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Science Fair Winner Visits Mauna Kea

by Matt Jachowski

Matt Jachowski next to the US Geological Survey marker that indicates the summit of Mauna Kea is exactly 13,796 feet above sea level. Jachowski, a 2003 graduate of Maui High School, is now a freshman at Stanford University.

Participating in extracurricular math and science competitions was one of my most rewarding experiences in high school. Not only did these competitions allow me to foster a passionate interest in the sciences, they also provided amazing opportunities to meet world-class scientists and to get to know some of my peers on trips across the United States. But late last summer, I was surprised to find that my greatest trip yet was the one closest to home.

In April, the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy recognized me for having the best astronomy research project in the 2003 Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair. The award was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to the Big Island and get a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the most powerful and expensive telescopes in the world. So, in early September, I embarked on a three-day, two-night trip to the world-class observatories on the summit of Mauna Kea.

When I arrived in Hilo on a flight from Maui, UH astronomer Andrew Pickles picked me up at the airport and gave me a tour of the Institute's Hilo headquarters. Then he drove me to Hale Pohaku, a "hotel" for astronomers at the 9,300-foot level of Mauna Kea. Because the mountain is nearly 14,000 feet tall, researchers at the summit can experience severe altitude sickness if they have not acclimatized. Everyone is required to stay at Hale Pohaku for one night before spending a night on the summit.

The following morning, another UH astronomer, Richard Wainscoat, arrived to supervise the rest of my stay. During the day, we hiked to the actual summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in the Pacific Basin, and I took a brief tour of the summit area. One of the coolest things was going on a tour of the Keck Observatory, home to the twin 10-meter (30-foot) segmented-mirror telescopes, the largest in the world.

Matt Jachowski at the Gemini North telescope at sunset.

Right before sundown, I visited the Gemini North telescope. The view was amazing as the Sun set over the ocean and the first stars began to appear. Then I headed over to the UH 2.2-meter telescope, which was a bustling place because they had just mounted the world's largest infrared array on the scope. Next on the list was the Subaru Telescope, which has the world's largest monolithic mirror. There, Japanese astronomers were actually taking spectra of asteroids, a task especially exciting for me, since my science fair research had dealt with calculating asteroid orbits. Finally, I ended the night with a visit to the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. Observing at submillimeter wavelengths is a difficult task unless conditions are just right.

The next day I left the summit and returned to Maui. Seeing some of the most sophisticated light-gathering equipment in the world and meeting actual, practicing astronomers was an experience that I will not forget. I can't help but wonder if someday I will go back to the summit to do some research of my own.

For more information about the State Science Fair: