Apr 15, 2008

Closer to gods

Gemini Observatory on LGS, Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I began work as a laser spotter on Tuesday evening, and I must declare it was the coolest work shift I've ever experienced.

I met the spotting team for that evening at the astronomy center in Hilo. The lead spotter is responsible for driving the team up to the summit (an elevation gain of 13,000 feet), and the scenery all the way up is nothing short of spectacular and surreal. The weather was dark, rainy, and overcast from Hilo most of the way up, but once we reached the 7000 foot level or so, we broke out of the clouds instantaneously. It truly takes one by surprise to be under the clouds or in the fog for several hours then suddenly be greeted by deep blue sky and sunlight, as well as be granted commanding views of the other mountain summits, which rise like floating islands from a blanket of clouds that seems to stretch forever into the heavens.

From the summit, and even on the way up from the visitor center, one gazes down at a thick blanket of clouds, often aglow with a variety of orangeish or pinkish hues at sunset. One can easily feel like they are on top of the world. Of course, up here, with just a little imagination, you can fool your mind into believing you are on another planet. Another impressive sight is the mountain's shadow projected against the clouds. It's similar to being in an airplane late in the day and watching the plane's shadow from a window seat, only one can imagine how much more significant the shadow of the world's tallest mountain is.

We stopped at the astronomers' living quarters just uphill from the visitors center for dinner. Plenty of good free food, and a very nice open, airy ambiance for dining and lounging, with a kind of view one would expect at 11,000 feet. The building also has a nice dark TV lounge, several recliners, and a couple pool tables and darts, so it's not a bad place to hang for a little while and become acclimated before heading up to the summit.

Gemini is the absolute highest observatory up here, and yes, the air is very thin and cold. So we've got our warm clothes, snazzy orange jumpsuits, and oxygen masks. We spent the first two hours or so in the observatory just sitting in the base floor control center surfing the web while the operators used natural guide star (which, unlike LGS or laser guide star, isn't necessary to spot for).

The non web-surfing, hot cocoa-drinking, movie-watching aspect of the job involves sitting in an SUV and watching the night sky for aircraft that may fly over and interfere with the laser during LGS operations. We just have to record any sightings of aircraft on a data sheet, and if any aircraft happens to stray too close, notify the telescope operator, or in the event of a rare emergency, press a magic button to shutter the laser. We take turns, one of us going out to watch the east sky for an hour, one of us the west sky for the same amount of time, then come back inside and break for an hour while the other two spotters go outside for an hour. Theoretically, we do this from sunset to sunrise, depending on atmospheric conditions such as the presence of the thermal inversion layer (which usually ensures the sky above a certain elevation is cloudless and free of volcanic emissions which can directly interfere with telescope operations).

I will say that the summit of Mauna Kea is very otherworldly and indescribably peaceful on the middle of a moonlit night. The temperature is around 30 degrees up there, but I certainly don't find that too cold. I'm accustomed to climbing mountains day or night for leisure, so I don't object to standing at the edge of the world in a location which offers some of the best stargazing on the planet. That one night I worked so far, I witnessed the most gorgeous moonset I had ever seen. It appeared almost as a subdued sunset, staining much of the western horizon multiple colours of orange. Now that is some celestial brush. Though, even that wasn't as beautiful as watching the stars up there once the sky darkened completely. The stars seem so close and in such great abundance up there I nearly felt like I could just reach out and grab one.

As I write this, we are actually on standby, waiting in the lounge while the operators at the summit decide whether they're going to do any LGS at all tonight. The weather conditions are not ideal due to a storm moving in from the west, cutting off the trade winds, and sending gas from the volcano up this way. In the meantime, this is a very cozy place to chill.

1 comment:

fleetingentity said...

I can't believe it, its all sounds so surreal...but it also sound like you'vce finally found your niche, and for that I am more than happy for you ;)