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Mauna Kea visitor's centre


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Just come back from an enjoyable evening playing with the assortment of scopes set out at the Mauna Kea visitors centre on Hawai'i -- thought I'd write a quick report if anyone is interested. I realise not many people here will have the opportunity to visit it -- but if you do, you should!

The visitors centre at Mauna Kea is at ~9,000ft, half way up the mountain, near where the astronomers sleep during the day (the professional telescopes are on the summit, at nearly 14,000ft). The visitors centre runs an open night every night, and I always try to pop along if I can when I'm observing on Mauna Kea -- a rare chance to look through a telescope at a world class site :). They have a selection of small dobs (4.5 - 10 inch) set-up in the car-park, which anyone can push around (though most people don't know how to, so they are rather underused), and a set of larger Celestron/Meade scopes manned by volunteers. They run a "star tour" for about half an hour, showing people around the sky, explaining some bits of astronomy/astrophysics, and tying in with the Hawaiian legends.

The events are always well attended (~100 people), because they are a stopping off point for most of the "sunset" tours coming back down from the summit. That's great -- because lots of people who would never otherwise look through a telescope do -- but also huge huge problem -- because every 2 minutes you get a headlight in the face!

I got there in twilight, and milled around pointing the dobs at various bright things (Saturn, Alberio, etc). I tried not to wince too much at the questionable science explanations some of the volunteers were giving -- they were more right than wrong though, so not too bad. Saturn looked nice through the C11 (?? I think ??), though they had a generic low powered eyepiece in. The seeing could certainly have held a lot more power; but it's a general public session, so fair enough. Lots of oooohs and woahs coming from the crowd :eek:

Managed to remember how to find M57 (super easy), then M27 (bit harder) in the 10 inch dob. Had a quick scan round the galactic centre (nice and high from Hawaii, but only just over the (underlit) visitors centre roof). M13 looked nice in the dob, when I could find a moment without a light shining in my face. I tried to find M51, but got confused and pointed at M101 instead -- which explains why I was a bit underwhelmed by the lack of companion galaxy :o

The sky up here is gorgeously dark (excluding car headlights/people with torches/kids with shoes that flash when the walk/etc), and the milky way looked spectacular with the naked eye. Once the sun was properly down, it started getting tough to pick out constellations, which is always a good sign! It's one of the few times I've been up here at new moon, and it was really really nice :)

HST was meant to be visible tonight just after 9 -- but unfortunately no-one saw it (probably because of the car lights).

The key with the visitors centre here is to hang around until 9:15, when most of the tour parties disappear. Then you get a good play on the bigger telescopes, without the car headlights constantly on. I mostly looked through the Meade 14" that was set up, and had a great chat to the very nice chap manning it. M57 was nice, though I couldn't make out the central star (not properly dark adapted I suspect). Then we tried for Omega Cen, which was a whole 5 degrees above the horizon -- but was still fantastic. I requested M13, which just blows me away from here (as I have a like for like comparison from the UK) -- and it didn't fail :) If anything, I think it was better than OmegaCen, just because it is more compact (and nearly at zenith). Resolution on the stars was fantastic, and for the first time I thought "Oh, THAT propellor! I see".

We tried for Neptune at the end, but it hadn't risen about the visitor centre roof.

So it was a fun 2 hours. It's very frustrating to have such a great site, yet have to contend with so much stupid local light pollution (but it's a public visitors centre, so heh...). The volunteers here do a great job of introducing astronomy to "the masses" -- i.e. people who wouldn't otherwise be interested. If you ever get the chance, make sure you visit. Hang around after the tour parties have left (the road is paved all the way to the visitors centre, so your hire car will be fine -- just don't take it on to the summit). Show the volunteers you're interested in astronomy, and you'll basically get to chose whatever you want to look at -- with some nice telescopes on a *really* nice site :) People complain here when the seeing goes above 0.6"...

Now, I have been offered a look through a 24-inch with a (and I quote) good Zambuto mirror this weekend.... 130 mile round trip, but still tempting.....


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Hi Frazer,

Thank you for an excellent report about the centre. I am coming over to the Big Island next June for the Transit of Venus, I will have the wife in tow so my astronomy events will be limited. We are planning to go to the centre but do not know when yet, we still have nearly a year to work on that one? If the scopes are out every evening I am sure I will get up there at least once, pity we are only on Big Island for four days as we have a trip tp Pearl Habour afterwards!


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  • 2 weeks later...

i was there last year and didnt do the trip as it was six hours long and my wife was,nt to keen on me being away for that long.

after reading your report i,m gutted now as it seems like you had a fantastic experience.

as a an aside was,nt crazy about the big island preffered maui waikaloa beach as we got to go on the blue hawian helicopter tour and flew over star city at the top of the extinct volcanoe although mauna kea was pretty awesome and had some venting at the culdera with roads closed due to noxious gases when we where there.

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  • 3 months later...
  • 2 weeks later...

Great service, Fraser, spreading the word. My wife and I were privileged to live on a Pacific Island for several years, often making trips to and from the USA and stopping in Hawaii. We've made the trips up to Keck for sunset quite a few times, and actually took the Mauna Kea Summit Adventure tour to Keck three times. This is the oldest and, IMHO, by far the best company doing guided astronomy tours up to the Mauna Kea Summit.

Mauna Kea Summit Adventures - the original sunset & stargazing tour on the Big Island, Hawaii

The 8 hour tour is certainly long, with the journey up first stopping at the Visitor Center to don jackets and have a light meal before the final summit. Coming back down after sunset, the tour has several of its own telescopes and they set up for several hours at the same level as the Visitor Center but off in a dark area with no light intrusion. The value in the tour is the geology and history learned on the long trip up and down. Three trips, three totally entertaining and unique compendia of information.

The VC is a MUST experience, whether on a tour or on your own. It can truly be a life changing event if you let it happen, with the spirit of Aloha merging with the cosmic wonders. And visit Volcano National Park, as well; watch a real volcano (Kilauea) still building the Big Island.

Thanks for the excellent report, Fraser.

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