Out in the Dark with HPA

Where do you go to show a bunch of students from Hawaii Preparatory Academy the stars? Located in Waimea the school has a very nice campus, that is usually under heavy clouds every afternoon and evening. After looking around we settled on Mauna Kea Recreation Area in the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. At 6,700ft elevation the site can offer very good skies for stargazing. This area in the saddle at Pōhakuloa is often cloud free, a curious hole in the clouds between the mauna that tower on either side.

HPA Students and the 20" Obsession telescope
Students and chaperones from HPA enjoy dark skies with the 20″ obsession telescope
The recreation area has recently been undergoing a 10 million dollar renovation. While the renovated cabins are not open yet, the new bathrooms and playground have proven immensely popular to travellers crossing the saddle from Hilo to Kona.

With the opportunity for a reasonably dark sky I brought the 20″ obsession. Tony and Maureen brought 12″ dobs. Tony’s friend Steve brough the 8″ he had just bought from Tony, a first night out with a new ‘scope. Cliff brought his 6″ imaging system set up to show objects on the screen. We had a lot of glass available, good telescopes, and surprisingly good skies.

The park does have lights, including a truly horrible sodium fixture at the bathrooms. We set up at the other end of the park, away from the brightest lights where only a few full cutoff LED fixtures are found over the parking areas. The lights did hamper us, but we could see galaxies fairly well.

It was the weather that was truly amazing. The forecast is for a late winter storm to roll in over the weekend, the weather service started issuing watches during the day. All we could hope for is that the clouds held off for a few hours to lets us see some starlight. Driving into the saddle I drove through fog and rain much of the way, it is only when nearing Pōhakuloa that the skies opened up. The Pōhakuloa hole was clear! Probably the only place on the island with clear skies.

It was not perfect, as I set up a the ‘scope the clouds rolled over us, leaving only a patch or two clear. As the students arrived we could not see much, instead talking a bit about how the telescopes worked. The Moon poked though dimly giving us a first target.

Only after the night started cooling did the clouds break again, leaving us clear skies for over an hour. For that time the skies were perfect and the ‘scopes jumped from target to target across the heavens. As we were breaking down the gear the clouds closed in again, a final curtain on the event. We got lucky.

We all started with a beautiful this crescent Moon as it ghosted to through the clouds. Jupiter soon appeared with it’s clutch of moons. As the skies clears I started with clusters and nebulae. Orion was low but still available, M35 looked fairly good. It was M81 and M82, a pair of galaxies just off the big dipper the was the evening’s treat for me.

We had hot cocoa, cookies and popcorn, telescopes and dark skies, what else can you want! The students had a great time, and so did the WHACO’s, glad we challenged the weather and made a run up to the park.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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