Saturday, September 22, 2012

Arizona's Biggest and Highest!

Friday was our day to visit the Observatory that is the largest and highest of Arizona.  Located on Mount Graham in Eastern Arizona, a trio of telescopes is located at 3260m (10,700 feet) above the desert.  The Mount Graham International Observatory is home to The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), the Sub-Millimeter Telescope (SMT), and the flagship of them all, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT).   This telescope consists of 2 huge mirrors ov 8.4 meters diameter working in tandem, equivalent in light-gathering power of a single 12 meter mirror!

The trip to the Observatory is not for the meek of heart!  It is a long drive - nearly 3.5 hours, and includes driving up a long, at times rough road that climbs 2200 meters (7000 feet) above the base of the mountain.  First we drove for over 2 hours from Tucson to Safford where we met our tour guides at a very nice little museum called Discovery Park, operated by Eastern Arizona College. Husband and wife team Mark and Jackie gave us the run of the displays and most of the kids rode a shuttle simulator which whisks the children away on a voyage through space, complete with the appearance of g-forces and motions like a real flight trainer. Everyone gave it a big thumbs up. As we lined up near the entrance for a photo, Jackie also showed us the local residents - Hiccup and Petunia, the desert tortoises. At left my wife Melinda smooches up to Hiccup, and Petunia is at right. Note that Petunia has a gimpy left leg and likely wouldn't be able to survive in the wild.  Here these are well-cared for and make an interesting encounter for visitors!
The drive up the mountain soon started, pointing uphill very quickly, with almost endless bends and twists.  Just about the time you have had enough, the pavement ends and you continue on a bumpy gravel or dirt road.  Melinda reports (from a second vehicle) that the girls exclaimed "Russian Roads!".  Finally, after nearly 90 minutes of driving uphill, we reached the Columbine Ranger Station, where Mark and Jackie introduced us to Jim and John, a pair of volunteers who interact with visitors at the facility.  They work in near paradise conditions - far above the desert, they are surrounded by tall forests of pine trees and meadows full of wildflowers.  We ate a meal of Subway sandwiches that Jackie had brought for us, and the children stretched their legs a bit before we reached the observatory.  Here John demonstrates the proper form of throwing one of the boomerang toys that return to you if thrown correctly.  And at right, Nikita echoes perfect form with his effort.
As sunset quickly approached, we headed the last few miles up to the Observatory.  Just when you thought the road couldn't get any worse, it turned even steeper and reduced to only one lane.  Our guides made an announcement on the radio to make sure no one went down the road while we climbed because there would be no room to pass!  We finally arrived atop the mountain and took in the amazing sight of the huge buildings housing the telescopes.  No traditional domed buildings here - all are squat rectangular structures, though the VATT sports a very small dome for its stubby telescope atop a 3 story laboratory and living quarters.  In the near distance (about 200 meters to the east) was the LBT, a seemingly huge building - 40 meters tall (120 feet) and also about as wide.  The photo shows the visitors just as they arrived, before they put on their warm clothes.  Travelling from the desert where it was 35C, it was only about 15C at the peak, so the first order of business was to put on warmer clothes!
Mark and Jackie gave us a very nice tour of the VATT, complete with very nice living quarters.  The telescope was among the first from the Mirror Lab where I work, and I helped with the mirror construction when first working at the Lab in the 1990s.  One of the advantages of making the telescopes very steeply curved is that the resulting telescope is very short and can be located in a very small building to help keep construction expenses down.  At left is the Altitude-Azimuth mounted VATT telescope, and at right Mark talks about the optical layout of the Gregorian optical design.
Finally it was time to see the the mechanical marvel that is the LBT!  Parking at the base of the towering structure, it seems to be a skyscraper from a large city transplanted atop a mountain.  The sun was about to set behind horizons 150km (100 miles) away.  Inside we met Jeff Urban, who I had not seen in years - we often worked together at Steward Observatory and unknown to me he was now the site manager!  A former Iowa boy like myself, he lead us on a great tour of the facility and answered questions for a long time at the end.  I was anxious to get up to the telescope, but they build the excitement by starting on the ground floor and seeing all the huge support equipment and explain the monumental engineering challenges that went into the building.  Realize that most of the building rotates with the telescope, and the interface between fixed and rotating parts of the structure is quite complicated.  Finally it was time - the telescope itself!  It always takes my breath away to see it, perhaps my work in making the mirrors makes it special to me, but it truly is an astounding machine.  We roamed the floor of the facility at will for a good 20 minutes while Jeff showed off the engineering. 
As you can see through the side shutter openings from the image at left above, it was growing dark outside, and it was time for the astronomers to open the telescope.  We were allowed to stay for a few minutes more while they lowered the telescope to open the dome.  The mirrors are so large, there are no mirror covers, so whenever the dome is opened, the telescope must lower to horizon-pointing to make sure nothing falls on the fragile optical surface.  In this last picture, one finally gets a good view of one of the two mirrors as the telescope points downwards.  The telescope amazingly moved without a sound, although there is a background whoosh of air as the mirrors are air conditioned with controlled air with the large duct work visible to the right of the mirror.
While we were initially given permission to stay a few hours to watch the astronomers at work, it was an engineering night, and with all the bustle of working on the instrument on telescope, our group would have been in the way, so after Jeff explained all the aspects of the observatory, including the many partners and how to observe with such a device, we thanked our hosts and now descended the miles and miles of road, this time in the dark!  In the desert the creatures come out at night and on the way we spotted ring-tailed cats and a pair of deer as well that were not in any hurry to leave the beams of our headlights.  After a bathroom stop in Willcox, and a grocery shopping trip when we returned to Tucson, we finally dropped our visitors off at their motel about Midnight, exactly 4 hours after departing the Observatory.  It was a great trip, and I took a series of images for making into a time-lapse in the future.  Thanks to all involved for making it so memorable!

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