Mauna Kea Heavens – Space Lasers and the Milky Way – A Timelapse by Sean Goebel
Our good friend Sean Goebel is currently a grad student studying astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Atop Mauna Kea, a 14,000 ft peak on Hawaii’s biggest Island, (known mostly as “The Big Island”) lie an array of telescopes that make up one of the foremost sites for astronomy in the world. Most of the time, viewing conditions are some of the best in the world! At about 14,000 ft elevation the observatories experience reduced light pollution and increased visibility. Thus, after years of waiting and many weather-thwarted attempts to capture footage of the spectacular phenomenon you are about to see, in just a few nights of shooting Sean was able to produce this brief timelapse montage. Enjoy!
Because every scene is captured in full RAW and not as an actual video, every still frame in this entire timelapse is capable of large format printing. (Actually, the very first scene is so long that it had to be captured in mRAW.)
(You may recognize this image from “How to photograph a meteor shower“)
Behind The Scenes & FAQ
What’s the deal with the lasers, anyway? You Photoshopped those in, right?
Actually, the lasers are real. They’re used for adaptive optics. Just as waves of heat coming off pavement blur out the detail in faraway objects, winds in the atmosphere blur out fine detail in the stars/galaxies/whatever is being observed. This is the reason that stars twinkle. The laser is used to track this atmospheric turbulence, and one of the mirrors in the telescope bends hundreds of times per second in order to cancel out the blurring…
A typical laser pointer that you might use to point at stuff/exercise your cat is about 5 mW. That’s five one-thousandths of a watt. Not a whole lot of power. And yet it’s enough to blind airplane pilots. The lasers on the telescopes are in the range of 15-40 watts. The FAA calls a no-fly zone over the area when a laser is in use, and two people have to stand around outside in the freezing temperatures and watch for airplanes. Each of them has a kill switch to turn off the laser in case an airplane comes near. Additionally, the telescope has to send its target list to Space Command ahead of time. Space Command then tells them not to use the laser at specific times, ostensibly to avoid blinding spy satellites. However, you could calculate the spy satellite orbits if you knew where they were at specific times, so Space Command also tells the telescope to not use the laser at random times when no satellites are overhead.
As a Berkeley undergrad (astrophysics) and a grad student now in Hawaii I’m interested in astronomical instrumentation, which is basically designing the instruments and systems that go on the telescopes. I just finished up a project on adaptive optics. We were finding the feasibility of putting an adaptive optics system on one of the telescopes on Mauna Kea that presently doesn’t have one. The type of AO we were investigating doesn’t involve lasers, so although it doesn’t look awesome at night, it’s cheaper to operate and doesn’t run into the problems with airplanes and satellites.
I’m currently starting a new project to characterize the noise performance of the next generation of infrared CMOS detectors. They’re about 7cm x 7cm (a bit bigger than a piece of medium format film), have 16 MP, are so sensitive they can basically detect individual photons, and cost about $100k each.
How long did it take you to film this?
I filmed the montage on three consecutive nights in April and four nights during the summer of 2013. In April, I headed over to the Big Island (I normally live in Honolulu, on Oahu) to observe on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). Basically, University of Hawaii professors needed someone to collect data for them but didn’t want to stay up all night to do it themselves. JCMT requires that two people be at the telescope: an operator and an observer. I jumped on the opportunity to be an observer and get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Big Island, where I could enjoy the beauty of the area, get free food and lodging, and shoot timelapse at night.
During the day, I sleep at the astronomers’ village on the side of the mountain. The altitude is too high (Even the village is at 9,200 ft!) to be productive on other work. It’s not all easy, though; we have to sign an agreement to not be on the summit for more than 14 hours per 24-hour period. When you tack on time for getting ready/eating/etc., a full day’s sleep just doesn’t happen.
What gear did you use? What post-processing did you do?
I shot the montage on a Canon 5D Mk. II and an old-as-dinosaurs Rebel XT…
…The 5D II was usually paired with either a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 or a Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8, and the Rebel XT was usually used with a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Additionally, a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Bower 35mm f/1.4, and a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 were each used for one scene…
Visit this page HERE for the rest of the stories about the Mauna Kea observatories, the lasers, and what types of things can go wrong when shooting in these conditions!
More Adventures To Come
As always, stay tuned for more adventures, tutorials, and equipment reviews from SLR Lounge! We have a number of trips planned to visit the Sierras, the Southwest, Hawaii, Death Valley, and beyond!
With the growing interest in night-time landscape photography and timelapses, we will certainly keep our readers informed if we decide to offer any workshops (DVD or on-location) in the future.