconds I'd see another one whizzing by. They were coming from all directions, shooting and sparkling in the night sky like cloud trails from the energetic decay of a radioactive atom in a cloud chamber. Sometimes I'd see more than one at once. I rapidly lost count of their number, as I sat, enthralled, paying no attention to my rapidly-cooling extremities. And the satellites! I counted fifteen different satellites in the same time period, more than I've ever seen in one night (usually I'm lucky to see three from the Vis).

It's a good thing someone finally came out and checked on me, as before I knew it half an hour had passed, and I was starting to lose sensation in my fingers and nose. I hardly noticed nor cared, though – every good astronomer knows to ignore personal bodily discomfort when spectacular sightings are visible (the correlation between the two is a sad necessity of the job). And that certainly ranks right up there with the coolest experiences I've had. I doubt I'll ever have the disposable income to get such a pair of goggles for myself (at $4,000 a pop, they're not cheap), but, well…a guy can dream…

Finally, as always happens, dawn arrived and we had to pack up. Our friendly telescope operator opted to stay a little later and give us a tour of the telescope, which was a very cool experience. The last time I came, we got to see the room under the telescope where the mirror is stripped of its aluminum coating and re-coated. This time, however, the elevator to the dome was broken, so instead of simply zipping up the several floors to the dome, we climbed up the back way. We passed through the area between the aluminizing room and the dome floor, where the base of the rotating dome rests. It's open to the outside, and the morning light filtering through the cracks left between the dome wheels gave it an awesome, indescribable, feeling. I felt it must be akin to the feeling one would get standing in one of the great European cathedrals as the light of the rosy-fingered dawn bursts through the stained-glass windows in overwhelming brilliance. I really wish I had been able to capture the feeling in a photo.

After that experience, we headed up to the dome itself, where I was able to get the full-telescope picture that eluded me the last time I tried to take it:


To give you some idea of the size of this behemoth, I wouldn't be able to reach the blue circular area at the bottom even by stretching to my full height. The jumble of parts below the mirror, right above the floor is the instrument we were using, a cube nearly two meters to a side. This is a big telescope.

After our tour it was time to head back down to Hale Pōhaku, which granted several opportunities to snap more great photos. One of the most amazing for me was the shadow of Mauna Kea stretching away to the north-west. If you look closely, the peak of Kohala is visible to the right of the shadow. The shadow at sunset is a splendid sight, but I think the shadow at dawn is even grander, accompanied as it is by the feeling of wonder that comes with the morning.

I also managed to grab a picture of the twin Keck telescopes, gleaming in the light of day:

Keck II on the left, Keck I on the right.
This early in the morning, the western Saddle was once again cloud free, letting me take even better pictures of Hualālai:

From the summit (Pu‘u Poli‘ahu on left, Pu‘ Pōhaku on right)…
…and on the way back down.
 (If I seem to have a bit of a thing for Hualālai, it's because it has always been mysterious to me, a shadowy mountain perpetually robed in clouds, invisible to the eye except for rare glimpses of the peak. Seeing it in its entirety gave me a better appreciation of the geography and scale of the island, and was just a pretty cool experience in general.)

 And that's pretty much it. After an uneventful nap and lunch, we headed back down to Hilo, back to warmth and humidity, two things I missed very much at the summit. I am a warm weather person; that's one reason I came here to go to college. That's not to say that I don't get hot like everyone else. But every so often, when I am tempted to complain about the heat, I like to remind myself that there really are much worse things than being hot and sweaty, and trips to Mauna Kea fit the bill perfectly. And having said that, I really am done with this absurdly long post.

A hui hou!

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