Mauna Kea - 2004

In the summer of 2004 I had the good fortune to spend 5 days 'doing' astronomy on the Big Island, after a business trip to Oahu.  At first I considered astronomy from Oahu, but after checking the population of Honolulu and the size of Oahu, I wised up.  A little lite pollution research followed.  Eventually I took a map and glued a lite pollution photo on top.   The light pollution photo was presumably taken from an angle because I had to cut out each island and distort the one map to fit the other.  This was particularly difficult for the Big Island, so there are probably errors, particularly in the SE corner.  Nevertheless, the result was quite helpful. (The light polluted areas are depicted in gray.)  Oahu is clearly out, so I opted for the Big Island because of familiarity and variety of things to do.

My initial plan was to observe from the S to SE corner of the Big Island, possibly from the lower slopes of Mauna Loa.  Topo maps show a network of roads on the lower slopes. To this end, I stayed in the Sea Mountain Condo's at Punaluu which are off the beaten track and a great buy.  I lucked out with one of the best units and had a great view from my patio.  The road network proved to be (at least partially) real and the remnants of a failed housing development.  Although overgrown and filled with potholes they were easily navigable, un-traveled, and potentially an excellent place for observing and astrophotography.  The elevation is about 3000' but I could still see atmospheric extinction at, perhaps, 15 deg.  Now the WHOLE point of observing from Hawaii is to see further into the southern sky, like all the way down to the horizon, so I reluctantly opted for the much longer trip to the higher slopes of Mauna Kea for astrophotography.  (There may be high elevations accessible by car on Mauna Loa but I couldn't find/access them.)  The skies were frequently clear from Punaluu and the few lights can be easily escaped.  Good for any but the most serious work.

Access to Mauna Kea is via the Saddle Road.  The west, Kona (Kailua), side is still 1 1/2 lanes and pretty rugged.  Pretty, but not recommended for astrophotography access.  The east, Hilo, side is new two lane blacktop.  The road is excellent, but undulates up and down while zig zagging right and left.  Full attention is required at all times.  My initial plan was to observe from the Saddle Road at 5000' to 6000' elevation, in order to minimize my time driving up and back.  There are a few pull off points.  I arrived with plenty of sun, set up, ate dinner and relaxed to await dark.  Oops, there are clouds coming up the saddle from Hilo.  I moved higher on the saddle and again settled in.  The clouds followed.  Now it's getting dark and I am starting to panic.  I have to take the Mauna Kea summit road to get above the clouds.  Real fear clutched me now.  What if the slope were too steep and I could not see Polaris.  No polar scope alignment; no pictures!!  I was out of time and settled on a site at about 7500' (#1 on Map) where I was able to walk about 50' off the road; and Polaris was visible with room to spare.  I shot from here both nites, but on the second nite had to wait awhile for the clouds to dissipate.  Subsequent research shows some nice pull offs at 9200' just short of the Visitor's Ctr (labeled Ranger Station on this old map), where the early evening clouds should dissipate more quickly.  The paved road ends just past the Visitor's Ctr.

Oops, I'm out of time.  A quick finish for now.  Here is my Milky Way Photo page.
I will say, that during all my observing from Punaluu, the slopes of Mauna Loa, and the slopes Mauna Kea, the seeing was poor (twinkling stars).  It surely is great on top, but elsewhere ....?  The transparency and sky darkness at 7500' were, of course, spectacular.  The dust lanes in M31 were visible in Canon IS 15x45 binoculars.


On my last nite (7-22-04) I took a commercial tour to the Summit of Mauna Kea.  After a little research I chose Mauna Kea Summit Adventures and was very pleased.  It was spectacular watching the sun set and the Observatories come to life. I got a great shot of the Gemini North scope ( or ).  Check out the small group of people on the right for scale!  For perspective, here is a nice helicopter shot of the summit.  My shot of Gemini North were taken with a $150 Olympus Stylus Zoom 80 Wide on Superia 400 film; still matches or beats anything digital for under $1000!
It is worth noting the politics of stargazing from the slopes of Mauna Kea.  The Vistor's Ctr is well staffed by volunteers and equipped with an excellent suite of telescopes up to maybe 16" size.   It is free and 'therefore' closed to the commercial tours.  You can pee in their bathrooms and shop at their gift shop but the observing program is off limits.  Summit tours which advertise observing bring their own telescopes.

The fine print:  Rental car contracts do not permit rental car use on the Saddle Rd or summit road.  Be warned, be careful.


fw kleinhans 2004