BLNR Approves Access Restrictions on Mauna Kea

Friday night the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved rules restricting access to Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea Observing
My 18″ telescope Deep violet set up under the stars at the MKVIS.
There have been some revisions to the rules as originally proposed. Most notably the closure hours begin at 10pm in place of 8pm, this would allow the VIS to operate the normal evening public program.

I have yet to locate a copy of the final approved rules, it is only a few minutes ago that the decision was approved. I expect they will appear on the DLNR website eventually (Tonight? Monday?). They are effective immediately, I would expect there to be a legal requirement to post them.

It is safe to say that there will be no overnight observing at or near the Mauna Kea VIS. You will need to find a site elsewhere or at least one mile from the access road.

These rules are effective for 120 days, after which we will see what happens. In that time they may be allowed to lapse. It also allows the DLNR time to approve similar, permanent rules through the regular process in place of these emergency rules.

120 days and counting… I make that November 8th, 2015.

Update: Found them!

(a) The area referred to in this rule as the “restricted area” is defined as any lands in the public hunting area that includes the Mauna Kea Observatory Access Road and one mile on either side of the Mauna Kea Observatory Access road.

(b) As used in this rule, the term “transiting” means operating, or being a passenger in, a motor vehicle traveling at a reasonable and prudent speed and having regard to the actual and potential hazards and conditions then existing.

(c) No person shall at any time possess or control in the restricted area any of the following items: sleeping bag, tent, camping stove, or propane burner.

(d) No person shall enter or remain in the restricted area during the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., unless the person is transiting through the restricted area on the Mauna Kea Observatory Access Road or is lawfully within or entering or exiting an existing observatory or a facility operated by the University of Hawaii.

An End to Observing at the MKVIS?

As we are all aware, the TMT protests are having direct consequences for everyone who goes to the mountain. Regular mountain users and tourists alike are dealing these consequences. The summit road closed to the public for a second week, the MKVIS also closed, even before these closures the protests had curtailed many activities.

Mauna Kea Observing
My 18″ telescope Deep violet set up under the stars at the MKVIS.
It looks to get worse.

An agenda item that will appear before this week’s DLNR board meeting contains significant rule changes regarding use of the lands surrounding the Mauna Kea access road. For the local amateur astronomy community this looks to be very serious, a complete closure of a place we have all come to value very highly.

Go the the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station on the weekends nearest new Moon and you will find telescopes. While the MKVIS telescopes get put away at 10pm there are ‘scopes that are operating late into the night, often still there when dawn colors the sky. These telescopes belong to local amateur astronomers who bring them here to enjoy perfect Mauna Kea skies.

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Shooting a Comet

It has been a while since the last good photographic comet. Since comet ISON disintegrated at perihelion a year ago, we have had few opportunities to get a really nice comet photo. It is the surprise of comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy that changed this.

Better yet… The comet is well placed for photography in the late evening and early morning sky. While fellow sky watchers on the south side of our planet have been enjoying the comet as it has brightened, for most northern hemisphere observers it is still rather low. In the past couple weeks it has moved far enough north that it is now nicely positioned to observe from Hawaiʻi. I have been following the comet for a while, catching it in binoculars from the house. We showed it to students of Paʻauilo Elementary in club telescopes as they camped out at the Kilohana Girl Scout Camp earlier this week.

Unfortunately it is still low enough that my neighbor’s trees prevent me from photographing it from the driveway. Thus I took the opportunity to pack up the ‘scope and head for Hale Pohaku and the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station for a night of photography.

The Mauna Kea VIS is busier than ever, the numbers of tourists coming to this free show just continued to increase. Parking is now a major issue, with even the lower gravel lots full of visitor vehicles. Fortunately, with some discussion and name dropping, the rangers allowed me and my vehicle past the barricades into the main lot so I could set up just off the patio. I would be entertaining guests at the telescope and answering questions all evening, becoming part of the show.

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A Dearth of Camelopardalids

A possible meteor shower, a dark. moonless night, the beautiful skies of Mauna Kea… Why not plan for a trip up the mountain? We all hoped that the new meteor shower would produce a show for us. If not, it would be a dark night with a late rising crescent moon. As I would be working the holiday on Monday, I took Friday off, did some chores around the house and packed my gear.

Meteor Photo Rig
The mount with four cameras mounted on top hoping for meteors. Photo by Raymond Lara.
I brought two bit of kits with which to enjoy the night. First was my old Losmandy mount to be used as a camera platform. Using a tracking mount would allow longer exposures and nice starfields against which to capture any possible meteors. I had along a long plate with five camera ball mounts, something Chris lent me. As expected, as soon as the others saw this there were plenty of volunteers looking for a spot on one of the mounts. Four cameras rode the mount for the evening, hoping to catch a few meteors.

The second bit of kit was Deep Violet, my 18″ telescope. As usual, setting up the big scope quickly gathered a crowd. The line did not dissipate until well after 10pm, a steady flow of visitors hoping to check out the view in the largest telescope present.

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A Night of Shooting in the Dark

The plan was to do some astrophotography Saturday night. The weather forecast forced a re-schedule, a winter storm arriving Saturday afternoon, Friday it was to be.

The Pleiades
The Pleiades, M45, with the Canon 6D and TV-76mm
The timing proved to be excellent, Mauna Kea providing glorious skies Friday night. Clouds hovered over the side of the mountain on arrival, but there was no worry. These were the sort of clouds that would vanish with the daylight. Anxious tourists wanting to see through the telescopes repeated the same question, will the clouds go away? I answered the questions with the relaxed assurance of experience of years on Mauna Kea, and continued to set up the gear. The clouds didn’t even last as long as I expected, dissipating as the sun settled into the horizon.

Setting up at the Mauna Kea VIS means a crowd of people. Hundreds of tourists that have come to enjoy a dark Mauna Kea Sky. I was joined by Raymond, a Hilo amateur also looking to take some photos. We setup side by side in a parking space just off the patio where the VIS was setting up their telescopes for the night. We would be in the center of the crowd for a while.

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A Dark Night

Another new Moon weekend, another observing outing to Mauna Kea. With some shiny new astro equipment to play with I decided to load for photography instead of visual. Disassembling the photographic mount I realized it had not been taken apart in over two years, setup in the garage and used in the driveway. I did not expect to be alone, a few other local observers had indicated plans to get out this night.

Omega Centauri
Omega Centauri, NGC5139, sum of 31 x 1min exposures, AT6RC and Canon 60D
Worry on the drive up, the cloud deck seemed quite high. I was concerned that the Mauna Kea VIS, at 9,200ft, may be in the clouds. With wipers and headlights on, through the heavy fog I drove, not encouraging when you expect to use a telescope. The worry persisted until the last switchback, ascending through the last wisps of cloud just a few hundred feet below the VIS to behold a cloudless blue sky overhead.

As expected the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station was a zoo. A dozen summit tour buses added to a heavy Saturday night crowd. The parking lot was full with even more cars parked along the road. Not a real problem, the tour buses use reserved spaces right in front of the building. They pull out about an hour before sunset, headed for the summit with their customers. We swoop in on the vacated parking spaces and set up our gear.

A trio of telescopes set up for astrophtography at the Mauna Kea VIS
The crowd is an interesting experience. Well over a hundred folks waiting for dark and the evening program. There are the usual issues of headlights and camera flashes. It may not be all that dark for a while, but we gain a nice paved place to setup, and there is electrical power available. The crowd will slowly wane as the night progresses, mostly gone by 9pm, driven off by the cold. At 10pm the VIS closes and the remaining lights are turned off.

In addition to the VIS telescopes, there were quite a few local amateurs taking advantage of a moonless Saturday night. Cliff and Tony brought Cliff’s 24″ Dob, a two person job to move that ‘scope. Wayne brought photography gear. Mike was likewise set up for photography, planets instead of deep sky, using a Flea 3 and an ancient 10″ Celestron. Olivier brought his 19″ Pricilla, providing plenty of glass for visual astronomy while the cameras exposed for hours.

It was Malalo o Ka Po Lani, cultural night at the VIS, with a special lecture. This meant a large crowd, most of whom stayed to enjoy the perfect skies the mountain provided this night. They wandered around the telescopes asking lots of questions. While the photographic ‘scopes did not offer views through the eyepiece, there was still a lot of interest in the process. I chatted with many folks as I worked, fiddling with the complex equipment necessary to take photos of the sky.

It was quite the gathering of Losmandy G-11’s! Wayne brought two, Mike brought one to carry the old 10″ Celestron, I had mine setup for photography with the AT6RC. Add the three that the Mauna Kea VIS uses! A testament to these well-built mounts, some of which are two decades old.

The astrophoto gear was working nicely. There were a few issues to deal with at the beginning of the night, the usual new gear stuff. A few things I need to fix before next time… need to remount the guider so I can co-align it with the imaging ‘scope. I need to mount a real finder, and make it easier to hunt down the targets. But overall I was pleased, the new setup worked as I hoped it would.

SBIG ST-i Autoguider
The SBIG ST-i autoguider mounted to the top of the AT6RC telescope
I will write more about the SBIG ST-i later. The short version… Much easier to use than the ST-4, accurate, painless acquisition of guide stars, it just locked on and stayed there. The only real drawback is the inability to dispense with a computer. I recently re-built one of my older laptops for use as the astrophoto machine. But since the computer is going to be there, I may as well use it, time to integrate the DSLR with the computer and shoot tethered. I have the software, just that I had tried to keep it simple in the field.

Another pleasant surprise was the ease of focusing with the AT6RC with a Bahtinov mask. I have been wondering about the stock focuser on the new ‘scope, how well does it handle the heavy DSLR camera. One lesson is that it locks the focus quite well, I noticed no drift each time I checked focus. Indeed, at one point I pulled out the 60D, swapped the focal reducer and adapter onto the 20Da and checked focus again, it was still perfect.

While my camera took exposure after exposure, I took in the views that big glass can produce. Bouncing back and forth between Cliff 24″ and Olivier’s 19″. No surprise for a spring session, galaxies were in rich supply. We viewed a lot of the showpiece objects, from Ursa Major to Virgo and Corvus.

This night was the type of night we hope for when planning an observing outing… Not too cold, no strong wind, and no clouds. Just a dark sky to delight the imagination all night long.

Astroday 2012 and a VIS Lecture

I have not had a bad cold in quite a while. Wednesday last week I felt the first symptoms, a sore throat beginning. I expected it, Deb had been suffering for a couple days by then. Thursday morning it was inescapable, I called in sick to work. I hoped it would be over by the weekend, I had promised to help out with Astroday and present a lecture on behalf of Keck at the Mauna Kea VIS. This would be the second run across island to Hilo in as many weeks, after almost a year without visiting Hilo, funny how that works.

By Saturday morning things were better, but not great. So off to Hilo I went, a good dose of decongestant improving the situation. I may not have been at 100%, but I had commitments to keep.

Astroday 2012
David Lynn manning the Keck table at Astroday 2012
Astroday is always fun, everyone from the astronomy community setting up tables and educational exhibits throughout the Prince Kuhio Plaza Mall in Hilo. At this point I know so many of the folks there, even the guys from Hilo I only meet a few times each year. The event is really designed for kids, with plenty of activites and a little education mixed in.

I manned the Keck table for a couple hours until David relived me. We did the Astro Haiku contest again. Not bad, but it was a repeat of last year. We really need to get some science experiment bling for our table next year. I have some ideas for that.

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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.

Enjoying the Moonlight

Deb and I did a volunteer evening at the VIS last night. A great night with a great crowd, the sort of evening that defines the reason we continue to volunteer at the Mauna Kea VIS. Lots of great questions, great conversations and a little learning about the sky and Mauna Kea. As the southern cross hung above the slopes of Mauna Loa my green laser was busy pointing out constellations and bright stars.

The only real problem with the evening was the nearly full Moon hanging in the sky. The bright moonlight drowning out many of the deep sky objects we would normally view. Even bright objects like M13 were merely dim smudged in the eyepiece in place of the beautiful sights they offer under darker skies. With these conditions much of the telescope viewing was concentrated on the Moon and a beautiful planet Saturn.

One activity that is always a hit with a bright Moon partly makes up for the loss of dark sky viewing. I hold and quick course in introductory lunar photography using the afocal method. Show a few people how to take lunar photos and there is soon a line of people waiting at the refractor for their turn to try a few frames. A few hints and people are quickly taking great lunar shots, a photo and a memory to take home from the mountain.

The evening sped by quickly, spent in conversation with guests from the islands and from across the US. People ask about the sky as seen from different latitudes and locations. A few visitors from other countries add their perspective. It is often interesting to hear about other names for constellations or to learn bits of folklore from many other cultures.

So often the crowd disappears an hour after dark, driven off by the cold and wind. This night many didn’t go until it was time to shut down the telescopes. I guess they were not ready to end an enjoyable evening under moonlight.

The Moon one day short of full, afocal photograph taken with a 102mm refractor, 32mm eyepiece and a Canon G9 camera.