MAUNA KEA SUMMIT, Hawaii — The days of a wild-haired, scientist peering into a telescope and crying "Eureka!" are over.
Astronomy today is light-years beyond that cartoon image, and the Subaru telescope, perched atop the summit of the world's highest island mountain, is one of science's most awesome achievements.
The 13,796-foot height of Mauna Keah's summit and its remote location make it among the finest peaks in the world for land-based astronomy, and the skies are clear enough for serious star-gazing 330 or more nights each year. A dozen of the world's premiere telescopes are here to take advantage of the lofty perch.
Subaru - the Japanese word for the constellation Pleiades which also roughly translates to "gathering" - offers 30-minute tours of its facility for folks willing to give up a day of Hawaii's famed sun and surf.
The trip from either of the Big Island population centers - Hilo to the east and Kona to the west - takes about 3 1/2 hours.
That includes a stop at the 9,000-foot level, at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Center - highly recommended to acclimate to the altitude, which can be dangerous to children, pregnant women and people with respiratory or cardiac problems.
Mauna Kea is a volcano believed to have last erupted some 4,500 years ago. It is sometimes called the "white mountain: because its slopes often are dusted with snow in winter.
This year, patches of snow glistened along the northern face into the last week of May.
Stepping out of the four-wheel drive vehicle, we are jarred by the stiff, dry, cold wind that whipped clouds along below our vantage point.
Agricultural lands peeked through the clouds, green pastures in sharp contrast to the stark red cinder gravel beneath our feet and the brilliantly clear light blue skies all around.
It was a little dizzying, although I'm sure that was not the altitude.
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Slideshow: Polynesian paradise The newest telescope within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, the Subaru boasts the largest single-piece mirror in the world, which can see deeper into space and photograph a wider area of space than was conceivable just a generation ago.
The 27-foot-diameter mirror arrived by ship on the Big Island in November 1998 and was big news as it was trucked up the mountainside. Interest has not waned in the seven years since the $400 million project was completed.
Operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the University of Hawaii, the optical-infrared telescope draws stacks of research applications from students and scientists around the world.
One of every six or seven applicants is lucky enough to be granted even one night's viewing.
The public must settle for the 30-minute tour.
One recent tour, led by guide Andrew Hasagawa, included an expert who was as awed as I was as we stood in the 140-foot tall cylindrical enclosure, watching as the massive structure began a whisper-quiet tilt from vertical to almost horizontal.
James Dire, physics section chief at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., was rendered almost speechless. "Gigantic, behemoth," he said.
Dire, who said he has visited almost every major telescope in the United States, quizzed Hasagawa about the intricacies of the operation that can analyze visible and infrared light, as well as provide images and spectroscopic measurements for objects, stars and galaxies beyond our own.
While the complex answers were technical, Dire grinned in appreciation as the mysteries of each piece of equipment were explained.
"To think we use a 20-inch telescope ...," he mused.
To the uninformed, the Subaru gives the immediate impression of a George Lucas creation for a "Star Wars" film.
A giant death ray, perhaps, with a scaffolding skeleton painted an unlikely powder blue and a menacing look to the pointy end that thankfully is turned skyward.
After listening to Hasagawa's answers to Dire's technical questions, the best I could figure is the telescope is like the world's biggest digital camera. And it takes some of the most awe-inspiring photographs this side of, well, the universe.
In early May, Subaru announced the discovery of 12 new asteroid-like moons circling Saturn. Later, I flipped through the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan pamphlet to find the telescope has snapped pictures of just about every corner of our solar system and the Milky Way, and in "gazing ever further outward, can now see almost all the way back to the beginning of time itself."
Impressive for academics like Dire; flabbergasting to those of us who plodded through high school science classes.
I also learned the High Dispersion Spectrograph can "split visible light up into constituent colors with an accuracy of one part in 100,000. With this level of precision, we can investigate the evolution of elemental abundances by studying old stars, and learn about the physical and chemical state of intergalactic gas by studying quasar absorption lines."
"It's amazing to think that when they began this project, a lot of the technology had to be developed." Hasagawa said. "It just hadn't been done before."
For example, the 500-ton structure swivels on a thin film of oil, which allows it to follow the stars smoothly. Robots were built to move or attach various instruments, such as ancillary mirrors or cameras. Fistfuls of thick cables hang like neckties from a metal plate suspended from the ceiling, solving the problem of cable tangles.
Much of the time, however, the 110-member staff is focused on maintaining and caring for the pieces of specialized equipment and the 23-ton ultralow-thermal-expansion mirror.
Only 8 inches thick, it is supported on a bed of 261 computer-controlled fingers and polished to near perfection.
"If the mirror was as big as this island (roughly the size of Connecticut), the biggest imperfection would be the depth of a single sheet of paper," Hasagawa said.
The building's roof and one wall slide open much like a garage door, but also let in the biting wind. Gill-like louvers panel the inside of the huge building to channel the wind around the delicate machinery.
The entire enclosure is kept as close to the outside night temperature as possible.
Because the heat from even one human being causes enough air turbulence to impact the sensitive equipment, monitoring and viewing is done from an adjacent control room. It is filled every night with specialists, students and scientists hovering over computer screens just waiting to see something out there for the first time.
Wrapping up the tour, Hasagawa issued one last quip: "See, it's really kind of like a regular office with people clicking away on computers."
On the Net:
Subaru telescope: http://www.subarutelescope.org/
Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Center: http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/
Office of Mauna Kea Management: http://www.malamamaunakea.org
If you go:
GETTING THERE: A four-wheel drive vehicle is needed to get to the summit of Mauna Kea. Some car rental agencies prohibit driving on Saddle Road (which bisects the island and is the only route to the summit access road), so check beforehand. Also, watch out for cattle or feral pigs wandering into the road.
HIGH ALTITUDE: While a stop at Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Center is not mandatory, it is highly recommended to help acclimate to the altitude. The visitor center is at 9,000 feet; the summit is nearly 14,000 feet. At least 30 minutes is needed to adjust. Stopping on the way down also is advised. A trip to the summit is not recommended for children under age 16, pregnant women and those with health conditions that might make them susceptible to altitude sickness.
TIPS: The nearest stores, gas stations and medical assistance are at least an hour away from the visitor center, so take provisions with you. Warm clothing, including gloves and hats, and water are essential. Also, there are few restrooms beyond the visitor center.
IT'S FREE: Subaru telescope (http://www.subarutelescope.org/) offers its free tours weekdays only. Reservations are required and should be made well in advance; they may be made in English or Japanese.
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