A Smoother Saddle Road

It has been a week since the paving machine began it’s slow work. Gone is the patchwork of pavement, a road seemingly built by many years of repair crews, so many patches that little remained of whatever pavement originally existed. Bit by bit the ragged road we have bounced over for many years is being covered by a smooth surface.

Paving Saddle
Crews laying asphalt on Saddle Road near MP40 in 2009
The machine has reached milepost 48, a half mile more than that in the Kona bound lane. The first layer mostly completed by the county crews. From there to the district line the lanes are pleasant and smooth drive, such a contrast from the old pavement. This latest segment leads to the section that was paved last year, from MP48 to the rebuilt sections across PTA, the road is nothing like the rough experience of Saddle Road past. The only rough section remaining is the few miles from MP48 to the western terminus at Mamalahoa highway.

While making a pass in each lane, the crews left about a foot in the middle unpaved for now, keeping the center line exposed, and creating a road a few inches wider. Breaking with tradition, no one drives the center of the road in the repaved section, avoiding the small trough created between the lanes.

The infamous Saddle Road of fable and legend is vanishing, repaved or completely rebuilt. Those of us who drive it regularly enjoy the new smooth ride, but in some ways we also mourn the disappearance of the real Saddle Road.

A Great Night at the VIS

Last night was the sort of evening we love, and the reason we volunteer at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. One of those nights where the stars seem close enough to touch, we bring them within reach of those who came to the mountain to learn about the universe.

MKVIS at Night
The Mauna Kea VIS at night with a crowd at the telescopes
Conditions were near perfect, a dark, clear sky with no Moon, it would rise later. Not only was it dark, but the air was steady, allowing nice high magnification views of Jupiter and other objects. The air was still, it was cold, but without the wind that can make conditions miserable at 9,200ft. The result was a beautiful night that everyone cold enjoy to the fullest.

Joining us were visitors from around the world, I met people speaking German, Spanish and Czech, a British family living in Japan, and more. About fifty people were to be found on the patio when I did the evening star talk. Not only did they come, but they came with curious minds and a will to learn. The questions came from all sides, fast and furious, a constant stream of information.

With such beautiful sights in the telescope to see, the questions just come naturally. I used a C-14 on the Astro-Physics mount to jump from object to object, the Swan Nebula, the globular cluster of M22, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Wild Duck Cluster, the Ring Nebula, the Dumbell Nebula, Alberio. Everything looked so nice that even as jaded observer, I found myself lingering at the eyepiece to enjoy the view.

The evening was a series of personal conversations with one group or family. I would try to use little vignettes to put the knowledge in context, the shape and size of our galaxy, or the story of star birth and death. Trying to convey, in a few minutes, a little glimpse of a bigger picture and not just a mess of gee-whiz information. Sometimes this works, and you are rewarded with a moment of connection, where your audience suddenly understands.

That is what we come to the mountain for.

Saddle Road Progress

Phase 5 in the rebuilding of Saddle Road is progressing rapidly, this is the totally new section from Mauna Kea State Park to MP42. As we came through the area Thursday morning a constant chain of trucks hauling asphalt was crossing the road. There was a great deal of other activity in evidence but we could not see the paving operation itself, it was somewhere out of sight behind the military barracks.

It appears that the entire segment now has at least some asphalt on it. This was most apparent at the east end. Monday afternoon this was still bare gravel, as of Wednesday the new roadbed was covered with a base layer of asphalt. The wide expanse of smooth pavement quite a contrast to what we had to turn down to continue our journey home.

As we come through the guys all take a moment to see where progress has been made. We all look forward to another seven miles of smooth and safe road.

Saddle Road Rebuilding
The east end of Phase 5, rebuilding Saddle Road at Mauna Kea State Park on 20 April 2009
Saddle Road Rebuilding
The east end of Phase 5, rebuilding Saddle Road at Mauna Kea State Park on 23 April 2009

Shoveling Snow

Monday I spent the day on the summit, I often choose Mondays, if I have a choice, as we often have a smaller crew and getting access to the various parts of the telescope is easier. There are fewer people trying to do fewer things at once. Monday turned out to be very good choice indeed, the first clear day at the summit since Christmas. We arrived at the summit to deep blue skies over a landscape of white. Poli’ahu has again blessed the summit of the White Mountain with deep snow.

Snow Day
Looking across at the Keck 1 dome from the top of Keck 2 with Mauna Loa in the background
A small crew does have a disadvantage as well, the chance of being drafted into whatever job needs being done. Not that I was unwilling, the job in this case was clearing snow and ice from the domes. This meant climbing to the top, one place in the facility I had not yet had a chance to go.

So after rigging myself in full safety harness I climbed the dome with the crew. The view from the top is stunning! A full 360 degree view of the summit on a perfectly clear sunny day. The entire summit is blanketed in a beautiful white coat of snow, one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever witnessed. The small Canon G9 camera fit in a breast pocket, small enough not to interfere. I began filling my memory card with many images of the view from the top, reveling in the spectacular vista.

Shoveling Snow
Mike Dahler clearing snow from the edge of the Keck 2 shutter
Not that it was all sightseeing, there was work to do, shoveling snow and chipping ice from the areas where it could interfere with operation of the telescope. Ice and snow coated the upper sections of the dome. Several inches of ice needed to be hammered free of the steelwork and drifts of snow, up to two meters (six feet) deep were packed into any corner and along the side of the shutter. Blocks of ice and shovelfuls of snow flew, crashing to the ground 30m (100ft) below. A crew worked each side of both domes for several hours to complete the task, made all that more difficult by the extreme altitude.

In the thin air there is only so much you can do before you are short of breath. Put down the shovel for a few moments and take a few more pictures. I have material from which to assemble a full panorama as well as dozens of individual images.

After much of the snow and ice had been cleared by hand there was one more step to accomplish. Clear the large drift of snow from the back of the shutter by using the shutter itself as a snowplow. This drift is many tons of snow, over 2m (6ft) thick at the top and about 12m (40ft) wide. When it came down it becomes an artificial avalanche, with huge blocks of snow falling to the ground far below.

Avalanche from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.

The Symmetry of Mountain Shadows

The sunset view from the summit of Mauna Kea is truly spectacular. From the summit you are usually above the clouds, watching the sun sink into a cloud layer thousands of feet below. The colors are intense, the deep blue sky, the red cinder and the gleaming telescope domes. This spectacle draws tourists from across the globe, trekking up the mountain just in time to witness sunset.

The Shadow of Mauna Kea
The shadow of Mauna Kea rising through the haze at sunset with the pink of the Belt of Venus above
One part of this spectacle is the enigmatic shadow that rises through the eastern haze, a beautiful pyramid of darkness that stretches to the distant horizon. A serene and yet awesome sight, the shadow reaches for infinity through the pastel shades of the Belt of Venus above the blue-grey shadow of the Earth itself. The shape is a perfect pyramid, with a symmetry not expected in a natural phenomena.

Oddly enough, it seems that the actual shape of the mountain is not that important in the creation of such a triangular shadow. The shadow will show that beautiful shape regardless of the mountain’s profile. Even a flat topped mountain will have a shadow that converges to a point at the top. This contradicts our experience, where common shadows match the shape of the casting object. We expect a shadow to portray the object.

A mountain shadow is different, the shadow is elongated to a great distance by the scales involved, in this situation the geometry dictates a different result. The secret to the shape of the shadow is that it is driven by the effects of perspective, with the shadow reaching to a vanishing point in the far distance. In 1979 the problem of the mountain shadow shape was mathematically modeled by William Livingston and David Lynch. They showed that regardless of the mountain’s profile a conical shadow would be perceived by a viewer near the summit. The proportions may differ depending on the profile of the mountain, but the conical shape would remain.

In the case of Mauna Kea, the effect is not obvious, the mountain does have a fairly symmetrical shape with steep sides. A viewer might not recognize the fact that the projected shadow does not match the shape of the volcano. An astute observer may notice a discrepancy, Mauna Kea is notably rounded at the summit, yet the shadow possesses a sharp apex.

I was completely unaware of this until it was pointed out to me a few days ago by Dean Ketelsen when I posted the Mauna Kea mountain shadow image. I suspect Dean has had many opportunities to see this phenomena from atop Kitt Peak, a flat topped mountain that casts a conical shadow.

Turkey Strike!

There are many hazards in driving the legendary Saddle Road… bad pavement, regular fog, blind curves and hills, one lane bridges, and do not forget the low flying turkeys.

It came out of nowhere, coming across the road at the very worst time as we rounded a sharp curve with no chance to take evasive action before it struck. My wife saw it first, giving that peculiar short half scream I have long ago associated with impending disaster. We were lucky and it didn’t come through the windscreen as it very well might have. A full grown turkey is a big bird, I suspect large enough to smash right through the safety glass and into the face of the driver and passenger. Instead it struck the pillar on the driver’s side and my side view mirror.

Other that my wife’s shocked nerves the only damage is a completely smashed side view mirror and a dent in the molding. What damage the turkey suffered is unknown as it disappeared, apparently still mobile and able to flee the scene of the accident.

So I will be spending a little time on the phone, calling around to junkyards to see if anyone has a side view mirror for a Ford Explorer and reminding myself it could have been much worse.

Turkey Strike
Damage to the side view mirror resulting from a turkey collision on Saddle Road, 30 May 2008