Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Trip to Discovery Park

A few months ago I was approached about giving a talk about Mirror Lab activities at Discovery Park in Safford, Arizona.  Located about a 2 hour drive east of Tucson, it was originally built as a local outreach center for the Mount Graham International Observatories, but a few years ago it was transferred to the control of Eastern Arizona College, a local community college.  Located on several hundred acres, it contains a small astronomy and science center, several outbuildings for future archeology, agriculture and mining displays, an observatory with a 20" Tinsley telescope, and a riparian area with hiking trails.  Now known as Eastern Arizona College's Discovery Park Campus, my talk was part lecture and part meeting for the local astronomy club - the Desert Skygazers.  It is in a beautiful high desert location, nestled between the town of Safford and Mount Graham, home of the Large Binocular telescope.

One of the highlights I had been looking forward to seeing as an optics nut was their camera obscura, effectively a darkened room with a big lens on the wall.  Acting like a big camera chamber with the observer inside, a projected image is seen against the wall, with a color purity that seems to be better than real life!  In this example, a large 18"  lens projects an inverted image of Mount Graham on the wall.  Another reason for my interest was that it was built at the Mirror Lab about 15 years ago, and it was about time I got to see it.  Unfortunately, facing to the west, sometimes the shutter isn't closed all the time, and Jackie here reveals the scar on the bulletin board from when the projected image of the sun almost set the place on fire!

The center had some very nice displays of origins of the universe, from scientific theory to many creation myths of various cultures.  Of course, since it got it's original start from Steward Observatory, it had a great display of the Mirror lab, with lots of video from olden days showing casting, grinding and polishing of mirrors.  Ironically, it also showed a picture of mine from the early 80s from Kitt Peak showing the northern lights over the 4-meter telescope!  My name was misspelled, but there it is to the upper right of the video monitor.

Another fun time was a "shuttle mission" ride, synched to a video space mission.  I've never been on a studio fun ride like that, and it was quite amazing what a little motion combined with visual clues fooled your body into simulating a real space mission.  Of course, the telescope was cool - sort of a semi-vintage look, since it is nearly 50 years old, here providing a sense of scale was Paul, my driver to the meeting for the night.  Interestingly, I first saw the telescope 30 years ago on Kitt Peak.  Originally installed in a dome near the 90" telescope, it was used back then at a Newtonian focus with a big, heavy image tube camera for an infrared sky survey, and moved to it's present location in the mid 80s.  We had a spectacular sunset over the mountain, as the nearly full moon rose in the east over the lights of town.

Finally it was time for my talk - half past Jupiter!  Their Jupiter room serves as a nice auditorium as well as camera obscura chamber.  Here can be seen the Jupiter mural and the members of my audience that weren't too camera shy.  Shown also is Paul, director of Discovery Park, along with his right-hand-woman Jackie.  It was a fun place and a totally enjoyable experience - I'm already looking forward to returning and showing the place off to Melinda next time!

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