Last April (2011), about 10 of us went up to Kitt Peak for the Night Observation Program. For $48 each, we got about a five-hour program that included a very interesting lecture (with slides) on astronomy, a box “dinner” with chips, an apple, and a stale sandwich, and a few hours observing the heavens through gigantic telescopes. Jeronimo was our guide and he was very good.
I thought our grandchildren might enjoy such a program so when Groupon offered half-price tickets to the Sky Center atop Mt Lemmon, I snapped up five and made reservations for late August when our 14.5 and 16 year-old grandsons, Morgan & Jon, where scheduled to visit here for a few weeks.
When our August dates arrived, we started to head up to Mt. Lemmon when it became obvious that the monsoon clouds would obscure the view through the telescope. I called and rescheduled for the Holiday Season when the grandkids would return to Tucson for two weeks.
Christmas eventually arrived and Morgan, now 15, is taller than his older brother, Jon, and his 19-year-old cousin, Colby-Boy.
During the week after Christmas (2011), the days were warm and sunny in Tucson and the night sky was cloudless and perfect for viewing planets, stars, and galaxies. So we trekked up Catalina Highway anticipating a bowl of chili or a piece of pie at the Iron Door Restaurant across from Ski Valley before we were to catch the U of A shuttle for the last 2 miles up to Sky Center.
It had snowed a lot the previous week and the skiers and snowboarders were out in force. The parking lots were a zoo. The Iron Door had one cook, one waitress, and one long line of hungry folks out the door and down the steps. The wait would have been at least an hour and we didn’t have that much time before we were due to board the shuttle. The Ski Valley parking lot and Iron Door situation reinforced my long-held belief that the management of these facilities is incompetent, inconsiderate, or both.
Ever resourceful, we grabbed a few candy bars from the Ski Valley gift shop and made do until we could be served our “dinner” at the Sky Center, some three hours hence.
The shuttle arrived at 3 PM, right on time. We met Alan who would be our driver, guide, and astronomical interpreter. Once on top of the mountain (9,100 feet elevation) the view was spectacular and Alan oriented us to the domes that house the many telescopes.
The 32” Schulman telescope is dedicated to public use. It would be ours for the night. He showed us how it works and how to view through the eyepiece. It was still broad daylight but we could clearly see a very bright star called Denab in the constellation Sygnus (The Swan). Amazing!
Alan drove our group of 22 would-be astronomers about 4 blocks in the shuttle down to the “visitors center,” which was little more than a converted Army barrack, were he gave us a fine orientation to the solar system, stars, and galaxies.
Soon we were outside again with binoculars watching the sun set like we have never seen it before. Years ago, I recall
some mariners talking about the “Green Flash” they had seen on the ocean horizon at sunset. I assumed it was sailor mythology until Paul, my father-in-law, a retired Naval Aviator and world traveler, told me that he too had once seen the “Green Flash” as the sun set below a watery horizon.
Can you believe? Standing there watching the setting sun through professional binoculars (yes, we took eye-safety precautions), we all actually saw it … a split second flash of green that appeared to be just above our home in the Tucson Mountains. Apparently, it’s an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs under very special conditions. Our lucky night!
Now it was getting dark and time for night observations through the 32” Schulman. Over the next two hours we observed a dozen heavenly objects: planets, stars, nebula, and galaxies. Some of the light we observed had been traveling toward Earth for millions of years just so our retinas could capture it and our brains enjoy it in real time. Hard to imagine light having a purpose, but there it was in all its glory.
We also observed the Sun as few humans had ever experienced it… awesome, powerful, and a bit threatening. And the Moon! Looking through this powerful telescope, the moon appeared as it must have to our astronauts as they passed a few miles above the pockmarked surface.
On the drive down the mountain late that night, the boyz wanted to know
how the Sky Center experience compared with the one at Kitt Peak. Here’s the short version.
- From central Tucson, the drive to Kitt Peak is about a half hour longer each way.
- The night observation programs are very similar – about five hours total. The cost is about the same and you get your money’s worth either way.
- The visitor center at Kitt Peak is much nicer than the one at Sky Center, but the meal at Sky Center was superior.
- The lectures or orientations were most interesting and similar. The guides raise and answer a lot of questions geared to curious people with only a modicum of astronomical knowledge. Both guides were amazingly knowledgeable about our universe and clearly loved their work.
- The telescopes generally available for public viewing at Kitt Peak are smaller than at Sky Center. At both, the images we saw in the telescopes were also on adjacent computer screens, which made viewing celestial objects in real time much easier.
- You can see amazing astrophotography on the Internet that is far more beautiful and detailed than you can see through any telescope. Why? The best astrophotography is created by very long exposures and multiple images that the eye cannot duplicate. Adam Brock at Sky Center is a world-class astrophotographer.
- Both venues were very COLD!!! Kitt Peak is at 7,000 feet and Sky Center is 9,000 feet elevation. Assume you are going to Antarctica and dress accordingly.
Footnote. Alan, our Sky Center guide/interpreter gave us something of great value that Kitt Peak did not. A week after our intergalactic adventure, Alan sent us magnificent images of the heavenly bodies we observed that night. Thanks Alan!
Explore the planets and stars at the Sky Center atop Mt. Lemmon. View our Mt. Lemmon video then visit their website.
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