Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Excuse to go to Kitt Peak

A Harvard grad student discovered my blog and queried if it would be possible to get a tour of Kitt Peak.  It is not like I need an excuse to go - normally I'll go at the drop of a hat to pick up a shift on the Nightly Observing Program (NOP), or cover a VIP daytime tour, or just go up to observe on my own along the road to the peak.  I envisioned this one being some combination of the first two, so with permission of the director's office in hand, our new friend joined me and wife Melinda (who had never taken part in an NOP) for an afternoon and evening tour of the mountaintop observatory.

It was a spectacular day!  Temps peaked in the upper 80s, and the smoke and haze that hampered observing a week earlier had mostly cleared out, revealing crystal blue skies and strong sun.  We arrived shortly after noon, and after conversing at length with some of the Visitor Center (VC) staff, we took a walking tour of the 2.1 meter telescope.  With our 3pm deadline to clear the domes (so night time observers can prep their instruments), we drove to the 4 meter for the top-down tour of the biggest instrument at Kitt Peak.  The picture at left shows the view from the 4-meter viewing gallery towards the south showing part of the menagerie of telescopes and the striking mountain Baboquivari about 15 miles to the south.

Getting back to the VC as the day staff was leaving, the NOP crew were on duty.  I reminded them we would be joining them for the early part of their show, and got a daytime glimpse of the orange star Arcturus as they opened the domes for the night's observing.  Time on our hands, we headed off to the dining hall for an early dinner.  Now I hardly ever complain about the food served here or anywhere, but this particular night we enjoyed prime rib!  Melinda was quite impressed and I'll likely get future ribbing about that perk of the NOP position...  Absolutely stuffed, we took an amble down to the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, including a visit to the observing room.  There we found that the telescope was going to be used that night and the observers showed us around, including a view of the sun with the West Auxiliary scope.  The observers, from the University of Wisconsin, are looking at the sodium atmosphere of the moon, and since it was moving towards last quarter, this was their last night.  They invited us to stay to watch the closeup sunset projected on the screen, but we opted instead to join the NOP crew for the naked-eye view.  In our time observing the sun there, a lady bug was captured in what must have seemed a long walk across the sun's disk...  I just realize a day later that watching him crawl across the sun wasn't too different from many of the time-lapse movies of the recent Venus transit, except this time Venus sports lil' legs, antennae and black-on-red spots!

On our way back to the VC, we happened to notice a bush absolutely filled with everything from ants to ladybugs to a variety of bees and what appear to be pepsis wasps, otherwise known as tarantula hawks.  So called because they are the only known predators to tarantulas other than humans, they paralyse them and lay a single egg which will hatch and feed on the still-living arachnid!  But they also feed on pollen and nectar, and that is obviously what they were doing here on the flower stalk of a beargrass plant  While there were many beargrass clumps with flower stalks, for some reason, this one seemed to be the popular one.  While scary-big, perhaps a 6cm long body, they seemed pre-occupied with their feeding and paid us little mind.  I read that the females have curly antennae, so this one appears to be male...

We finally pressed on to the VC and found the "sunset tour" about to start.  We joined the crowd of about 30 visitors on the short walk to the sunset view, learning about various telescopes along the way.  Lead guide Blythe is shown in the picture at left, with glasses and pointing against the sunset glow.    As the sun sank, the domes around the mountain came to life and opened allowing the interiors to cool in the rapidly dropping temperatures.  Shown at right is the WIYN .9 meter telescope and its observer enjoying the sunset.  The guides Blythe and Jim talked about a variety of topics - told people about the possible Green Flash at sunset, but it was a little too hazy to be obvious.   They did point out the Belt of Venus - the sunset line and the earth's shadow rising into the eastern sky.

Finally, Jim pointed out that the previous evening they spotted Mercury, the elusive innermost planet.  After losing Venus in the evening sky about 2 weeks ago, we've again got a planet in the evening at least for a month or so.  He was expecting it to be quite low, and thought it might have gone into the haze layer without our seeing it.  So the NOP group departed, headed back to the VC for a classroom session on planispheres and binocular use.  We stayed at the sunset point for a little and eventually spotted Mercury - it was a LOT higher than we were led to believe and was quite easily visible.  Shown in the picture here is Mercury in the twilight sky against the background of the SARA 0.9 meter telescope flamingo - you might have to click on it to spot the planet to the left of its head.   SARA, a consortium of schools mostly located in the Southeast, use the flamingo as a mascot...  So yes, in the next few weeks go out and check out Mercury!

On our way back down to the VC we availed ourselves of the 20" telescope and grabbed a few views of Saturn (spectacular in the excellent seeing), the globular cluster Messier 13, and galaxy Messier 104.  We were on our way down the mountain by 9pm - a long but most excellent day at the Observatory!


David A. Harvey said...

Nicely done. - Love the photos -can I get a VIP tour with you sometime? :-)

Dean said...

For you, anytime - just give me a couple days for director's office approval!

Leandra said...

I'm so glad you ID'd that waspy thing-- a tarantula hawk? Never heard of it! It was such a wonderful tour and such a pleasure to spend the day with both of you. I'll be emailing soon with a couple of photos of the two of you taken with my camera, though yours are obviously far superior!

Leandra said...

I'm so glad you ID'd that waspy thing-- a tarantula hawk? Never heard of it! It was such a wonderful tour and such a pleasure to spend the day with both of you. I'll be emailing soon with a couple of photos of the two of you taken with my camera, though yours are obviously far superior!