Observations from 10,000' on Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii

Marj and I spent two glorious weeks in Maui last month, hiking, splashing in the ocean and, of course checking out the sky from atop one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

I brought along my 92mm Stowaway, with several eyepieces, 2" diagonal, barlow, and a Televue Tele-Pod mount and tripod. The Tele-Pod fit inside my suitcase, and the scope was carry-on.

The night we chose to observe was brilliantly clear, but a bit unsteady. From where we were staying at the 3000 ft level it was a 50 minute drive to the 10,300 foot summit. We were warned that it would be cold, and indeed it was. Even with my heavy Illinois winter garb, I quickly got chilled. It was not so much the freezing air temperature, but the fact that the air was extremely clear and the sky was black, so that radiational cooling was robbing any exposed surface of heat. My bare hands got very cold, very quickly. My feet were like icicles inside my wool-socked hiking shoes. Bring warm boots if you go!

Looking up into the blackness, I was overwhelmed by the number of stars. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, spilling into the ocean on either side of the mountain. In the east, the Zodiacal light was so bright, it almost rivaled the Milky way. A faint Gegenschein was seen in the west. A quick peak at Jupiter at 180x showed some banding and the Red spot, but the image was turbulent. Not much to see here that I could not see in Illinois, so I worked my way down the Milky way with the big 35mm Panoptic. First stop was M41 in Canis Major - gorgeous tight open cluster. Switching to my 7mm Nagler revealed brilliant shimmering stars. A slight unsteadiness in the air gave it a 3D appearance. At the latitude of Haleakela, this object appeared very high up in the sky, and there lay a lot of Milky way below. Using Norton's, I worked my way deep into the southern sky, identifying objects new to me in Puppis, Carina, and Vela. At -60 degrees latitude, I ran out of Norton's before I ran out of stars. For the first time I had to turn to Norton's Map 16, that of the Southern Circumpolar Sky, in order to continue my quest down to the horizon. There I identified a beautiful globular - NGC 6752 in Pavo, and an open cluster - NGC 6025 in Triangulum Aus. Still, the horizon was below these bright jewels. By 5:00 am, the Milky Way in Norma and Lupus was well above the horizon, and the Southern cross was rising above Mauna Kea on the Big Island, some 100 miles to the south-east. Omega Centaury was now well placed, and sparkled above the distant horizon clouds. The air was so clear right down to the horizon, that had it been June, I would have seen the northern half of the Large Magellanic Cloud peering out of the ocean.

Until about 5 am, Marj and I were alone on the summit. Little by little, cars started to wind their way up the mountain, and people started to emerge from the shadowy parking lot. At around 5:30, we saw a sudden brightening along the horizon, signaling the beginning of dawn. At first, this did little to diminish the Milky Way and starlight above. Above the glow, I noticed Mercury shining very brightly in the blue-black sky. By 6:15 am, we could see the observatories on Mauna Kea in the eyepiece of the 92mm. Their outlines were etched in stark contrast against the brightening background, even though they were 100 miles away.

Sunrise at Haleakela

By now, a steady stream of cars and vans brought perhaps 100 people to the summit to participate in the sunrise ritual. Sunrise was forcast at 6:38 am. I had my eye glued to the 35 Panoptic in order to experience the green flash in reverse. I've seen the green flash many times at sunset, including the night before from our lanai (porch) at the 3000 ft level, but never at sunrise. The sun finally appeared at 6:38:15 above a low horizon cloud bank. There it was - a brilliant blue-green slice followed quickly by pale green-yellow, and then it was way too bright to look at anymore. Naked eye, a bright yellow disc was rising quickly above the first cloud layer, then sliced by a second stratified cloud layer. It was way too intense now to look at directly. I turned around and saw the shadow of Haleakela projected against the western sky - a perfect pyramid slowly sinking into the ocean as the sun rose higher in the east. The immensity of the mountain became apparent as the shadow projected itself against the western Maui mountains, themselves rising more than 5000 ft above the ocean. The base of the mountain reached all the way from the north-west coast of the island, totally shaded the west Maui mountains, and reached clear across to the island of Lanai some 30 miles off-shore. Most people around us were oblivious to this light show. They were busy scurrying away after witnessing sunrise, saying things like "well I guess that's it. Lets go".

Haleakela Crater

Below us, what had been an impenetrable blackness, suddenly began to emerge as an immense crater with sunlight spilling over the rim. The crater of Haleakela, some 25 miles across, is really an immense basin formed by erosion. The mountain was once 13,000 ft high, but the center portion collapsed inward, and the material was carried away by wind and rain. The basin is ringed by a mountain wall, the highest point at 10, 300 ft, was the part where we were standing. The wall is not complete, but has two large gaps, the Ko'olan gap to the N-E, and the Kaupo gap to the S-E. Here is where the material flowed downward like a rock glacier to the sea, and helped to form Maui's fabulous beaches.

Marj and I left our perch on the wall, and started to hike into the crater itself. I was immediately struck by the eerie play of light and shadow on the surrounding terrain. The lava-strewn landscape resembled that of the Mars lander photos - every stone and rock was casting an inky-dark, sharply defined shadow, a sensation I have had only during the latter stages of a solar eclipse. In every rock shadow, you could make out the faintest hint of frost that was totally gone where the sunlight hit the ground. The reason for the sharp, contrasty shadows is that there is very little light from the deep blue sky above to illuminate the shadow areas, and the sun's rays are so intense on the illuminated parts that the eye has trouble taking it in all at once. Haleakela has some of the cleanest, clearest air on the planet - air that has traveled thousands of miles over the open ocean. The air is so dry, that there is almost a total lack of scatter. I have been to several mountain top observatories, and have not seen this low scatter in the air. I could hold my hand up to block the sun's rays from my eyes, and usually see a faint glow around my hand. Up here, on Haleakela, I saw none whatsoever. In fact, I held up my little finger with the sun directly behind it, and saw nothing but intense blue sky all around my pinky.

Later the next day, we again went into the crater, this time on horse back. We saw the famous Silversword plants, and got close to some of the cinder cones that dot the inside of the crater. These erupted thousands of years after the main mountain building phase, after the cone had collapsed. Haleakela is a dormant volcano, the last eruption was sometime in the 1700's. It may erupt one more time before slowly sinking back into the sea, a process that will take 10's of thousands of years. Until then, it will remain a fascinating place to see. It really gets into you. Marj and I will be back.

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Astro-Physics, Inc.
11250 Forest Hills Road, Rockford, IL  61115, U.S.A.
Phone: 815-282-1513   Fax: 815-282-9847