Telescopes I've Seen - Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Mauna Kea Observatories - Mauna Kea, Island of Hawai'i

Keck and Subaru domes, Mauna Kea

Taking advantage of the high altitude and smooth airflow afforded by its unique location on a very tall mid-ocean volcano, Mauna Kea hosts the largest collection of optical and infrared telescopes on the planet, operated by groups worldwide. Aside from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the UK/Canadian/Dutch James Clerk Maxwell telescope, these facilities include:

  • The two 10-meter Keck telescopes
  • The 8.2-meter Subaru telescope
  • the 8.1-meter Gemini North telescope
  • the 3.8-meter UK Infrared Telescope
  • the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii telescope
  • the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter telescope
  • the 10.4-meter dish of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory

    Mauna Kea is a unique environment. The only macrosopic lifeforms I've seen on the summit are astronomers and Wekiu beetles, which seem to live off the carcasses of less hardy arthropods blown up on ill winds. Otherwise the ground looks rather like pictures of Mars. The daytime views aren't bad - Maui to the north, and sometimes to the south steam from lava pouring into the Pacific (only place I know of where lava is a source of light pollution). Here are some views of the summit from IRTF observing visits in 1996 and 1997 (when Gemini North was still only a steel dome framework). There was plenty of moonlight for nighttime views, since IR work doesn't mind that much.

    Canada-France-Hawaii telescope by moonlight The 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii telescope (CFHT), in its trademark onion dome. The excellent site plus careful attention to optics and airflow made this the first sizeable telescope to regularly deliver crisp subarcsecond images of faint targets. That's Arcturus and the rest of southern Bootes rising behind the dome.

    The University of Hawaii has long operated this 2.2-meter telescope (otherwise unnamed) at the summit. The enclosure for an instrument-change crane gives the dome an unmistakeable snout. The telescope has been recently notable for its roles in finding Kuiper-belt objects and deep infrared surveys. Sorry about thise scanner-artifact stripes on the corrugated sides - as bad as wagon wheels in an old Western movie. Hawaii 2.2-m telescope dome

    Keck I 10-meter telescope Keck II 10-meter telescope
    I was lucky enough to follow Fred Chaffee on his admiral's tour of the Keck domes, and got these shots of the two telescopes as a night's work was starting. Aside from the sheer aperture, they stand out for the mechanical design - compared to more traditional telescopes, they might as well be made of spiderweb. This light construction means they also move unusually fast. Keck domes at sunset

    Subaru telescope This enclosure, next to the Keck domes, houses the Subaru telescope of the Japanese national observatory. This is a very well-instrumented telescope, the only one of the generation of 8-m telescopes with wide-field imaging available as well as deep spectroscopy (IR work is a specialty). They've gone to considerable lengths to keep observers and other heat sources away from the telescope, including industrial robots to change secondary mirrors remotely. The control room is on a separate building just downhill.

    UKIRT was the first 4-m class dedicated IR telescope, and a continual upgrade process has left it capable of delivering subarcsecond images with IR imagers. Like the IRTF, it uses a yoke mount, sacrificing coverage near the north pole for compactness and stability. UKIRT 3.8m dome

    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory The 10-meter dish of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory sits down below the summit im "Millimeter Valley", more protected from the wind in a useful place for large instruments that don't need the summit airflow for optical seeing. The edge of the dish can just be seen as it points upward while the enclosure is opened.

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