Friday, June 11, 2004

On a clear night, you can see... a lake of fire?

I've mentioned before that I volunteer at the Visitor Information Station of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. To call Onizuka a "world-class" facility would not be exaggerating, at all - more than ten nations on 5 continents are involved in it, and the 12 observatories it supports include four of the ten largest optical telescopes in the world, as well as the largest dedicated infrared and submillimeter-band telescopes. The telescopes are among the highest terrestrial telescopes. A 1998 article in Outside magazine by Richard Panek gives some idea of just how extreme this all is. 

Even the VIS is pretty extreme - there aren't a lot of places in Hawaii you'll see tour buses and vans discharging hordes of tourists... in arctic-style parkas! On a clear night, the temperature drops to about 40 F (that's under 5 C), and there might be a good stiff breeze to contend with as well. But a clear night at 9,300 feet, with a dark sky above and basically zero light pollution is pretty incredible.

This week, I spent three evenings at the VIS. Wednesday and Friday started out cloudy, cleared up off and on, and then toward the end of the stargazing period at 10 PM, cleared up entirely. Thursday, though... was clear. Insanely clear. So clear that I could see the city lights of Hilo, 26 miles away at sea level. So clear that I could see the red of Kilauea's Pu'u O'o vent erupting in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 34 miles away and a mile lower, and even the red of lava flowing across the coastal plain and into the ocean, another 5 miles beyond it.

Toss in a visible pass by the Hubble Space Telescope, other satellites, meteors, two comets - C/2001 Q4 (NEAT) and C/2002 T7 (LINEAR) - and of course a view of Polaris, the Southern Cross, and quite a bit of stuff in between... and you've got a pretty spectacular experience, albeit a cold one.

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