Kitt Peak National Observatory, located near Tucson, Arizona, offers visitors a spectacular view of the heavens.
Sitting at seven thousand feet above sea level, the telescopes making up the observatory are nestled along several peaks clustered near one another. According to Native American legend, an unusual dome-shaped mountain off in the distance was said to be the center of the universe.
My brothers and I were treating our Dad to this weekend trip. For my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary my Mom got a 54 inch, flat screen, hi-def television set so she could watch sports and feel like she was on the field. Since my Dad has always loved astronomy we decided to take him on a two day excursion. This was a whirlwind trip because we flew in Friday afternoon, went to the observatory on Saturday, and flew back to Tennessee on Sunday.
For someone used to the hills, valleys and greenery of the Appalachian Mountains, the flat valley broken by ragged peaks jutting skyward at seemingly random intervals was breathtaking. Everything seemed to be varying shades of brown and cactus dominated the area. I snapped pictures left and right from the passenger seat of the car, even catching a dust devil near the road as it swirled around and collected loose debris from the ground.
The observatory was almost two hours’ drive from Tucson. It was uneventful until we got to the base of the mountain and saw what lay before us. Stretching upward was the road to our destination. As we drove along the snaking path the ground kept getting farther and farther away. About three feet and no guard rail was all that separated us from certain death. One of the observatories kept enticing us as it loomed closer and larger with each upward curve.
After about half an hour of the roller coaster ride we finally made it to the parking lot. It was still a while before nightfall, but the observatory had the evening carefully planned for our group. People began to meander into the visitor’s center/gift shop. While waiting, we browsed around and looked at the various astronomical paraphernalia they had on display.
Once the group was ready and gathered together we sat down for a meal of potato chips, turkey sandwiches and bottled water while the guides gave us an orientation. They told us a brief history of the observatory and some of the things we would be seeing that night. After planning the trip for months we were finally here and the excitement was building. There were about 30 people in all and many were locals, some of whom had been here before. After they finished we had almost an hour to spare and they walked us over to watch the sun set.
I love digital cameras and memory cards. I snapped pictures with reckless abandon, knowing I could delete the bad images at my leisure.
Last fall I witnessed a spectacular sunset sitting on a pier down in Key West. This summer had an equally stunning scene unfolding before me as I stood on top of a mountain in Arizona, watching a fiery end to the day as the sky turned red, yellow, blue and purple. And then, with a final flicker, the golden orb disappeared and night began.
It would still be a while before we could use the telescope so we broke into smaller groups that split up to go to their respective observatories. Working with various universities and research institutions, most of the telescopes are dedicated to official projects so only a few are open to the public for night viewing.
Our group of 10 went into the building we would be using for the night. First we had to go into a classroom for a few more minutes of discussion and to learn how to use a star chart. We were also given binoculars for the duration of the tour and red laser lights to see our charts in the dark those we got to keep.
After we wrapped up the discussion it was finally time to go outside but no telescope yet. The group went to the parking lot to put our star chart knowledge to the test. Using a compass, a watch and the season of the year we were able to locate various heavenly bodies. I was amazed at what we could see with a good set of binoculars and being above smog and away from city lights.
Once we got to the actual telescope I was a little underwhelmed. “We came all this way for this?” I wanted to say to our guide. Bigger than what you could buy in a store, it was far smaller than what I had imagined a great domed room filled with a huge cylinder housing a series of massive lenses. Once darkness came a retractable door would open with ponderous slowness to let the gaze of the mighty telescope peer into the depths of space and back through the eons.
Ours looked to be the runt of the litter that nobody wanted.
My chagrin was unwarranted. This little baby could see everything from the pimples on the man-in-the-moon to planets, galaxy clusters and nebulae.
For hours we were entertained as everyone got to take turns and gaze at some of the wonders of space. By the end of the night we were all satiated and relaxed that is until we found out we would have to drive halfway down the mountain with our headlights off so we wouldn’t disrupt the observations of the big telescopes.
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