Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Transit Day, Part 2

John A. Burns Way — the road to Mauna Kea‘s summit

With the Transit well underway, it was a perfect time to visit the summit. Our group had organized several runs to the summit, making it easy to plan the day around key Transit times. The road to the summit is rough, and doesn’t allow for a comfortable ride.  But the hairpin turns reveal some spectacular vistas. With someone else driving, you’re free to look out the windows and take in the views.

The weather system that had threatened us with snow had taken a detour to the north of the Big Island, but it left high winds at the summit. Only a few groups, such as those providing video feeds for the VIS and the NASA Edge webcast, had bothered to set up telescopes behind the few available windbreaks.

Observing teams on the summit ridge

Mauna Kea’s observatories are on several ridges below the true summit, a cinder cone topping out at 13,796 feet above sea level. At that altitude, the air pressure is 60% of sea level pressure. Some people do have problems with altitude sickness on the summit, and everybody notices the reduced oxygen levels. Once I arrived at the summit, I quickly noticed my reduced stamina, but it took a little bit longer to notice more subtle effects. For example, at one point, I snarled my camera strap. It took an absurd amount to time to sort it out — I recall thinking, “This shouldn’t be so complicated!”  Of course, it wouldn’t have been so complicated at sea level.

I’d brought a cheap pulse-oximeter with me  so I could get a sense of what was happening in my innards. The readings probably weren’t all that accurate, but they were interesting. Arriving at the summit, still in my seat, I was reading a pulse of 90 beats per minute, and 83% oxygen saturation. Just getting out of the van, my pulse shot up to 134 beats per minute, with oxygen saturation at 82%. The thin air makes quite a difference.

Within about 15 minutes, the readings were at more respectable values of 80 beats per minute and 85%.  I found I had to walk slowly and deliberately, and pay attention to my breathing.  Otherwise, I didn’t find the summit too difficult to handle, so I could enjoy the visit and marvel at being in the midst of some of the world’s finest observatories.

A few people noticed me using my pulse-oximeter. I was soon in the midst of a small crowd of curious people, all interested in trying out my gadget. It turned out to be quite an ice-breaker!

From left to right: NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Gemini North, University of Hawaii 2.2m Telescope, UK Infrared Telescope, University of Hawaii 0.9m Educational Telescope

All too soon, it was time to go back down to the VIS. On the other hand, it was also time to start thinking about observing the last phases of the 2012 Transit of Venus.

You can find more photos from Transit Day here.

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About Tim Cole

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