Software Bisque was one of the commercial sponsors of a PixInsight workshop in Tucson Arizona recently and I went to show off our mounts, give demos, and give a little “word from our sponsor” talk. I flew in the Wednesday before hand and had the afternoon and evening Wednesday to do something fun. I decided to visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory, which is about a 90 minute drive from Tucson. I went directly there from the airport, stopping only for a quick lunch.
I arrived near 3 p.m., and it turns out the “walk around and show yourself the site” time period ends at 4 p.m. When I travel, it often strikes me as odd how early some places tend to close. If your going to visit, make it a priority and get there early! They do have guided tours as well, but earlier in the day than when I was going to arrive.
I’ve been to Mt. Wilson a few times, and some other major observatories, but I was most struck by how big Kitt Peak is. More than a dozen MAJOR observatories and instruments are located there, each of which would make a interesting stop all by themselves. I went directly to the visitor center to check in for the night time program I signed up for and then went off on foot to take some pictures. I really only had time to visit one instrument, the gigantic Mayall 4-meter scope. An elevator ride takes you to the top where you can see the scope from an observation room. The mirror is 4 meters in diameter (thus the name right?) and it weighs 15 tons! That’s just the mirror! Oh, man to image for a night on that puppy!
I contacted a “friend of a friend” who worked there, and he was out of town and not available for a personal tour, so I signed up for the regular Nightly Observing Program. It was less than $50 and it included a meal. This program started at 6 p.m., which leaves about two hours to kill at the visitors center after the normal 4 o’clock closing time. The program was well done and organized. Attendees learn to use a star chart, focus binoculars, and are told some of the history of the site. We saw Jupiter and Venus during the daytime through one of the outreach scopes, and they had things well staggered out as the sun set and twilight took over, including a view of sunset from one of the high ridges where onlookers watched for the green flash (and no we didn’t see it).
The highlight of the evening for me was the outreach telescope we used. It was a 20″ RC Optical on a Paramount ME. It had to be the most overloaded ME I’ve ever seen. There were 7 20lb counterweights and the one on the end looked like it was 40lbs!
I asked our tour guide how much the scope weighed, and he just said “a couple hundred pounds”. This program was intended for a very general audience and I really didn’t want to be “that guy” in the crowd so I didn’t press for more information about the mount, nor try to show off that I worked for the company that made them. That model of Paramount is now retired of course, and the ME II was beefed up to handle loads such as this. It’s quite the testament that when well balanced, this mount could handle that much of a load. The sound of the mount was also somewhat nostalgic to me… I hand’t realized just how quiet the newer models were, and that sound reminded me of many nights under the stars next to one working on software or practicing my own imaging skills. Interestingly, when I posted this photo on my Facebook page I found that I have friends who actually set this scope up years ago and it ran great on this mount and served for years as an excellent imaging platform! Visually, it did well too and we saw a small sampling of objects through the eyepiece, including the recently full moon with a rim full of craters in sharp relief.
Another “fun” aspect of the visit was at the end of the program, we all went down the mountain in a processional of sorts with our headlights either off or covered so as to not disturb the “working astronomers” with stray light in their scopes. My only regret is that I could not have stayed a little longer, at least for some nightscape images with those domes in the backdrop. There is also an advanced program that goes all night and you can image on one of the scopes there…. well, maybe next time.
Lucas and Dean were the names of the guides that evening and they both did a fantastic job. Dean I needled once or twice for more detailed information about a few things and he was happy to share (and he looked very familiar… I’ve probably seen him at one of the Arizona shows before). I made some mental notes as I too sometimes volunteer for outreach events and consult with another observatory with active public programs. I suppose it was also just fun to be a “secret shopper” of sorts 😉