Stargazing in Hawaii (part 1 of 4)

At its core, astronomy has always been about looking up at night and wondering what all those pinpricks of light mean. We can learn a lot from computer simulations and we can send probes to all the planets and moons in our own solar system, but most of our understanding of the universe – and of its countless galaxies, stars, and other bodies – comes from pointing telescopes at the sky.

Thanks to technological developments over the past century or so, telescopes are not limited to just visible light. The universe emits radiation (or light) at every imaginable wavelength: X-rays, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, millimeter, microwave, and radio. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of this radiation. That’s good for us as human beings – too much UV light would burn our skin, too many X-rays would kill us – but not so good for us as astronomers. One solution is to put telescopes in space, such as Hubble, Spitzer, and Herschel. Another is to put them on a high mountain, so that you’re above most of the atmosphere. That’s what’s been done for example with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Hawaii.

The JCMT is a telescope operating at sub-millimeter wavelengths: longer than infrared, shorter than microwave and radio. Sub-millimeter radiation allows us to study clouds of gas and dust around very young stars, helping us understand how new stars and planets form. By extension, that also helps us discover the origin of our own Sun and the Earth. The JCMT is located on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, at an altitude of 4,092 m (13,425 ft). With a diameter of 15 m (49 ft), it is the largest sub-millimeter telescope in the world. I’m spending seven nights observing at the JCMT in late July, and below is a day-by-day account of the entire trip.

Day 1: Sunday, July 22

Travel day. The JCMT stands on the Big Island of Hawaii, but most flights from the US mainland go into Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Even then, there are no direct flights from Detroit to Hawaii, so my itinerary is a 2-hour flight from Detroit to Minneapolis, a 10-hour flight to Honolulu, and a 1-hour flight to Hilo on the Big Island. The trip starts off fine: my silver status earns me a free upgrade to first class on the flight to Minneapolis. We depart on time and arrive a little early.

At the gate for the connecting flight to Honolulu, it turns out we’ll have a stop-over in Los Angeles. Delta conveniently hid this little fact on their booking page. The confirmation email I received after booking doesn’t mention the stop-over either; it simply lists the second leg as a seemingly non-stop flight from Minneapolis to Detroit. The stop-over doesn’t show up until I check the itinerary online and click on the flight number. Bad move by Delta: if I had known this, I would have looked for an itinerary with three instead of four actual segments. On the bright side, I have an exit row seat with plenty of leg space and full recline all the way from Minneapolis to Honolulu, and the stop at LAX allows me to forage for food. Food options on domestic US flights, even if they’re long-haul, are very sparse.

I pass the time reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, watching the first season of The Big Bang Theory, and getting some sleep. The flights to LA and on to Honolulu are pretty smooth and again we arrive a little early. Honolulu airport is large, but poorly laid out and poorly signed. On arrival, an airport monitor tells me the flight to Hilo will depart from gate 58, but there’s no clear indication where to find that gate. At some point the corridor splits in two, with gates 6-13 to the right and 24-34 to the right. Inspection of an airport map tells me that gates 49 and up are to the left as well.

The island hop to Hilo is on a Boeing 717 operated by Hawaiian Airlines. Given that Boeing 737s and 747s have been around since the mid 60s, and 727s haven’t been built since 1984, a Boeing 717 sounds like a very old plane. However, Boeing never really had a 717 in production, so they used the number after merging with McDonnell Douglas and putting their MD-95 into service in the late 90s. The 717 I’m on is only the second oldest of the three planes I’ve flown today. It’s the most cramped in terms of leg room, so I’m glad it’s only a 50-minute flight.

Hilo Airport is small and simple, and very airy. Both Honolulu and Hilo Airport have a lot of glassless windows: just big holes in the wall. Makes sense, I suppose, in a tropical climate where the typical temperature is 30-35 °C (80-90 °F) all year. My luggage arrives promptly (seeing my suitcase appear on the belt always brings a sigh of relief), so all that’s left is to take a taxi to the hotel. Unfortunately, taxis are in short supply tonight. Someone claims the taxi schedule is out of whack because of a delayed flight, or maybe there just aren’t that many taxis operating Sunday evening at 8pm. Either way, it takes more than half an hour before it’s my turn to be shuttled off to Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel. It’s 9:15pm by the time I’m checked in, and I’m exhausted. After a quick email to let the folks back home know I arrived safely, I fall asleep to the chirping of a few dozen coquí frogs.

Day 2: Monday, July 23

At 6am, eight and a half hours later, I wake up to the sound of a crying baby. Like the two airports, Uncle Billy’s doesn’t have many glass windows. My room simply has shutters in front of two holes in the wall. The shutters can be tilted to keep out wind and rain, but sounds of chirping frogs and of crying babies penetrate unhindered. Breakfast is the same free continental affair served at hotels throughout the US, with some fresh papaya thrown in for a Hawaiian twist. Unfortunately the papaya tastes rather disgusting, so I put it aside after one bite and make do with toast and jelly.

Because of the JCMT’s high altitude, one cannot just drive up Mauna Kea and start observing right away. That is to say, one could, but one would risk a severe case of altitude sickness. For anyone coming from outside Hawaii, it’s mandatory to spend one night at Hale Pohaku, a base camp of sorts at 2,800 m (9,200 ft). First-time visitors like myself are recommended to spend two nights at HP before going further up the mountain. I’m taking that advice.

HP is basically a hotel serving staff and visitors at the JCMT and the other ten or so telescopes on Mauna Kea. After a safety briefing at the JCMT offices in Hilo, I get to drive to HP myself in the afternoon. The first part of the trip follows Saddle Road, formerly one of the most dangerous roads in Hawaii, but nowadays no worse than most US highways. Saddle Road leads from tropical vegetation around Hilo to nearly barren lava fields at higher altitudes, revealing the volcanic nature of the Hawaiian islands. The side road up to HP is a little steep in places, but nowhere near as spectacular as some mountain roads I’ve driven in France and Norway. The scenery remains distinctly volcanic.

My room at HP is simple and its interior looks like it hasn’t changed since the dormitories were built in 1983. The only two modern features are an internet port and a hand sanitizer dispenser. It won’t win any hotel fashion prizes, but it’ll do for the next week and a bit.

Day 3: Tuesday, July 24

I slept fine on my first night at HP. The bed is too short (as usual), but there’s nothing at the end, so I can just dangle my feet off the edge. I woke up at 6am due to jetlag, which has me a little worried for my first night of observations tomorrow. Ideally, I’d have wanted to stay up until 3am or so and sleep till noon, but the jetlag felled me at 11pm.

The main plan for today is to let my body get used to the altitude and the lower oxygen levels. I’m alternating work with a brief hike and some sightseeing around HP. Check below for some pictures (click to enlarge) or visit my Picasa album for a bigger selection.

Scenery around Hale Pohaku.
View of Mauna Kea with Hale Pohaku in the middle of the picture.
A type of cactus?


The road from Hale Pohaku to the telescopes at the summit.
Panoramic view to the southwest, with Mauna Loa clearly visible.
Some dormant craters on the slopes of Mauna Kea.


Continue with part 2…

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