Climbed a Mountain, Saw a Comet, Defined the Far Parameters of the Visible Universe

Just another day of the extreme science at Mauna Kea, the most breathtaking observatory in the world

Richard Panek

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The dormant volcano of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii rises 13,796 feet above sea level, and then it rises a little bit more: the domes and dishes of the nine telescopes that crowd the several acres at the summit, as if straining for a better view of what’s out there. Individually, even an observatory six or eight stories tall isn’t necessarily impressive, at least not here. Each one may come as a fresh surprise as it ranges into view, a blaze of white against the deep blue of the thin atmosphere or the rich lunar gray of the volcanic soil. But in this queer landscape, where the only scale of comparison is an immense and indifferent sky, it’s in the aggregate that these structures begin to assume gargantuan proportions. Two here, three more up the road, a couple others on a distant ridge: It’s the behemoth-after-behemoth audacity that lends the observatories atop Mauna Kea their lunatic grace. They’re like an elephant graveyard: It must mean something that so many of them are here.

Chris Mullis, a 26-year-old doctoral student from Charlotte, North Carolina, climbs to the observing room of the 88-inch telescope owned by the University of Hawaii and begins patrolling the perimeter, the metal catwalk that rings the outside of the dome. If he raised his arms in the air and shouted “King of the world!” it would be hard to contradict him, but actually Mullis is just a subject, a citizen of a community that has staked out Mauna Kea, and is engaged in what might be termed, for lack of an official phrase, extreme science.

The summit on which Mullis perches is less than a two-hour drive from the white-sand beaches of the guidebooks, an environment that’s alpine when it’s not altogether otherworldly. In winter, snow can travel horizontally at 130 miles per hour, the windchill factor can fall to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit, and visiting astronomers — some sucking on oxygen cylinders like balky clients ascending Aconcagua — battle conditions more typically encountered by seasoned mountaineers: whiteouts and black ice and frostbite and hypoxia. Even in summer, the temperature at the summit frequently falls to the freezing level, and the occasional July snowfall on Mauna Kea (the translation of which, after all, is “White Mountain”) pulls surfers and their boards from the beaches to the ridable snow. Suffice it to say that the observatories on Mauna Kea operate the only snowplow in the Hawaiian Islands.

I’m on Mars. This is what Mullis says to himself each time he reaches the summit. Only a couple of minutes above Hale Pohaku — an ersatz ski chalet partway up the face of Mauna Kea that serves as a living quarters — the last traces of vegetation vanish and the landscape turns distinctly extraterrestrial. In fact, NASA off-road-tested its lunar rover here. But it’s not so much the barrenness of the surroundings that evokes thoughts of other planets as it is the rock fields and, especially, the pu’us, or cinder cones, the mini-mountains that rise out of the side of Mauna Kea. Down there at the base of the volcano, festooned with grass and shrubs, they’re nothing but humble hills, but up here, denuded of everything but brown volcanic debris, the cinder cones appear uncannily like giant craters.

Scanning the sky above Mauna Kea for traces of cirrus clouds — wispy fingers of ice crystals that hover at 20,000 feet — Mullis shouts over the wind, “The more junk there is in the upper atmosphere, the prettier the sunset — and the worse the observing. What’s good for the tourist is bad for the astronomer.” Mullis is an inveterate weather-watcher. He keeps a National Weather Service Web page open at all times on his computer, he maintains regular radio contact with Honolulu civil defense, and he studies the sky above Mauna Kea — the highest point on the Big Island of Hawaii, the highest point in the Pacific Basin, the highest island mountain in the world — every chance he gets.

And he’s not alone. Across the dirt cut that functions as a road up here, at the base of the UH-88 observatory, several astronomers are sitting in lawn chairs. Far below, beneath the breaks in the clouds, the beaches of Kona sometimes show; at a much greater distance, the mountains of Maui. Down there, the tourists are taking the last dip of the day, or settling in for a poolside luau. Up here, the astronomers are bundled into winter coats — it’s the first week of summer, and the temperature is 39 degrees — and watching the skies.

Mullis has been manning the control room of the UH-88 telescope for seven nights now, identifying likely candidates for galaxy clusters halfway across the universe; tomorrow night he’ll switch to the far more powerful Keck II telescope for a closer look. To some astronomers, the privilege of using Keck comes with an increasingly popular bonus: remote observing from an off-site observation room at lower altitude. But Mullis elects to remain at the summit and work within the telescopes themselves. “I’m already acclimated,” he says. “And I like to go on-site while I still have the chance. There’ll come a day when I won’t be able to do this,” and he sweeps his arm toward the dazzlingly white observatories, the darkening craters, the sunset skies over the Pacific, and maybe the heavens themselves, just beginning to emerge. “When I’ll be sitting in my office somewhere, and it’ll just appear on my screen.”

Astronomy, by its nature a nighttime, year-round activity, comes with a history of hardships. The great 18th-century astronomer William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus and architect of the largest telescopes in history up to that time, would observe in the damp and cold of the English countryside throughout the winter, even as the temperatures dipped to the single digits. He would rub himself raw with an onion to combat the ague, while his breath crystallized on the side of the telescope tube, the ink congealed in its well, and on one occasion the primary mirror of the telescope itself snapped in half with a crack like a rifle report. Herschel was fortunate; he had a sister assisting him who could equal his dedication and fortitude. When she fell one New Year’s Eve in a foot of snow and snagged her right leg above the knee on an iron hook, she took care to note, “I had, however, the comfort to know that my Brother was no loser through the accident, for the remainder of the night was cloudy.”

To astronomers, the physical discomforts of Mauna Kea are simply part of the territory: Push the limits of the universe and sometimes the universe is going to push back. In many ways, the exchange seems worth it, however. Even in an age of astonishing astronomical discoveries, this one site’s contributions to the study of the universe stand alone: evidence of planets outside our solar system; black holes by the dozen; supernovas some seven billion light-years away providing compelling proof that the fate of the cosmos is to expand forever; a mysterious blast from the farthest reaches of space that for about two seconds was as energetic as all other sources of light in the universe combined, earning it the new astronomical moniker of “hypernova”; galaxies that routinely move back the record for most distant object ever seen. In March, a team of researchers announced that it had used Keck II to discover a galaxy 12.22 billion light-years from Earth. “Now that we know what to look for,” the team leader said at the time, “I’m sure this record will be broken in a matter of months.” Two months later, it was: a galaxy 12.3 billion light-years away. “What we’re doing now,” said one of the leaders of the second team, “we can only do at Mauna Kea.”

Mount Hamilton outside San Jose, Mount Wilson near Los Angeles, Mount Palomar near San Diego — each at one time enjoyed a reputation as the Mauna Kea of its day. As civilization has advanced, astronomers have retreated, heading deeper into remote territory, farther out and up in their search for optically optimal conditions — the plateaus of Chile and southwestern Africa, the mountains of the Canary Islands and the Caucasus. But the blustery summit of Mauna Kea stands alone literally and figuratively, home to the highest and most extensive collection of major telescopes ever, including the twin ten-meter Keck telescopes, the most powerful optical telescopes in history. The Hubble Space Telescope, operating above the distortions of Earth’s atmosphere, can see more clearly — can make out finer details — but the Kecks can see deeper into space: 94 percent of the way across the universe, and counting.

Yet when astronomer Gerard P. Kuiper first cleared a path up Mauna Kea in the early 1960s to survey the peak for its astronomical suitability, he was faced with a question still pertinent today: what price science? Not for the observers, but for the observations? At nearly 14,000 feet, the human brain simply doesn’t work as well as at sea level — a not inconsiderable concern for scientists struggling to contemplate the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe. As Neill Reid, a beefy Scottish-born astronomer says, “Up there, very simple problems become insuperable.” Such as? “Addition. And subtraction.”

“And you get lethargic,” Ben Zuckerman adds, drawing out the word, his long, limber frame going limp in his chair. Zuckerman belongs to a team of researchers that earlier this year made worldwide headlines with evidence strongly suggesting the presence of planets around several of the nearest stars in the galaxy. Tonight, however, Zuckerman — a professor of physics and astronomy from UCLA — and Reid are using Keck I to hunt a type of collapsed star called a white dwarf — and they’re doing it from sea level, an observation room toward the rear of the W. M. Keck Observatory headquarters in Waimea.

Like many observatories on Mauna Kea, as well as at other remote locations around the world, Keck is instituting remote observing to mitigate hazards of working on-site. In theory, remote observing offers the best of both worlds — the dry, dark, calm skies of Mauna Kea along with the comforts of … well, if not home, at least the office.

Zuckerman and Reid have 10 computer monitors at their fingertips, two others a short chair-roll away, and two more across the room (“This observatory has the highest computer density of any observatory in the world, I think,” Reid mutters at one point, zooming his chair backward across the industrial gray carpeting), as well as the giant television monitor that provides the vital two-way audio and visual link with the telescope operator on the summit. Outside, a tropical storm is raging: horizontal sheets of rain, blinding bursts of fog. Inside, the two astronomers sit within the womb of the Keck I observing room, calmly collecting data from the summit, which sits above this storm in particular and the weather in general. As if to reinforce the virtual on-siteness of remote observations, a photo of the twin Kecks, majestic in their mountaintop isolation, hangs on the wall over the main computer monitors. Above the two domes, a caption reads, “You are observing here,” and an arrow points to the one on the left.

“It’s a lot more pleasant down here,” Zuckerman says during one of the periodic waits for data. “But it’s a lot more authentic up there.”

As its name might suggest, saddle road rides the high valley between Mauna Kea and the still-active Mauna Loa, dividing the island north from south. It’s not for all cars — many local rental agencies consider the road off-limits — but for anyone wanting to explore the interior, it’s the only way to go. There are no gas stations along the way, no convenience stores, nothing but nature: forests to the east, then vast lava plains of gleaming black rock, then a desert complete with cacti, and finally, to the west, the grasslands and grazing cattle of the 250,000-acre Parker Ranch. Altogether it’s 65 miles of swerving, swooping, cresting, dipping, paved (and patched, and repaved, and repatched, until in fact long stretches of it register on the shock absorbers as unpaved) blacktop that sometimes suddenly plunges but mostly, gradually, inexorably rises to a midpoint where, at an elevation of 6,000 feet, it intersects with the one road leading to Mauna Kea’s living facilities at 9,000 feet. The signs along the roads might warn of “fog,” but from the giant glass doors lining the dining room at Hale Pohaku, it’s clear that what cars have to pass through is clouds.

The community of astronomers who gather here from the Netherlands and the mainland, from the UK and Canada, from Japan and France, share one belief: Mauna Kea is no place to do science, yet it’s the best place there is. They sleep during the day in the four simple dormitories that cover the flanks of the volcano, straggling into Hale Pohaku for dinner (or as some prefer to call it, breakfast). Hale Pohaku is a quiet, almost monastic place, and the astronomers maintain an air of thoughtful reflection, a low-level buzz of figures and theories and, on occasion, academic gossip. Unless, that is, the night before happened to have been cloudy, in which case it’s deathly silent — the sound of data ungathered.

For astronomers at Mauna Kea, the stakes are often impossibly high. Time on a telescope can cost tens of thousands of dollars a night; at the Kecks, it runs about a dollar per second. An astronomer has to apply for observing time a year in advance, spending countless hours writing proposals, submitting them, and hoping one is accepted (and on the Kecks, only one in seven is). Then, when their two or three or four nights arrive, the astronomer is stuck with them, clear skies or not, functioning equipment or not, physically healthy and mentally agile or not. To astronomers, the data they collect on a major telescope determine whether they can write the papers that complete their Ph.D.’s, that support their hypotheses, that affect the trajectories of entire careers — or not.

Yet even when astronomers sit around a table at Hale Pohaku and trade high-altitude horror stories — remember the woozy astronomer who punched the wrong key and erased half a night’s worth of data? — they don’t uniformly embrace the safer option of remote observing, even when it’s available. Partly the resistance stems from practical considerations. An on-site astronomer can simply walk outside and check the sky — a useful option if the patch of the heavens under observation suddenly turns hazy and the observer needs to find an alternate, fast. One astronomer, a 29-year-old University of Hawaii graduate student named James Bauer, tells about the time the monitor showed nothing but white, leading him to worry that the remote electronic camera somehow had washed out. Before giving up, however, he walked into the dome, stood behind the telescope, and sighted up its shaft. There, in all its brilliance, was the real culprit: the Moon. “Sometimes,” he says, “it’s a five-minute solution if you’re up there in person.”

An astronomer working on-site also has greater motivation to find a solution than does, say, the telescope operator. As one frazzled graduate student remarked one evening, “The level of desperation is high.”

But some astronomers resist remote observing in part because it marks the end of an era — indeed, the end of the only way astronomers have done astronomy, for all its innovations, since the invention of the telescope in the early 1600s.

The age of the lone observer, standing watch in the dead of night, staring into the abyss of the universe looking for the secrets of existence while the rest of us sleep the sleep of innocents, is long gone. As recently as January 1997, most Keck observers made the trek up the mountain. Today about 90 percent of astronomers on either Keck telescope stay at sea level in Waimea. For the first time, an astronomer can probe the mysteries of the universe without coming into intimate contact with the universe’s physical environment — the rain, the wind, the hail, the earth. When Chris Mullis talks about memorable observing runs on Mauna Kea, he immediately recalls a time when a fresh eruption on Mauna Loa was rumbling in the distance. “You were looking at the far end of the universe,” he marvels, “and at the same time new land was being added to the island.”

In some ways, on-site observing is a young astronomer’s luxury. One sleepy afternoon in Hale Pohaku, Mullis says, “I like being here, unlike” — lowering his voice, glancing around — “some of the elder astronomers.” But he’s fighting a losing battle, and he knows it. Even his choice of post-doctoral specialization reflects the changing nature of the business — X-ray astronomy, the study of a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that’s accessible only from outer space. Soon Mullis will have no choice but to sit at a desk and simply download data.

Until then, and in more ways than one, Mauna Kea remains a final frontier. During Mullis’s first night on the Keck II, James Bauer and his assistant, Hao Zheng, a quiet summer intern from Washington University in St. Louis, begin acclimatizing themselves for the start of their own observing run the following night by paying him a brief visit. Then they drive (navigating by parking lights only) along one of the dirt roads that trace the ridge of the summit, past the domes of the UH-88, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, and the other telescopes built — or being built — by various universities and outside institutions, and finally reach Keck II.

The Keck II telescope operator agrees to take them inside the dome for a quick tour, and they climb the scaffolding and stare into the revolutionary honeycomb design, the 36 hexagonal mirrors that together make up the equivalent of a single ten-meter mirror. When they’re done, the telescope operator warns them that Pat Henry, who chairs Mullis’s doctoral committee, wants them out by the time the sky is dark enough to get a first reading. “I only get two or three nights a year on the world’s largest telescope,” Henry explains with steely camaraderie, “and I’m not going to let anything interfere with it.”

In fact, something is interfering with it: The computer network to Waimea is down, and Henry and Mullis are patiently but urgently working through a list of possible fixes with a technician in the observing room back at sea-level headquarters. Within a couple of minutes Mullis and Henry have solved the problem, opening a connection to Waimea. “This,” says Mullis, during a tense lull, “is one of the reasons I like to be on-site.”

Still, this is astronomy, evanescent as ever; moreover, this is astronomy on Mauna Kea. Across the compound, Bauer and his assistant have slipped into the console chairs of the UH-88 to begin searching for comets, but their screens remain maddeningly blank. Finally Bauer turns to Kris Herrick, the telescope operator: “The dome isn’t on manual, is it?”

It is, and it’s cost them a few minutes of observing time — not a great loss in the course of a night’s worth of data, but an unnecessary loss, and a few hundred dollars burned up into the evening sky. Herrick stands next to Bauer, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders visibly slumping, the very picture of abject apology.

“Sorry about that,” he says.

“That’s OK,” says Bauer. “These things happen.”

“But I know these things are important.”

A few minutes later, it’s Bauer’s turn. He asks his assistant to confirm a reading from earlier in the evening, but the reading isn’t there. Bauer double-checks his notes and sure enough: In effect, he’d forgotten to push start.

It’s at this moment that Hao Zheng begins to sway slightly in her chair, and suddenly the evening’s earlier miscues seem like minor irritants. Even after she accepts Bauer’s offer of oxygen and appears to revive, she soon begins sagging again. She reaches for the mask.

“I hope it’s not addictive,” she says.

“It’s not addictive. It’s oxygen,” says Bauer. He watches her fiddling with the knob.

Now Herrick has joined them. “You can’t stay on oxygen all night,” he says. “You could get sick and need an ambulance.”

“No, I won’t need that,” Zheng says. She steels herself, holding the edge of the table, and then excuses herself. Herrick looks at Bauer and then follows her down the metal winding staircase to the bathroom below. A moment later, he returns.

“Well,” he announces, “she lost her dinner.”

And that settles it. Her evening is over. She’ll have to endure the bumpy, braking, stop-and-start ride back to Hale Pohaku. For his part, Bauer simply sighs, resigning himself to the loss of an hour’s worth of observations on the drive there and back. Tonight on Mauna Kea, they pushed the universe, the universe pushed back, and now it’s time to come down from the mountain.