Going to the Top to See Beyond: Keck Observatory

The twin domes of the W.M. Keck Observatory sit atop Hawaii's highest mountain, Mauna Kea, at 13,796 feet.

I can think of no human endeavor as fundamentally worthless and as fundamentally important as our obsession with the heavens. Our earliest stone monuments erected long before we even learned to write were often crude but effective observatories, our earliest temples and cities were built around stone platforms to put us closer to the beyond. The American Indians, the Mayans, the Celts, Vikings and the Incans all did it. The Egyptians learned to control agriculture using it. The ancient peoples of the Euphrates and Indus Valleys, as well as the people of India, Pakistan and China all did it. And now, at the doorway to the 22nd Century, we continue to do it--to put aside a part of our wealth in order to try and glimpse beyond our noses at the wonders and mysteries of our universe stretching above our heads.

The Big Island of Hawaii is a perfect place for peering into space. The surrounding ocean is even in temperature, there are few large cities to pollute the night skies with neon lights, and there happens to be one of the world's largest mountains, if you measure mountains from their base. In this case, Mauna Kea (meaning "white mountain" due to the snows) juts above the surface of the Pacific and climbs to 13,796 feet (4,200 meters). At this altitude the atmosphere is 40 percent less than sea level, which means that much less stuff to get in the way of "observing." At the top permafrost left over from the last ice age can be found 20 to 30 feet under the surface.

Mauna Kea is the largest mountain in the world when measured from its base nearly 20,000 feet under the sea.

The first telescope was installed on Mauna Kea by the University of Hawaii in 1968. Since then numerous others have been built, including by NASA, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. At this time the largest telescope in the world, the Keck Observatory, is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology, along with the University of California. The project was made possible by two grants from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

The summit is a dedicated science reserve managed by the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, and is open to scientists from all over the world. In the next few years plans are to have a dozen world-class telescopes placed there, representing an investment of over $750 million, an investment in better understanding this universe we call home.

Driving to the top is an adventure in itself. We left Hilo on a winding road that climbed the gentle slopes. Soon we were out of the rich lower vegetation and on a wide barren saddle marked by old lava, grasses and grazing cattle. The road was much like a roller coaster, bumping up and down but always making its way higher.

We came to the side road that led to the summit, and stopping here to look we could see there was no more kidding around with a gentle climb. This road went up. Warning signs were posted telling us about steep grades, absent minded cows, severe weather and before long, warnings about the altitude. Our car churned along, huffing and puffing slower with each mile.

Before long we were at the Visitor Information Station, a modern facility at an altitude of 9,300 feet. Here we met our old friend and former Alaskan, Andy Perala, the Information Officer for the Observatory. Stepping out of our car we immediately felt light headed, and Andy took us up to the "Base Camp," a modern facility where visiting scientists are made to stay overnight to acclimate. He led us into the lounge and began telling us how to best prepare for the trip ahead.

Since children under 16 are not allowed at the top, we'd left Cassidy playing with friends lower on the slopes. High altitude is a dangerous thing, and people with any health problems are cautioned about making the trip above the Visitor Station. We sat, talked, felt like we'd had one too many martinis, and drank plenty of fluids. After an hour we were ready to go the next step.

Andy drove us up in the Center's Suburban. Even in 4-wheel drive with adjusted carburetors the vehicle chugged along like a sloth up the steep dirt road. Before long we rounded a corner and saw the first of the telescopes. It was breathtaking. The sky a deep blue, and colors seemed more pure than we'd ever seen them. The top was its own island floating high above the surrounding sea of mist and clouds, and somewhere far beneath this surface was the surface of the mighty Pacific Ocean. The surrounding mountain top we were on was "lunar" like, so much so that the first moon landing astronauts trained here. Along the sides of the road were snow poles, just like at home in Alaska— and three out of the last four Julys the mountain has had blizzards.

We parked in front of the main Keck telescopes, and stepping out of the car we all suddenly felt "strange." Altitude does that, Andy explained, and he told us he'd be asking about how we felt quite a bit during our stay. For us, the first thing you notice is how thick and silly you feel, then you begin to notice how your body, in an effort to adjust, let's off gasses and liquids rapidly.

We entered the cavernous facility, donning hard hats and stopping to ingest and deposit more liquids. Andy then took us into the main computer area, a simple but elegant room filled with computer terminals. It is here where the eyes into the beginning of time are focused. Here is where the raw data would be collected and then carried off to various institutions around the world for detailed analysis.

Keck Observatory is the world's largest telescope, and atop Mauna Kea it is the largest collection of telescopes in the world. It is these instruments that are our best method for trying to understand the total of everything—by looking backwards into our most distant past. And here we sit at a momentous moment in our history—during the next few months humans will know about more planets outside our solar system then inside.

The community of scientists responsible for this human endeavor, and the fraternity of world's scientists who will make use of it for many years to come all deserve our highest praise. More than any other endeavor, these are the men and women who are helping us all to answer the Big Questions of our very existence, the "Why?

One of the spare hexagonal mirrors used in the telescope, this is one of the finest mirrors ever made.
Home :: About :: Journals
If you'd like to write to George, Salli, Samantha or Cassidy, drop them a line!

Copyright 1996 - 2011 - No form of usage or reproduction allowed without express written permission