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Stunning Time-Lapse of the Mauna Kea Observatories and the Milky Way


Nothing starts your weekend off on the right foot like an epic time-lapse, and that’s exactly what we have for you here. Put together by an astronomy grad student at the University of Hawaii, this beautiful film captures the goings on at the Mauna Kea Observatories, one of the best places to study astronomy (and take some stunning astrophotography) in the Northern Hemisphere.

The student’s name is Sean Goebel, and it’s the fact that he’s a student that allowed him such great access to the observatories at the summit of The Big Island’s Mauna Kea, almost 14,000ft up.

Goebel says the location is “the premiere site for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere,” in large part thanks to its dark skies, low humidity and the fact that it sits above much of the water vapor in the atmosphere. So what better place to capture an amazing time-lapse?


As you can see though, this isn’t just a time-lapse of the night sky or some telescopes, this has lasers too! And thanks to Goebel, who kindly put together an FAQ about the time-lapse, we now know what those are about… and no, they’re not Photoshopped in:

[The lasers] are 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 … 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.


The whole time-lapse was filmed over the course of 7 nights — three in April and four this last Summer. By watching the observatory schedules, he could tell when the telescopes with lasers were going to be in use, and make sure he was there to capture it.

He shot the photos on his Canon 5D Mark II and an old Canon XT that he’s “trying to run into the ground.” Lenses used include a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 and a Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 on the 5D, and a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 on the XT.

For more details about the time-lapse and how it was shot and put together, be sure to head over to Goebel’s website by clicking here. Alternatively, if you just want to watch the pretty time-lapse with all the cool lasers and skip all the technical stuff, well, we won’t hold it against you.

(via SLR Lounge)

Image credits: Photographs by Sean Goebel and used with permission.