Mauna Kea in Hawaii is a dormant volcano and tranlates to ‘White Mountain’ in the native Hawaiian language. This is because the top is often covered in snow between November and March – locals even use this as an opportunity to go skiing! The peak of Mauna Kea is 4,207m above sea level, about 30m taller than neighboring Mauna Loa and about 9,100m above its base on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. This means that Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain, taller than Mount Everest at 8,848m, which is the highest mountain above sea level. The height above sea level may change over the next few thousand years as the massive weight of the Mauna Kea volcano means that the seabed of the ocean below it is depressing slowly over time.
Mauna Kea can be reached via the very tricky Saddle Road. The summit is then a very long, steep drive on a mixture of man made roads and off road dirt track. Cars must be 4 by 4 drive to be able to go past the Mauna Kea visitor centre as it is a difficult off road drive. Visitors must also acclimatise at the visitor centre so you don’t pass out whilst driving up at altitude. There are toilets, souvenirs and a mini cinema inside the Mauna Kea visitor center. If you are going to the summit for sunset then when you get back down there is a free star gazing session every evening where you can use optical telescopes to check out star systems, galaxies and planets with local university guides to position the telescopes and to offer information on our universe.
For those brave enough to venture to the summit of Mauna Kea, it is paramount that enough supplies are taken in terms of fuel, spare fuel, food, water, warm clothing, sunglasses and sun block. The Mauna Kea summit is regarded as one of the very best observatory sites in the world as it is clear of about 40% of the earth’s atmosphere, free of light pollution and above the clouds, allowing very clear observations for about 300 days in the year which means huge savings by not having to venture into space to position a telescope. The location relatively near the equator means than most of the northern and southern stars are visible.
The summit houses over a dozen telescopes including the largest optical and infra red Keck telescopes which are 10m in diameter. A full list of telescopes at the summit is available here
Plans are underway to build the Thirty Meter Telescope for 2018 which will have 10 times the resolution of the space based Hubble telescope but will only be the second largest in the world as the European Extremely Large Telescope will be completed at the same time in Chile (42m). If observatories are not of interest then the spectacular views of the world below will be. It feels immesly peaceful high up at sunset.
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