Friday, September 21, 2012

Kitt Peak Day!

A short post today as we are leaving shortly for a long day trip to Mount Graham, the largest telescope in the continental United States.  But first, yesterday we went up to Kitt Peak National Observatory.  I first started working there when arriving in Tucson in 1970, and where I continue to work for about 1 night per week with the Nightly Observing Program.  With both a daytime and night time session, we started later in the morning, arriving at the Observatory about 11am. 

The astronomers at the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope were expecting us, so after checking in left for the 200 meter walk to that facility.  We had a surprise at the entrance - a Praying Mantis!  With the correct viewing angle, it looked like a scene from a monster movie where mutant creatures were destroying everything in its path!  The telescope in the left image is of the 2.1 meter reflected in the glass behind the mantis.  Despite their fierce appearance, they are quite harmless, and all the children were able to get as close as desired to take its photograph.

The astronomers John Briggs, an amateur astronomer, and staff scientist Jack Harvey were waiting for us.  John had an antique telescope, made 150 years ago - a 13" refractor.  The optics of the big solar telescope were reconfigured to allow the achromat to do imaging, and John here is showing the group the fine images it produces on a computer screen.  In addition to those views, one of the auxiliary telescopes provided a 30cm image diameter of the sun to examine.  The classic telescope, a mixture of 60's era mechanics and current epoch electronic detectors and computers makes for an interesting juxtaposition.  Unfortunately, this telescope is threatened with de-funding, so it may be closed in the near future, something that has been threatened several times in the last few decades.  It is tied for the largest aperture solar telescope at 1.6 meters.
From there we went up to another classic - the 2.1 meter, dedicated in 1964.  While there we watched the observer (a young woman from Indiana), fill the camera dewar with liquid nitrogen to cool the detector to reduce thermal noise.  It was getting a little late, so we walked back to our van and drove the 3km down the road to the picnic area for lunch.  Melinda and I had packed some ham and salami, with lettuce and veggies to make sandwiches, along with fruit, chips and granola bars.  It seemed to be a big hit, the veggies gone before the meat.  The ultimate comment was made by the boy at left after his first bite - "The sandwich of my dreams!".  you can't get higher praise than that!
We returned to the mountaintop to tour the largest telescope on the mountain - the 4-meter.  The telescope had been freshly aluminized during the rainy season just ended, and the mountain manager had told me that they could each keep a tungsten filament that was used in the coating process.  A definite cool and unusual souvenirs!  Up in the telescope dome, some thermal tests were being done, and there was a large circulation fan to mix the air layers so keep the air temperature more uniform.  Unfortunately it was very loud, and I couldn't explain all the aspects of the telescope.  We escaped to the relative quiet of the observing room where the astronomers work.  Another female astronomer - this one from the University of Montreal.  She told us about her work observing nearby white dwarf stars, and comparing the observed spectra of them to computer models that her advisor was developing.  In my observations of the astronomers I've seen since my undergraduate days when first working at the Observatory, there is much more opportunity for women in astronomy.  It almost seems to be 50% women scientists now in the field - a good thing!
We ended in time for me to do my "real" job working with the NOP program.  The group joined me in opening the 40cm telescope in a roll-off roof that we would be using that night.  In all we had 40 observers that night and after a box dinner, we went to observe the sunset and merge into night time observing.  Unfortunately, one of the guests (not from my group of Russians), took a nasty fall and I was diverted to assist and wait for the ambulance to come offer aid to her.  It was almost totally dark when I returned to the telescope and took over my group from Lucas.  it was a whirlwind of observing - we must have seen over 20 objects including Neptune and Uranus, galaxies, several star clusters and nebulae.  We had a few clouds early, but they cleared to reveal a nice sky, made better when the crescent moon finally set (which we observed earlier).  We closed down and left the mountain before 10:30 and the children were home about 11:40.  I was up for a couple hours writing  report about the mountain accident, and finally got to bed myself about 0200 (for about the 3rd night in a row!).  A long road trip today - I will report when I can!

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