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Mauna Kea Observatory Complex

The crystal-clear air and lack of dust and light pollution make the Mauna Kea Observatory Complex the best in the world.
The crystal-clear air and lack of dust and light pollution make the Mauna Kea Observatory Complex the best in the world. Photo © Vadim Kurland, licensed Creative Commons Attribution,

Atop the mountain is a mushroom grove of astronomical observatories, as incongruously striking as a futuristic earth colony on a remote planet of a distant galaxy. The crystal-clear air and lack of dust and light pollution make the Mauna Kea Observatory Complex the best in the world. At close to 14,000 feet, it is above 40 percent of the earth’s atmosphere and 98 percent of its water vapor. Temperatures hover around 40-50°F during the day, and there’s only 9-11 inches of precipitation annually, mostly in the form of snow. The astronomers have come to expect an average of 325 crystal-clear nights per year, perfect for observation.

The state of Hawaii leases plots at the top of the mountain, upon which various institutions from all over the world have constructed telescopes. Those institutions in turn give the University of Hawai‘i up to 15 percent of their viewing time. The university sells the excess viewing time, which supports the entire astronomy program and makes a little money on the side. Those who work at the top must come down every four days because the thin air makes them forgetful and susceptible to making calculation errors. Scientists from around the world book months in advance for a squint through one of these phenomenal telescopes, and institutions from several countries maintain permanent outposts there.

The second telescope that you see on your left is the United Kingdom’s James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), a radio telescope with a primary reflecting surface more than 15 meters in diameter. This unit was operational in 1987. It was dedicated by Britain’s Prince Philip, who rode all the way to the summit in a Rolls Royce. The 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), finished in 1979 for $33 million, was the first to spot Halley’s Comet in 1983.

A newer eye to the heavens atop Mauna Kea is the double W. M. Keck Observatory. Keck I was operational in 1992 and Keck II in 1996. The Keck Foundation, a philanthropic organization from Los Angeles, funded the telescopes to the tune of over $140 million; they are among the world’s most high-tech, powerful, and expensive. Operated by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), a joint project of the University of California and Cal Tech, the telescopes have an aperture of 400 inches and employ entirely new and unique types of technology. The primary reflectors are fashioned from a mosaic of 36 hexagonal mirrors, each only three inches thick and six feet in diameter.

These “small” mirrors have been carefully joined together to form one incredibly huge, actively controlled light reflector surface. Each of the mirror segments is capable of being individually positioned to an accuracy of a millionth of an inch; each is computer-controlled to bring the heavenly objects into perfect focus. These titanic eyeballs have already spotted both the most distant known galaxy and the most distant known object in the universe, 12 and 13 billion light years from earth, respectively. The light received from these objects today was emitted not long after the “Big Bang” that created the universe theoretically occurred. In a real sense, scientists are looking back toward the beginning of time!

In addition to these are the following: The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), online since 1979, does only infrared viewing with its three-meter mirror. Also with only infrared capabilities, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), in operation since 1979 as well, searches the sky with its 3.8-meter lens. Directly below it is the University of Hawai‘i 0.6-meter Telescope. Built in 1968, it was the first on the mountaintop and has the smallest reflective mirror. Completed in 1970, the University of Hawai‘i 2.2-meter Telescope was a huge improvement over its predecessor but is now the second smallest telescope at the top. The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) has been looking into the sky since 1987 with its 10.4-meter radio telescope. Subaru (Japan National Large Telescope) is a monolithic 8.3-meter mirror capable of both optical and infrared viewing. It is the most recently completed telescope on the mountain, fully operational since 2000. The Gemini Northern 8.1-meter Telescope, also with both optical and infrared viewing, is run by a consortium from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Its southern twin is located on a mountaintop in Chile, and together they have been viewing the heavens since 1999. Situated to the side and below the rest is the Submillimeter Array, a series of eight six-meter-wide antennae. About two miles distant from the top is the Very Long Baseline Array, a 25-meter-wide, centimeter wavelength radio dish that is one in a series of similar antennae that dot the 5,000-mile stretch between Hawaii and the Virgin Islands.

Currently, while the state is considering expansion of the complex to include additional telescopes and support facilities, a number of groups, including The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, are calling upon the state to proceed in a culturally and environmentally friendly manner or to not proceed at all. This is a highly contested issue on the island.

Visiting the Telescopes

At present, only the Subaru Telescope allows visitors on organized tours, and you must reserve at least one week ahead of time. These free, 40-minute tours are given at 10:30am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm only on weekdays that they are offered. Tours are run in English and Japanese, with the first and last tours of the day usually in English. The tour schedule is posted two months in advance on the telescope website. Transportation to the telescope is the visitor’s responsibility. This tour is a brief introduction to the telescope itself and the work being performed. There is no opportunity to actually view anything through the telescope. All safety precautions pertaining to visiting the summit also apply to visiting this telescope for the tour.

While the Keck telescopes do not offer tours, the visitors gallery at the telescope base is open weekdays 10am-4:30pm for a 12-minute video, information about the work being done, and a “partial view of the Keck I telescope and dome.” Two public restrooms are also available to visitors. The same information and video are available in the lobby at the Keck headquarters in Waimea.

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