Sunday, November 29, 2009

Evening at the top of the world...

Last Saturday afternoon a group of 6 friends from Puna Online met up with astronomer, blogger and photographer extraordinaire  Tom Kerr, PhD at the Joint Astronomy Center operated by the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. We then trekked to the summit of Mauna Kea (translation: Mountain White.). Tom generously agreed to take a group of us up on his night off. It was one of those events that I will never forget. We felt extremely privileged to even go up to the summit, but to go with an astronomer and new friend who works up there made the entire experience even more special. Tom was extremely informative and happy to answer any questions we had.

When traveling up to the summit (13,796 ft. elevation) some precautions must be made because of the altitude and the temperatures. The atmospheric pressure at the summit is 40% less than at sea level, therefore less oxygen is available to the lungs and acute altitude sickness is common. Symptoms include severe headaches, vomiting, slurring of speech, disorientation and extreme drowsiness which can lead to coma.  A  4 Wheel Drive Vehicle is also needed to navigate the dirt portions of road, which we learned are that way because they ran out of financing while putting the road in. We stopped at the Visitor's Center and needed to stay there for about 20 minutes to acclimate. The center is about 9,000 ft elevation. The Visitor's Center has many large high powered telescopes to look through later in the evening for star gazing. It is the best place to view stars by telescope on the island. Located just above the Visitors Center is Hale Pohaku (aka H.P.) where astronomers and technical staff are required to stay whenever they are working the typical 12 hour shifts. This acclimates their bodies for the duration of their time at the summit. There are also limits as to how long people are allowed to remain at the summit. Astronomers and staff are NEVER allowed to sleep at the summit, as that can mask any indications of altitude problems such as pulmonary oedema where the lungs fill with excess fluids and the person is unable to breathe. Another dangerous condition is cerebral oedema where the brain is severely compromised, leading to slurring of speech, inability to walk, hallucinations, coma and eventually death if not treated. Often the person suffering symptoms is not aware of how acute they are.

Up on the summit we all felt a little light headed as we visited two of the UK's observatories and were allowed to watch and photograph an amazing sunset. Pictured below are Tom and Wes discussing the drive up.

This is an extremely rare Silver Sword Plant, which only grows on the high summits of Mauna Kea & Mauna Loa. This is a  unique variety of the Silver Sword, closely related to those on Haleakala and found no where else on the planet. 

From there we visited the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array) a remotely controlled radio telescope on the side of  Mauna Kea. The ten antennas of the VLBA simultaneously collect extremely faint radio signals from objects in space. They are recorded on ultra sensitive magnetic tape which is shopped daily to Socorro, New Mexico where scientists use special purpose computers to combine the signals to simulate a single signal  which simulates a single antenna 5,000 miles wide producing every high resolutions of astronomical objects.

Then we were off to the first of the UK observatories, The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which is a 15 M dish, the largest telescope in the world dedicated to sub millimeter astronomy It operates between infrared and radio waves. It also uses some of the most sensitive and sophisticated instrumentation  to detect the coldest material in the Universe.

Looks like even though this is a UK observatory, some of the workers are from the Bay area... Go Raiders!

So... guess where the coldest spot in the universe is? Yes, it is a specially contained sensor unit called Scuba 2 (a joint project between the UK and Canada) on the summit of Mauna Kea. This is sensor is uniquely controlled using helium and maintained to have a temperature of just .1 degree above absolute zero. This is done to minimize background noise that would hinder observation of  interstellar dust emission and it's relationship to star formation.

You can read more about Scuba Two here.

From The JCMT, we went on to see the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope where Tom works on occasion and where guest astronomers often discover new astronomical delights. UKIRT detects it's light with a suite of advanced instruments capable of performing infrared observations. This scope was home base for Dr. Tom Kerr's discovery verified by a Chilean observatory of the oldest and darkest red star burst which was over 13.2 billion years old. This is the closest event to the big bang that has ever been discovered.

While at the UKIRT we also got to talk to renowned  UK  Astronomer Tim Naylor  and his assistant Jonathan who is the technician operating the facility for the 12 hours between sunset and sunrise (no small feat as you can imagine.) There were multiple monitors and several computers in the control room. It was extremely interesting having them answer questions and give us information about their life at the summit and discoveries they have made there. They work on a variety of projects each evening, depending on the conditions and situations that present themselves.

Here, Tom explains to us how the telescope operates

And this is also the spot where we caught the we shivered

Jon, Tom, Dalynnda and Chuck

The cold and altitude  got to several of us in a multitude of ways. About two hours in, one of our friends found herself in a more severe situation so we headed down the mountain to regulate her. Many of the rest of us were feeling less severe effects, such as tingling of hands and feet, drowsiness and headaches. The good thing is that when you get closer to sea level these symptoms do go away. If we did not live so close to sea level, or took our time hiking up the mountain, the effects would not be so severe.

Every night at the visitors center there are a multitude of telescopes brought out for star gazing. Volunteers are available to answer questions till about 10 pm, sometimes all night long.

We are returning to the summit on January 9th weather permitting. I cannot wait to share this experience with my son who will be with us for a month this winter. We will really have to bundle up because it will be even colder in January.

There are some summit tours available to the general public, those by tour operators can be quite expensive but on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 pm groups meet and go up on a guided tour. You must have your own 4 WD vehicle to do this tour. Here is more information on the Summit Tours.

And while you are driving down from the mountain, be sure to watch for the invisible cows:


Tracey said...

Devany, so wonderful to read about your visit up there! I'm really looking forward to moving to Waimea next Spring and hope that we have the opportunity to get up there for a tour or visit like this! So beautiful and fascinating.

Anonymous said...

looks like a wonderful experience and the photos turned out great, i especially love the photo you took of a silversword...didn't even know they were growing wild on this exciting that you saw that


Devany said...

Tracey, I am sure you will get a chance to go up there. We are also looking forward to your move here!

Noel, the silversword was very close to being extinct because of grazing animals. Now there are several in protected areas (this one has a fence around it) and they are starting to come back. There is another variety on Halekala that looks much the same.

zitt said...

Very cool! Hope we get a chance to get up there in May - at least to the Visitor's Center. We've been to the VBLA outside of Socorro, NM (actually, it's closer to a little town in the middle of nowhere, called Pie Town!). p.s. I don't monitor my gmail account, so don't send messages to it.

Anonymous said...

Devany, this is so cool that you and Wes did this! Thanks for the wonderful descriptions and the research that went into this as well. So interesting. I didn't know there were summit tours that weren't part of the commercial ($$$) ones. Thanksfor that too. I hope to make it up there one of these days. Aloha, Sheryl