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TREX 2018 Day 14: A Trip up Mauna Kea

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TREX 2018 Day 14: A Trip up Mauna Kea

By David Wu ‘19

After presenting our research to the public at the Kona Science Café last night, we are officially done with our work for the trip! However, we are still learning and doing exciting things! Today we travelled to the top of Hawaii’s tallest point Mauna Kea to tour the observatories and watch the sunset. Mauna Kea is a dormant shield volcano and stands around 14,000 feet tall. When measured from the base of the mountain (below the sea) it is actually the tallest mountain on earth.

Our first stop on our way up the mountain was around 9,000 feet at the Submillimeter Array Center for Astrophysics. Mimi, our guide and one of the scientists at the center, offered us some delicious ice cream and mentioned that food tastes better at higher elevation (she was definitely correct). Then we met with another scientist named Ryan who gave us a brief overview of the center and the work being done.

The SMA Center looks at a specific range of light with wavelengths between (1.5 mm and .5 mm). Mimi explained that optical telescopes have been used for around 400 years since Galileo, and radio-wave telescopes have been used for about 100 years, so sub-millimeter telescopes are now the final frontier of telescopes. The SMA Center uses a configuration of seven 20 ft diameter telescopes to gather data about chemical conditions when stars begin to form and most commonly find Carbon Monoxide in these areas.

Next we travelled further up the mountain to see the actual telescopes. These telescopes are located around 13,000 ft. which is above 40% of the earth’s atmosphere. The thin air took a long time to adjust to. My head throbbed and I just wanted to take a nap. I can’t imagine how the team of engineers operates the telescopes through the night.

Finally, we drove up to the summit to enjoy the sunset views. We were also treated to great views of Mauna Loa, the next tallest mountain on the island and Maui off in the distance. Being on the top of Mauna Kea was truly one of the most humbling and beautiful experiences of my life, and I will take the memory with me forever.


Every year, a group of MIT students and professors travel to the Big Island of Hawaii to gain fieldwork experience through TREX (Traveling Research Environmental EXperiences). The first TREX trip was held in 2000, and since launching has taken students on research activities in domestic and international settings. For more undergraduate opportunities, click here.