Peering Into the Universe
By Awake! correspondent in Hawaii
IF YOU wanted to look back in time, could you do it? The answer is yes!
In fact, every time we look up into a starry sky, we are peering into the past. But where could we go to experience such a fascinating view of time gone by? Well, like the ancient Polynesians who followed the stars to discover Hawaii, so today many who seek to follow or observe the stars come to this island state. However, they discover the highest form of astronomical technology—a technology that enables humans to look much farther into the past.
Let us travel to the island of Hawaii, or the Big Island. There we will ascend to the top of an extinct volcano called Mauna Kea. At an elevation of 13,796 feet [4,205 m], we will visit some of the world’s finest space observatories, devoted to peering into the universe.
Climbing Mauna Kea
Beginning in early morning, our drive to the top of Mauna Kea is long and winding. We move out of the tropical climate of the lower elevation, where there is upwards of 200 inches [500 cm] of rain a year, and ascend toward the barren upper slopes of this extinct volcano, where snow may remain for several months of the year. As we move up past the tree line, we find ourselves on a steep and precarious dirt road. Now we understand why a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required.
Finally, we reach the summit and find that it is sprinkled with many observatories. The atmosphere here is crisp, clear, and virtually transparent. We park the vehicle and step outside. Brisk, freezing winds chill us instantly. Yet, as we look around, a heady exhilaration rushes through us. We are standing on a barren volcano, high above the surrounding cloud cover, seemingly cut off from all other land and ocean views!
Early in the 1960’s, astronomers began to construct their first Big Island observatory to peer into outer space and into the past. But why here, on top of an island volcano, far out in the Pacific Ocean?
There are four basic reasons why this special location is so useful for investigating the starry heavens: (1) the high percentage of clear nights yearly; (2) the clarity and stability of the air, allowing less-distorted viewing; (3) the extremely low light level at night, protected by city lighting ordinances on the Big Island; and (4) the very low humidity. Why is that last factor important? Because humidity hampers some types of instruments.
Even with the naked eye, we can easily see the unusual atmospheric qualities that make this an excellent location for peering into outer space. No wonder Mauna Kea is regarded as a near-perfect location for observing the stars.
Inside the Observatories
We meet our guide and with her proceed to the W. M. Keck Observatory. This contains the largest and by far the most powerful telescope being built to date.
As we enter, we quickly realize that astronomers no longer peer through these telescopes with the naked eye. No, gone are those days! Today, scientists interact with the telescope through powerful computers and other sophisticated equipment. This computer-aided equipment is capable of seeing billions of times more than what the naked eye can see.
Mind boggling, is it not? Through this technology the astronomers can gather enough information in just a few days of viewing to keep them busy for months afterward evaluating what they have gathered.
Our guide now draws our attention to what puts the W. M. Keck Observatory at the leading edge of astronomical technology—the unique design of its telescope. We notice the 36 hexagonal mirror segments, each about six feet [1.8 m] across. These are the equivalent of one mirror 33 feet [10 m] in diameter.
Describing how this telescope operates, a press release by the California Association for Research in Astronomy states: “With their positions electronically controlled to an accuracy of one-millionth of an inch—a thousand times less than the width of a human hair,” and with only a quarter of its mirrors in place, it “already equals the power of the 200-inch [5 m] Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory” in California.
That is not all. Our guide informs us that they have just received funding for a second telescope to sit adjacent to this one, which is still under construction. These twin telescopes will act as a pair of giant space binoculars, looking farther into outer space than had ever been thought possible. It is truly exciting to be here!
However, at the high altitude, we don’t want to get too excited because the potential for hypoxia, lack of oxygen to the tissues of the body, is apparent to us. We sense that our mental acuity is not at its best as we struggle to focus our thoughts and formulate speech. In fact, moving too fast or exerting too much energy at this elevation may cause headaches, nausea, and fainting. Certainly, this is no place for anyone in ill health.
Therefore, after spending five hours at the summit, it is time to head down the mountain to the 9,200-foot [2,800 m] level. It has been an eventful morning up to this point.
What Do the Stars Tell Us?
At the 9,200-foot [2,800 m] level, there are accommodations and facilities for some 50 astronomers and support personnel. Also located at this level is a visitor’s center, where you can hear lectures on the Mauna Kea observatories.
Additionally, as a treat for those who want to stay on, there will be nighttime viewing of the stars from an 11-inch [28 cm] telescope, with commentary by one of the University of Hawaii’s own qualified scientists. If you stay, as we did, you will not be disappointed. To say the least, it is an excellent way to learn what testimony the stars can give and to round out a most unusual day.
You may be wondering why we stated earlier that we can look back in time. An example might help you to understand this concept. Take, for instance, the Andromeda galaxy. On a clear night, its light may be visible to the naked eye. Now, knowing how far away that island universe of stars is from the earth and that light travels at 186,282 miles [299,792 km] a second, scientists have determined that the light you see coming from the Andromeda galaxy is 1.5 million years old! Yes, viewing starlight is actually looking back in time.
With these new advanced telescopes on Mauna Kea, man now has the ability to look even farther back in time and farther into outer space. This is because modern telescopes are so much more powerful than the naked eye. Indeed, it is estimated that with present technology, astronomers are seeing starlight that is eight billion years old! By gathering such information, they are hoping to understand better how stars began and how the universe developed.
Certainly this has been a day like no other day for us visitors. What we have seen will long be imprinted on our memory. What astronomers are seeing and will yet see makes us marvel at the wonders of creation. No more will we simply glance up at the starry sky at night and turn away. Henceforth, we will remember this occasion and the beauty of this mountain observation post.
[Picture Credit Line on page 25]
California Association for Research in Astronomy