Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Mauna Kea’s Summit

There are people I know who live for their next trip. On the other hand, I put up with travel when I have a good reason. Seeing the Transit of Venus from Hawaii added up to a good enough reason.

Don’t get me wrong. Seeing all the stages of the Transit of Venus was an incredible experience, one that will be a highlight of my life. Visiting the Mauna Kea Observatories is something I’ve dreamed about for years.  Add the two of them, and as my wife, Nancy, told me when the tour was announced: “Tim, you have got to do this!”  (If this sounds like I’m an immensely fortunate husband, it’s only because I am!)

This panorama from Mauna Kea’s highest summit ridge shows the view to the west shortly before sunset. Left to right: UKIRT, Submillimeter Valley, Subaru, Keck I and II, NASA IRTF. Hualalai rises above the cloud deck, just right of UKIRT.

Gerard Kuiper spearheaded the development of observatories on Mauna Kea. He once declared that Mauna Kea was the best astronomical location on Earth. You can debate that, of course.  On average, there are more clear nights in the Atacama, but Mauna Kea offers the best seeing on the planet. For me, going to the summit of Mauna Kea was very close to a pilgrimage.

Of course, I’d been to the summit just the day before, but my focus had been the Transit of Venus.  Despite access being strictly restricted, the mountain was swarming. Taking a commercial tour meant I could have a relaxing trip and really enjoy the experience. It turned out to be a very good decision.

There are several companies on the Big Island that run authorized Mauna Kea tours.  They all have slightly different offerings that cater to different interests and clientele. The company that looked after our Sky and Telescope group did a fine job, as did the firm I used the next day. A few days later, I met another fellow who’d used an outfit that catered more to hikers and naturalists than astronomy enthusiasts, and he’d also been happy with his trip.

You could drive yourself, but it’s probably better to use a commercial outfit. If nothing else, you can’t drive a basic rental car up Mauna Kea. By the time you rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a hefty engine and pay for the gas, you’ve very nearly matched the price of the commercial tour. Letting someone else drive lets you enjoy the scenery, which you can’t do while negotiating a tricky road. On the flip side, you’re traveling with a group people you don’t know, and you’ve got a fixed schedule. I happen to think it’s a good trade-off, and I’ve done it both ways.

The “VIS” – the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station – is part of the observatories’ mid-level facilities at 9200 feet.

My trip started just before 4:00 pm when I met the van at a shopping mall near my hotel. Since I was the only client who wasn’t traveling with a partner (don’t forget, Nancy was back in Ottawa), I had to got to use the shotgun seat in the van. (Woo hoo! Best seat in the house!) We stopped at the Visitor Information Station to acclimatize and have a pleasant picnic-style dinner. The tour operators provide dinner; the VIS stocks munchies, but that’s it.

We headed out to the summit in plenty of time for sunset. This time around, we didn’t have the hectic schedule of Transit Day, so our driver had plenty of time to point out sites such as the Ice Age Reserve (which is well marked) and the ancient adz quarry (which isn’t marked at all).

The first observatories come into view from the summit road. Left to right: James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, CalTech Submillimete Observatory, Subaru Observatory, Keck Observatories

As you approach the summit, the first observatory you see is the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, in Submillimeter Valley. We went on to stop at the CalTech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) just as it was opening up in preparation for the night’s work. The dome is small, so it’s easy to miss the size of the telescope’s antenna. At 10.4 meters, it’s a bit bigger than the Keck Telescope’s primary mirror.

We took the opportunity to put on jackets. That’s another advantage of taking a commercial tour —they provide the warm clothing. Since I’d come for the Transit tour, I’d taken cold-weather gear. Most people visiting Hawaii aren’t likely to bother.

Next stop: the high summit ridge, just in time for sunset. We didn’t see that on Transit Day, and I’d been looking forward to sunset from Mauna Kea’s summit.  I’ve used this word a lot, but “spectacular” is the best one I can think of. And it works.

Clear, thin air and a low deck of diffusing cloud produce a magnificent sunset.

There’s a sunset sequence in my Flickr set for this visit. I think you’ll enjoy it.

After sunset, we headed back down to the mid-levels for a stargazing session.  The tour operator brought a pair of  C-11s (for my non-astronomer friends, 11-inch reflecting telescopes), and we’d driven down a dark turn-off from the access road. The guides gave a good presentation, and had selected excellent targets, but I was more fascinated by the sky itself, and took only the barest peeks through the ‘scope.

I have never seen a more magnificent sky, nor better seeing. It took a moment for me to distinguish Spica from Saturn — I’m usually a bit lazy and just look for twinkling. There wasn’t any. Once I got past that, I realized I didn’t need that hint anyway. The colors were so vivid that Spica and Saturn were absolutely unmistakable anyway.

Having found Centaurus and the Southern Cross a couple of days earlier, I was delighted to see them again, but in brilliant color.  I discovered the real glory of the sky when I found Scorpius — absurdly high in the sky by my mid-latitude standards. 20 degrees North latitude isn’t all that far south, but it’s enough that the star clouds around Scorpius and Sagittarius are high and clear. Even though I knew better, the thought popped into my head: “Damn it, it’s clouding over!”

Alas, my camera doesn’t have a “Bulb” setting, and my attempts to photograph that magnificent sky were fruitless. I’ll have to remember my “retinal imaging.” Not that I’m likely to forget.

We were packing up just as the moon rose above a low cinder cone. But real clouds started drifting over the horizon. Their red tinge just seemed like moonrise effects, but it lingered after the moon rose higher. We were seeing the glow from Kilauea’s lava, almost 50 kilometers away, on the far side of Mauna Loa.

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About Tim Cole

Astronomy enthusiast and educator, all-around fancier of dark skies and starry nights
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One Response to Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Mauna Kea’s Summit

  1. Pingback: Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Visiting CFHT | Sidereal Moments

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