A Little Off the Astronomical Path

This isn’t precisely astronomical in nature, but how can you visit Hawaii and not check out an active volcano? In one sense, you can argue that this ought to be required for anyone interested in planetary astronomy. Looking down at rock younger than I am gives quite an interesting take on the formation of the Moon, for example.

Kilauea has been erupting since 1983, and it’s adding to the Big Island‘s shoreline. Seeing it from the ground was interesting, but seeing it from the air seemed just too cool to pass up. So, I booked a helicopter tour over Kilauea and the countryside around Hilo. I’m sure the other outfits are just as competent, but I liked the idea of a  “doors-off” flight. Why peek through a window when you have another option?

Back on the ground after one incredible flight

I used my regular camera, but I also used a GoPro sports camera on a headstrap to record the flight. The video is going to take some editing to cut out the test shots and dead time, but it’s one cool way to keep a memoir as well as let someone look over your shoulder.

Live, flowing lava from Kilauea

The helicopter tour was billed with the tagline “Feel the Heat.” I figured it was just advertising blurb, but it isn’t. When you’re over the vent and its live lava, it’s like sitting in front of a campfire getting ready to toast marshmallows. There hasn’t been an explosive eruption in Hawaii for decades, but Kilauea more than compensates with its sheer output.

While waiting for my flight,  I had an unexpected treat. Another group was in the waiting area, getting ready for a charter flight to do thermal imaging of the Kilauea area. At a lull in the briefing, I said hello and discovered that I’d bumped into a geologist with the US Geological Survey, who proceeded to give me an absolutely excellent 15-minute “Vulcanology 101″ mini-lecture. He showed me a few live infrared images of the caldera and its surroundings from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s thermal imaging equipment. And no, I don’t know who it was! I was too wrapped up in his tutorial to even think of asking his name. Before I could do a business card swap, he and his team were off to the flight line.

Waterfalls just a few miles from the volcano

One thing that amazed me was the contrast between a volcano blasted landscape and a rain forest. You see that kind of contrast all over the Big Island.  Just driving along a few miles of highway, you can pass through a landscape that might as well be on Mars and then right into a stand of green bushes and flowers. Intellectually, I’ve always expected we’ll find life somewhere off our little planet, but seeing how vegetation springs up in lava fields — well, that bolsters my intellectual hunch in a totally illogical but powerful way.

I’m going to be processing images and videos for weeks, but here are a few stills and video captures from a very, very cool experience.

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About Tim Cole

Astronomy enthusiast and educator, all-around fancier of dark skies and starry nights
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