University of Hawaii Instutute for Astronomy
Origins of Astronomy in Hawai`i  

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The Haleakala Period

Steiger and Whipple visit Dr. Mees at his home in Honolulu to discuss plans.


ith regard to the telescopic tracking network: in 1956 Dr. Fred Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Dr. C. E. Kenneth Mees in Hawai`i. Dr Mees was the retired vice president for research of the Eastman Kodak Company and the developer of the color film Kodachrome. He was especially well known among astronomers because of his interest in developing special photographic emulsions suitable for astrophotography, and his insistence that the company provide these materials to the astronomers at cost. Dr. Whipple asked his old friend if he knew of some way a satellite tracking station could be established in Hawai`i. Dr. Mees in turn contacted me at the University of Hawai`i and he made an offer: if I would undertake the project he would donate some of his Kodak stock to underwrite the cost. I accepted the offer not only because it was an important project, but because I could see that Haleakala was the right place for such a tracking station, and this was an opportunity for the University to acquire land and establish a base of operations on Haleakala in preparation for the solar observatory. 

The University sold the Kodak stock and with the $15,000 proceeds we managed to build on Haleakala a small cinder block building with a sliding roof to house the anticipated Baker-Nunn Super-Schmidt tracking camera, and a small wood-frame building for living accommodations for the observers. The informality of the project would be unheard of today--no environmental impact statements and no building permits. It was just a matter of finding a contractor willing to do a job at a very remote site on top of the mountain, 50 miles from the base yard, in the bitter cold, on a shoestring budget. Contractor Ed Ige of Kahului, Maui, was such a one. Of course, the university did take all the proper legal steps to obtain a use permit from the State of Hawai`i and, in due course, 18 acres were set aside for the university as a science preserve. 

The satellite tracking facility was ready for the camera on July 1. 1957, but the camera was not ready. Because of the importance of the Hawai`i station, SAO decided to send one of its meteor-tracking Schmidt cameras, and with it came Dr. Richard McCrosky, his assistant and observer Walter Webb, and a crew to install the camera. It was this team, then, that initiated satellite tracking from Haleakala. Some six months later, the Baker-Nunn camera arrived and was installed. Walter Lang became the first full-time observer atop Haleakala. In subsequent years the SAO invested a great deal more money in the facility. It enlarged and improved the original structures and built a spacious, comfortable dormitory.

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The satellite tracking facility completed in early 1957 consisted of a camera building with sliding roof and a small office building.

The meteor tracking camera served initially as the satellite tracking camera. Dr. Richard McCrosky of the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory is on the left and observing assistant Walter Webb is in center.

The Baker-Nunn Satellite Tracking Camera was dedicated on August 2, 1958.

As tracking technology gradually improved over the years, the usefulness of the Baker-Nunn cameras gradually declined, and the tracking assignments and staff at Haleakala gradually decreased until 1976, when the facility was shut down.

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Dedication if the Mauna Loa Observatory of the U.S, Weather Bureau –National Bureau of Standards on June 28, 1956. Mauna Kea is in the background.

Also associated with the IGY and having long-term implications was the establishment in 1956 of the U.S. Weather Bureau/National Bureau of Standards Mauna Loa Observatory  (11).This facility, intended primarily for long-term atmospheric studies, such as ozone and CO2 content and distribution, was built on the northern slope of Mauna Loa at an elevation of 11,134 feet, in an area that was believed to be relatively safe in terms of future volcanic activity. Among the first users of the facility were NBS researchers C. C. Kiess and C. H. Corliss who, at the time of the dedication on June 28, 1956, were making high-resolution spectroscopic observations of Mars on its close approach to Earth (12).

Some years later, in 1965, the High Altitude Observatory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, built a solar observatory near the MLO facility in which to place a coronal patrol instrument. Richard Hansen and Charles Garcia established the program. Garcia continued to operate the facility until his retirement in 1991.

In 1962, Dr. Franklin E. Roach of the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado, who for many years had conducted photometric studies of auroras, airglow, zodiacal light, and the diffuse galactic light, became intrigued by the possibility of studying these phenomena at a low latitude site. Haleakala appeared to be an ideal site for such studies because of the atmospheric transparency established earlier, the dark skies uncontaminated by artificial light, the large number of clear nights, and the low latitude (20°N). As with the argument for a solar observatory, the ease of access and availability of commercial power were simply icing on the cake! 

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The night sky photometry program was housed in this remodeled WW2 blockhouse, formerly occupied by Grote Reber’s radio astronomy program.

I collaborated with Roach in establishing the airglow photometry program on Haleakala. We decided to use the old blockhouse in which Grote Reber had once housed his equipment. Scanning and fixed photometers were placed on the roof of the blockhouse with the electronics and recorders in the room below. The photometers scanned the sky through narrowband interference filters centered on important emission lines of the night airglow. Absolute photometric calibration was accomplished with the use of a standard radioactive phosphor periodically placed in front of the photometer. The program was initiated with the assistance of Mack Mann, borrowed from the Boulder laboratory. Mack did everything from enlarging the building and facing lit with lava rock to installing the equipment, getting it working, and taking the data.

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The airglow and zodiacal light photometers on the roof of the blockhouse. The cluster of telescopes rotates in azimuth while scanning the sky at various altitudes Checking the instrument is Site Manager Alex Kowalski. (1962)

Once the program was established, we looked for local talent to operate and maintain the station. The first University of Hawai`i employee to be stationed full-time on Haleakala was Alexander Kowalski, recruited from a civilian electronics job with the U.S. Army on Oahu. Like Mack Mann, Alex was a jack-of-all-trades and, as site manager, proved to be the perfect man for the developments ahead on Haleakala.

With the construction of a solar observatory being planned and the start of the airglow program, it became clear that a base facility at a lower elevation would become a necessity. With this in mind, I contacted a local real estate agent to explore possible existing facilities. I was show a large two-story house in a rural area on the lower slopes of Haleakala in an area known as Waiakoa. At an elevation of about 2800 ft, the area enjoys a wonderful climate. It was called “the old Tom family home.” I took a look at it and what I found would have discouraged a more sensible person. An elderly caretaker lived in the house -- with his goats. Yes, GOATS! It looked and smelled pretty bad. The goats had chewed holes in the walls and left their droppings everywhere. But a careful inspection of the basic structure of the building showed it to be sound. The house and about 2 ½ acres of land was available for $18,000. I recommended the purchase to the University and for another $18,000 the house was completely refurbished. This, then, became the office and base facility for all further UH developments on Haleakala.

Over the years a number of dedicated individuals worked as observers at the airglow observatory: Barry Cartmell, Leon Offenhauser, Henry Heeseman, Roy Graham, Ronald Furukawa, and Tomeo Kametani.

Prior to the start of the airglow program, a graduate student at the University of Colorado was interested in doing his thesis research on the zodiacal light, which is sunlight scattered by dust particles concentrated in the plane of Earth's orbit. Since Franklin Roach was on his thesis committee, there was no question that Jerry Weinberg would have to come to Haleakala to make his observations. He came with great enthusiasm and drive, and with a photometer that not only recorded the brightness of the zodiacal light but also its polarization, a parameter that is crucial to understanding the nature of the particles that scatter the sunlight. After completing his observations, Weinberg returned to Boulder to analyze his data and to complete the writing of his thesis. He was awarded the Ph.D. degree for this work in 1963 from the University of Colorado. After completing the work for the doctorate, Weinberg returned to the University of Hawaii as a postdoctoral researcher and continued his studies of the zodiacal light (13)

During the same period a graduate student from the University of Tokyo, Hiroyoshi Tanabe, spent a year with the program on work that contributed to his doctorate from his university. 

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Visiting researchers in the airglow and zodiacal light program, 1963. l. to r.: Prof. Masaaki Huruhata, Dr. P.V. Kulkarni, Dr. Huruhata’s daughter, Kuniko, W. Steiger, and Dr. Franklin Roach 

The night-sky photometry program reached a high point in 1963/4, when Roach spent the full year with us and we were joined by airglow scientists Dr. Masaaki Huruhata, from the Tokyo Astronomical Observatory, and Dr. P.V. Kulkarni, from the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India. Huruhata was supported here as an East-West Center scholar. It was a very stimulating and productive year (14)

In 1964 a graduate student in physics at the University of Hawai`i, Walter Brown, chose to do his thesis research on the relationship between the airglow and the dynamical behavior of the ionosphere. Total electron content data was obtained from an analysis of radio waves propagated from a geostationary satellite (ATS-1) through a program conducted by the Radio Science Group of the University of Hawai`i Department of Electrical Engineering. Brown set up an airglow photometer at Haleakala to look at that portion of the ionosphere through which the radio waves were propagated. Brown completed his thesis and was awarded the Ph.D. degree in January 1969 (15).



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