Tropical mountain glow

A different kind of mountain shot for mountain Monday which I guess is less about the mountain itself and more about the view. Mauna Kea has some of the clearest and darkest skies on Earth, which is why there are a dozen telescopes up there. I was thrilled to capture the guide laser from Subaru (which I couldn’t see with my eyes), the Milky Way, and some bonus green airglow too. The Andromeda galaxy is the fuzzy blob just right of centre.

This was going to be my last visit to Mauna Kea as a professional astronomer, and I knew I had to make the most of it photographically. On previous trips I’d always taken our smaller (i.e., crappier) camera. Having just spent 10 days on vacation elsewhere in Hawaii, I had one of our SLRs with me so I knew I stood a chance of getting a good night shot. I’d seen other photos that showed the lasers from the adaptive optics systems of the various telescopes including some fantastic time-lapse videos that made it looks like the observatories were shooting at extraterrestrial entities. (In reality they’re just shooting at the upper layers in the Earth’s atmosphere.)

While I was outside lying down on the road at 2 in the morning, I couldn’t see any sign of the laser and it was only with the long (30-sec) exposure that it showed up. I was really happy with that. When I processed the photo I was even happier to see the green airglow – I knew it couldn’t be the aurora as Mauna Kea is way too far south to ever see that. Coupled with the starry band of the Milky Way and the little fuzzy blob that is the Andromeda galaxy, this is possibly one of my most satisfying night photos. Sure, I wouldn’t say no to going back with an even better camera, but if I don’t get to do that then I feel I can be happy with this photo.

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