Sunday, September 29, 2013

Maui land of contrast, home to amazing telescopes

As far as I can tell everyone romanticizes about spending a vacation in Hawaii. Before my last trip I realized that even after several trips to Hawaii I still do. And yet, during my last trip in Maui I noticed how much contrast there was in such a small place.

The first time I started to realize this contrast was while packing for our trip, one bag had all of our snorkeling and beach gear, the next bag had our beach clothing but I had to make room for our winter gear, yes you read it correctly, winter gear, let me explain.
Yes, Maui has beautiful beaches, and beautiful flowers, and amazing tasty tropical fruits like pineapple and papayas, and gorgeous resorts. Maui also has beautiful sunrises and glorious sunsets but Maui is also home to amazing scientific astronomical telescopes, all situated at the top of Mount Haleakala and this is why we packed all our winter gear. I mean, winter coats, hats, gloves, shoes, socks, warm shirts, warm pants, the whole package.

The top of Haleakala is 10,023 ft. above sea level and once the sun goes down it gets outright cold! I mean winter cold. We have visited when there has been snow on the ground.

Panoramic view of telescopes on Haleakala Mountain

 

The trip up to the top of Haleakala


The road to the top of Haleakala to see the telescopes is typical and I have been in quite a few of those. It is a very winding road, a series of switchbacks where you need to keep an eye on the road especially in Maui because there are no guard rails (go figure) and at places the drop is pretty far down. But the views are amazing!

To go from the beach (from the Wailea area) to the top of Haleakala takes about 2 hours. In that time you travel 38 miles and climb 10,000 feet which is to say you are climbing at a pretty good angle. Depending on how many times you stop to take pictures or if you run into local obstacles like cows on the road then it could take you a bit longer but on the way back, it is pretty fast.
Cows on the road to the top of Haleakala Mountain
The vegetation changes dramatically from the beautiful flowers, to where eventually it looks like you have landed on Mars! It is barren, full of unfriendly rocks, very windy and quiet. The road is paved but outside of that, the land is full of very sharp rocks which are actually lava and these are very sharp, so you better have good steady shoes.

The amusing thing is that, I always start out dressed with sandals, beach tank top and leggings with shorts over them. As we start to climb, during my picture stops, I start to dress up and by the time we arrive I am in full winter gear.
Me in full winter gear while in Maui
There is a visitor center at about 7000 feet which is a very interesting place to stop if it is your first time but we ignore it now.

Once you get to the top, it feels like you have arrived in heaven because the clouds are below you and if there is a break in them you can see all the land below you. It is kind of surreal. Also at that point you might feel lightheaded and having a harder time to breath, the air is thin but it feels pure and cold.
Above the clouds at top of Haleakala Mountain
Above the clouds at top of Haleakala Mountain in Maui
If it is your first time, then you will want to check out the crater and walk on the rocks a bit and take in the grandness of the location and amazing views. The whole area is very interesting and it feels a bit out of this world. Stop at the visitor center where you can learn the history of the area and see some very cool pictures.

On this trip, we headed to the private road taking us to see the Pan-STARRS telescopes, we had an invitation to see Pan-STARRS#2
Pan-STARRS telescopes. PS1 & PS2
Pan-STARRS telescopes. PS1 & PS2
Pan-STARRS, which is to say the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System is a telescope project developed at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy. The telescope was designed to have a wide field of view of the sky with a state of the art imaging system that is to say a HUGE camera, the biggest digital camera in the world so far, 1.4 Gigapixels. The camera and a good set of optical mirrors (made by Rayleigh Optical Corporation) allow them to survey and document the whole sky every few days. This is a good thing when you are looking to discover and characterize near Earth objects also known as NEOs, such as asteroids and comets. One of the science goals for Pan STARRS is to look for NEOs that could pose a danger to our planet, which I think is pretty cool so we don't go the way of the dinosaurs.

The Pan-STARRS project involves 2 telescopes known as PS1 & PS2. Dr. Jeff Morgan gave us a tour of PS2 which is in the final stages of alignment. Dr. Morgan pointed out several areas of technical interest and achievement and let me tell you there are plenty of details to make a good telescope work properly. As usual it is pretty hard to take pictures of a telescope when is inside its dome because it is usually in very tight quarters and this one was no different.
Dr. Jeff Morgan and David Anderson inside PS2 dome
Dr. Jeff Morgan and David S Anderson from Rayleigh Optical Corporation inside the PS2 dome
The temporary control quarters are outside the dome, and while there Dr. Morgan proceeded to do a scheduled alignment test. What I witnessed and learned is that astronomers don't do observations the same way Galileo did, meaning they don't look anymore through the telescope using an eyepiece like many amateur astronomers still do, everything is done with computers and the camera I mentioned. Troubleshooting a telescope can also be done with team members at different locations. For the alignment test the software engineer was in Hilo, Hawaii and they were communicating using computer video conferencing. Wow, I wonder what Galileo would say if he saw all of this.

Temporary control quarters for PS2
Temporary control quarters for PS2 telescope
While watching Dr. Morgan perform the alignment test, I still had time to go in and out of the temporary office to watch the sunset, and watch the stars in the dark but I was always glad to come back to the warmer quarters. Looking at the night sky from a dark place and at a high altitude is quite an experience. Everything is so clear, and there are soooo many stars! The Milky Way looks gorgeous and if you are lucky enough, you get to see a shooting star or two. 

We left to go down the mountain around 10pm.

Sunset from the top of Haleakala Mountain
Beautiful sunset from the top of Haleakala mountain
Walking from the dome to the parking lot in the dark is never fun in these locations because it is cold, the wind makes it feel even colder, the terrain is sharp rocks and you can only use a flashlight as a light source.

Driving down the mountain is a faster trek, about 1.5 hours. Of course the minute I could, I took all of my winter gear off, it had once again become seasonably tropical and I was thankful for that. Another successful trip up the Haleakala Mountain and tomorrow it's back to the beach, hurray!

So when you go to Maui, absolutely do go up to Haleakala and see the telescopes up close, see the crater and enjoy the views, you will not regret it but for sure bring adequate clothing and your camera.

Happy Travels!

Discovering and Enjoying my neighborhood one event and one place at a time.