Friday, October 14, 2011

Kitt Peak Open House and a Visit to the Third-Born!

Last weekend the astronomy club was invited to help out with Tohono O'odham Night at Kitt Peak National Observatory.  Many hundreds were expected, and all the telescopes were open to residents of the reservation, where the Observatory is located, as well as  "Friends" of the Observatory.   We were invited to set up our personal telescopes and help out with the crowds up near the 36" telescope on the south ridge near the WIYN Telescope. 

It was quite the event!  Melinda and I arrived early to set up before the 4pm start time.  We stayed up by our telescope, but there were lots of activities going on below by the visitor center - you could hear a "chicken scratch" band, and there were local vendors of fry bread and crafts, traditional dancing, that sort of thing.  I figured it was their party, and we stayed and did our duty...  And there were LOTS of people!  They ran a shuttle up from the picnic area where they directed folks to park, they even ran buses from the reservation high school for those who didn't want to drive the mountain road.  Folks loved the view of the moon, even in the late afternoon as sunset and dusk settled.  Our location was one of the most scenic on the mountain, with spectacular views of the other domes and surrounding desert.  The only problem - it was also COLD!  I'm not sure how cold it was, but with the steady breeze, it was quite bone chilling when standing for hours.  Joining us with their telescopes was John Kalas, Bill Lofquist, Jim O'Connor and a few others.  Spouses mostly hung out in the 36" warm room.  Even our brownies didn't ward away the chill!

Another draw for me was the 3.5 meter diameter WIYN telescope (WIYN stands for Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale and NOAO, the major partners), built in the early 90s, was the 3rd large telescope that I had a hand in polishing at the Mirror Lab.  And with the telescope open, and sporting a large eyepiece for the occasion, provided a chance to finally look through a telescope that I've polished!  I was at the dedication in October of 1994, hoping to take a look at Saturn, but a storm had come through and we could barely venture outside that night, let alone think of observing with a new shiny telescope.  Normally there is NEVER an eyepiece on the scope - digital detectors are so much more efficient that there is rarely a chance to look through the scope with your eyes. 

We paid a visit before sunset, inspecting the telescope and chatting with Dr. Patricia Knezek, director of the WIYN Observatory.  While sporting a large 3.5 meter mirror, it is a very short telescope and squat mount, so the dome is small and comfortable.  With the telescope pointed halfway up the sky the primary and tertiary mirror can be inspected quite easily.  Having polished it, I was eager to get a look at the reflecting surface.  It had seen better days!  It was pretty dirty - almost looking like it had gotten sprinkled on, which happens more often that you think with quickly-changing mountain weather.  And while cleaned regularly, typically with a carbon dioxide snow technique (think CO2 fire extinguisher!),  it is recoated every couple years.  We were told that because of heavy demand for the coating chamber in the basement of the 4-meter building across the mountain, it had been 3 years since recoating.  It is scheduled for the next shutdown.

The view through the dome slit and open "garage doors" to help with dome seeing, was quite spectacular.  To the east, you could see the great alignment of telescope domes - from the WIYN, directly east is a small dome where currently a 16" Meade is located for the Nightly Observing Program.  A short walk up the hill is the 36" where we were set up - my van can be spotted in the photo.  Past the 36" is the 2.1 meter telescope, built nearly 50 years ago, and past that is the heliostat of the largest solar telescope in the world - the McMath-Pierce Telescope, about the same age. 

We did our telescope duty - lots of passers-by, families with kids in tow, ignoring the cold (or perhaps thankful for the change from desert heat).  They loved my high-power views of lunar craters, and Jupiter a little later as it rose.  By 8:15 our counter showed 135 people had looked through the scope!  With telescopes scheduled to close at 8:30, now was our opportunity to go look through the WIYN!

We made the short walk over and surprise - there was a line.  We were told there were about 100 in front of us!  We heard rumors some had spent an hour in line, but we persevered...  We talked to the director some more, and found out that even though I polished the mirror, that plus $1.49 will get me a cup-o-coffee at Circle K.  No cutting the line for us!  The thing I kicked myself for later was that I hadn't brought camera and tripod - with the bright moon and it's ambient light it would have been fun taking pics of the line of folks leading up to the stepladder and eyepiece.  Next time!  Finally the time drew near - they were looking at the Ring Nebula, M57 in Lyra.  It is a great object for such a large telescope - it has a high surface brightness and is small, both a benefit because even the lowest magnifications with such a large telescope is typically 600X or more.  And yes, even with the squat telescope pictured above, you do need an 8 foot stepladder to reach the eyepiece at the Naysmith focus.  We had heard rumors that color could be seen in the Ring's oval, but I suspect it was overactive imaginations.  The central star was easily visible and it was quite an impressive view - stars were very small for such a high magnification, though it appeared it wasn't quite finely focused.  With over 85 people behind me, my few seconds of observing time quickly drew to a close, and we ambled out.  It would be great to do it again - a moonless night would be great, and of course, an hour to look at a couple objects would be "heavenly"!

As we returned, everyone was putting scopes away, so we did the same.  I had set up cameras that were still churning away taking some sequences in our absence.  The camera pointed north showed the spectacular view of other telescope domes illuminated by moonlight, and the interior of the 4-meter lit up with their low-dome lights.  The Big Dipper can be seen just above the horizon and the lights of Casa Grande and the glow of Phoenix.  Faintly below the dipper the radio towers of South Mountain can be seen, an even 100 miles away.  The other image is in the direction of Tucson with a telephoto lens - easily seen are the headlights of Ajo Way, route 86, which is the main route between the Observatory and town.  The dark silhouette of the mountain is Cat Mountain, passed as you leave town.  Below that are the lights and illuminated runway of Ryan Airfield.

It was a great evening, even with the cold, and with the early conclusion, we were home by 11:30 or so - early for us.  We'll be volunteering again in a few years when they have another!

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