This May Be the Most Awesome Camera on the Internet

The Internet can take you to places that you might never get to see in person such as the famed astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square or the Amundsen–Scott research station in Antarctica. And, there are cameras situated at literally the top of the world capturing things in the night sky that you may have never even seen before.

At over 13,500 feet above sea level, the views from the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii are one of a kind. Once the sun goes down, you can easily spot the lights from the island of Oahu over 150 miles to the west. The eerie glow from the ongoing eruption at the Kilauea Volcano shines bright to the south. While overhead, the most brilliant display of the universe will keep you mesmerized for hours.

It would be enough if all there was to see were those sights, but they are just the appetizers. The real interesting views are to be had by the dedicated photographers who make the trek up to the top night after night. Eventually something unique will happen in the heavens that few people get to witness, much less capture with their camera. Maybe it will be a Chinese rocket body as it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. I was fortunate to see and photograph such an event. Or, perhaps, it will be a chunk of rock or metal from the solar system exploding in a brilliant flash of green light and leaving a gossamer smoke trail in its wake. Yet another display I have been present for on the peaks of the Big Island. Putting in the time to be out in the field, braving the elements, in a quest for that once in a lifetime shot is what it is all about. But, not everyone can go to Hawaii island and spend night after night on a mountaintop in the freezing cold thin air. 

A Chinese rocket body burns up in the atmosphere above the Hawaiian Islands in January 2016.

Gemini Observatory to the Rescue

Luckily, the good folks at the Gemini Observatory have placed five cameras, called CloudCams, outside their observatory that take time-lapse movies of the sky in each of the cardinal directions plus directly overhead. Even better, they have put the results online for anyone to peruse at any time. The CloudCams themselves are a typical, off the shelf Canon Rebel that has been heavily modified to function in the extreme environment on the summit of Mauna Kea. Outfitted with 20mm f/1.8 Sigma lenses, the cameras have a relatively wide field of view for capturing as much of the sky as possible. They are housed in specially fabricated enclosures to keep the elements out while at the same time providing a clear view for the camera.

This is a heavily modified Canon Rebel with a Sigma 20mm, f/1.8 lens which serves as the imaging platform for the Gemini Observatory CloudCams.

Because the Gemini Observatory is more or less remotely controlled from a warm control room in Hilo they need digital eyes on the mountain to help monitor the clouds and the weather. This lets them know if it is safe or not to point their expensive 8.1-meter telescope in specific regions of the sky. For photographers, while it may not be exactly the same as being there, it is still exciting to check in and see what the cameras have captured. Most of the time it is just a stunning view of the Milky Way making its way across the sky along with bright streaks thanks to aircraft, satellites, and meteors blazing by with some frequency. But, every so often, there is something special captured that makes you sit up and take notice. For instance, that Chinese rocket body that I was able to snap shots of as it flew by, the Gemini cameras captured it as well. Those fireballs that light up the sky as if it were daylight, yep, it gets them too. Believe it or not, those aren’t even the best things you can see.

Capturing Gigantic Jets and Red Sprites

For me, one of the most interesting things to watch for in the time-lapse movies is what is known as Transient Luminous Events (TLE). This is basically a fancy term for what might be described as upward lightning. Instead of a charge going down to the ground, it travels up into the atmosphere, sometimes as high as 50 or 60 miles. As the charge travels up, it spreads out creating interesting shapes.

Red Sprites are the more common type of TLE, I have found nearly 20 of them in the Gemini CloudCam time-lapses over the past few weeks from the thunderstorms that have been near the Hawaiian Islands recently. As for Gigantic Jets, it is thought that fewer than a hundred or so have ever been recorded by cameras.

Fortunately, on the morning of July 23, 2017 I made sure to check the cameras since my friends had told me some severe thunderstorms passed near the islands the night before. I was hoping to find lots of Red Sprites, which I did, but I also found two remarkable Gigantic Jets jumping out of the tops of the thunderstorms. I processed the images, giving full credit to Gemini Observatory, and they were picked up by a number of news stations and websites.

Even though I wasn’t there to get the pictures, the process of discovery and then processing the images was reward enough for me. Plus, learning about Gigantic Jets and Red Sprites has given me a new target for my photography when I am out in the field.

A very rare gigantic jet appears above a thunderstorm northwest of the Big Island of Hawaii in July 2017.

Rocket Launches and Missile Tests

I was hoping to be able to find images of the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, in particular the burn that sent Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on its way to the asteroid belt, Mars, and perhaps back to Earth one day. Unfortunately, the boost happened while it was still daylight in Hawaii and the CloudCams were offline waiting for it to get dark.

Seeing a rocket burn, fuel dump, or re-entry is not something that happens every day, but it is certainly possible to see them if circumstances line up. One such event happened back in August of 2017 when the military tested a missile defense system off the coast of Kauai. The island is nearly 300 miles away from Mauna Kea but the test was plainly visible in the Gemini Observatory CloudCam time-lapse. From the launch to the intercept to what appeared to be a fuel dump, it is all online for viewing by the public.

A successful test of a missile intercept happened west of the Hawaiian Islands in August 2017. The vapor trail from the intercepting rocket as well as a possible fuel dump are visible.

There's Much, Much More

As if exploding bolides, Red Sprites, Gigantic Jets, and missile intercepts weren't awesome enough, you can also see other atmospheric effects like light pillars and moonbows. If clouds and weather are your thing, then keep your eyes peeled for the occasional thunderstorm, snowstorm (yep, it snows in Hawaii), and the very cool lenticular clouds that form over the mountain when the winds are high. And, if you're an astronomy buff, the orange adaptive optics lasers blasting out of the twin Keck Observatory domes are a sight to see. It is especially intriguing when both beams are focused on an area of the galaxy, like the galactic core. You might even be able to make out the artificial star generated by energized sodium atoms about 60 miles high in the mesosphere.

Shooting the Keck Observatory adaptive optics lasers on the summit of Mauna Kea.

Why Does This Matter?

I think having access to remote cameras is not only interesting, but it is enlightening as well. If you have children or if you are into citizen science, quite a bit can be achieved through online cameras like the ones provided by the Gemini Observatory. You can learn about how thunderstorms build and dissipate, you can track satellites, you can better understand the night sky, and you can even discover unique things happening high above the ground. For me, the Gemini CloudCams are a fun way to learn and see things that not a lot of people get to witness. And, if nothing else, the views of the Milky Way are always spectacular.

All images and videos used with permission from Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA. CloudCam photograph used with permission of Tom Cumming.

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Sean Goebel's picture

No mention of the Keck and CFHT cameras? They're very similar to the Gemini ones. is supposed to aggregate all the webcams on Mauna Kea, but this page hasn't been updated in about a decade.

Steve Cullen's picture

Hi Sean. A mutual friend of ours from Keck was supposed to get me some more info on the Keck Cosmic Cams but I didn't get it in time for this article. I primarily watch the Gemini CloudCams since they cover more of the horizon. There's a few times when the CFHT CloudCam can see something that is between the Gemini north facing camera and east facing camera since it has a wider field of view.

Awesome imagery.

Steve Cullen's picture

Thanks Tim. Mother Nature does all the hard work, I just keep an eye on what she's up to and put it in pictures and videos!

Arun Hegden's picture

Damn. This is kickass stuff..:D

Steve Cullen's picture

Thanks Arun!