At about five am this morning, two thirds of the way through my second shift on the telescope, I went outside to watch the dawn. The peak immediately behind the JCMT is called Pu’u Poliahu and I decided that would be the perfect spot to watch the Sun come up. Poliahu is the Hawai’ian snow goddess, who was constantly at war with her sister, the volcano god Pele. Pele’s home is the still active Mauna Loa, whereas Poliahu lived on the summit of Mauna Kea which is frequently snow covered. Pu’u Poliahu is therefore a sacred site, but as the place where the first astronomical site testing on the mountain was done, I suppose it might be considered sacred to astronomers too!
The sky was already bright when I stepped out of the door, with a crescent moon hanging about the summit ridge which is home to Gemini, UKIRT and several other telescopes. I walked through one of the JCMT’s neighbours down here in ‘sub-mm valley’, the SMA which consists of eight small dishes, and began climbing the mountain. I could see Jupiter extremely low on the horizon, and off to the right I could see the neighbouring island of Maui sticking above the clouds.
As I climbed higher, I began to feel the effects of the altitude. Climbing even a small hill at more than 14,000 feet above sea level is not easy, and I found myself becoming short of breath. I was also being blown about a bit by an extremely strong wind cutting across the summit, gusts of which blew me from one side of the track to the other. I had my back to the West, and between concentrating on breathing and resisting the wind I didn’t turn round to look at the dawn until I reached the top.
My pictures – taken while crouching down trying to shelter the camera from the wind – don’t do the sight justice. With the crescent moon above the greatest collection of professional telescopes anywhere in the world, the colour of the dawn was a deep red, purple low on the horizon rising to a golden yellow higher up. There were still stars visible in the sky as well as the Moon, and most of the telescopes were still open, most of them pointing toward me, away from the rising Sun.
I know it may be hard to believe, but sitting up there I was thinking of all the times when doing research feels like a hard slog, a prison sentence in front of a computer which won’t cooperate. Combined with the excellent data we got last night, it’s trips like this that remind me why I’m doing any of this in the first place. All I could think about (apart from the need to avoid being literally blown away) was how incredibly, incredibly lucky I am. I think I stayed up there for about twenty minutes, not able to tear my eyes away from the colours laid out in front of me (and realising that clouds are useful for something!).
And walking back down, frozen but ecstatic, I thought about how unique this wonderful island is. On the way up to the telescope, we’d looked over and seen the glow of the vents from one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Where else in the world could you find such an amazing variety within an area not much bigger than greater London? I also think I found the perfect spot to capture almost all of Mauna Kea’s telescopes on pixels.
From left to right: Subaru, Keck, IRTF (NASA), Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Gemini North, Uni. Hawaii, UKIRT, small Uni. Hawaii dome and in valley JCMT and CSO.
I love my job.