Saturday, 30 March 2013

Mauna Kea - our amazing visit

4th March 2013.  We left Hilo on Big Island in Hawaii on our visit to the amazing telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea.  From sea level to 13,700 feet in 3 hours. We stopped at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet to acclimatise for 30 minutes as the air was rarified at the summit.  A school were on a trip from one of the other islands.  What a school trip!

As we stepped out at the top of Mauna Kea, we both had to stop and make sure we did not fall over.  The lack of oxygen was quite something.  Once we had caught our breath, we looked out at a fantastic array of telescopes.  Clear blue skies, hardly any wind - perfect.  A snowball whizzed past!  This is a dream come true.

1 The Subaru telescope to the left of David and the famous Keck 1 and Keck 2 to the right
2 CalTech Submillimetre (left) : James Clark Maxwell : Smithsonian Submillimetre Array (right) 
3 Looking from the Keck telescopes back towards the summit area of Mauna Kea
4 Gemini North
The inactive volcano looked at its best today. The day before there were winds of 45 mph - a very different place.  The reddish ground is caused by a high iron content and the dark grey is like pumice.   One of the most impressive telescopes was the Gemini North (seen on the right). The size of all the telescopes is staggering.
Apart for maintenance, there are few people around. The astronomers work from centres near sea level, controlling the telescopes by remote control. The Keck 1 and 2 telescopes are controlled about 20 miles away at Waimea. This saves the astronomers working in very tough conditions. 
Not the most scenic of entrances to what was the biggest telescope in the world until July 2009. The Keck telescopes both have 10 metre primary segmented mirrors and can work together using interferometry - making them the most powerful optical telescope in the world.  The Keck 1 and 2 telescopes are absolutely incredible and it was the hope before we set off to Hawaii that conditions would allow us to view the famous pair.  We were so fortunate to have perfect conditions.

We moved into the very cold viewing gallery of Keck 1. This was kept cold so that the air inside the observatory would not be affected by warm air currents that would create wobbling of the atmosphere when the telescopes were in use. The picture above shows the secondary mirror that helps to collect the light reflected from the primary mirror made up of 36 hexagonal segments.  The dome is enormous!  What an impressive piece of engineering.

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