Adventures in Arizona, Rob Johnson

It could be said that Arizona is the world ‘capital’ of astronomy, with clear skies for much of the year and home to several major observatories it is an irresistible holiday destination. So my family and I visited this summer and combined holiday with astronomy to tour around some of the many places of astronomical interest.

First stop up was a 3-night stay at the Arizona Sky Village. The ASV is nestled in the remote south-east corner near New Mexico with some of the darkest skies in the world and consists of a grouping of homes ina highly protected area – no outdoor lights are allowed! Jack Newton, Fred Espenak and others have homes here. We hired the Green Witch house which is offered for rent by the UK company of the same name. We drove the 285 miles from Phoenix in about 6 hours through some beautiful countryside but before we set off we were warned there had been heavy rain in the area from the remnants of Hurricane ‘Dolly’. When we arrived the road to the ASV was washed out by a fast flowing river making it completely impassable.

Our contact at ASV was Gilbert Clark who offered us a bed for the night ready to try to cross the road the next day. Gil turned out to be quite a character – a Professor who spent 20 years at JPL and founder of the ‘Telescopes In Education Foundation’.

As the sun set and the sky cleared the Milky Way became more obvious. At full Astro twilight I was stunned at the spectacle of the Milky Way overhead and down towards Scorpius and Sagittarius with Jupiter nearby – I have been to many dark sky sites but none quite the equal of this. Gil said the Milky Way was visible from horizon to horizon under good conditions! I took some unguided 15s exposures towards Sagittarius which don’t really do the view justice. This image is a stack of two 15s exposures contrast stretched slightly.


This image of the Milky Way from Arizona in Summer 2008 is a stack of two 15s exposures contrast stretched slightly

This image of the Milky Way from Arizona in Summer 2008 is a stack of two 15s exposures contrast stretched slightly

The next day we tried again to cross the access road and although the river had subsided the road was still impassable. Sadly we had to cancel the remaining two nights and drive back up to Tucson earlier than planned.

Tucson is known amongst other things as the head-quarters of the International Dark Sky Association. Their influence over the years has ensured Tucson has strict lighting ordinances and it is often stated that the Milky Way is visible from the city centre. I had a chance to try this out when we paid a night-time visit to  the public open evening at the University of Arizona’s Flandrau Observatory just around the corner from the Steward Observatory. I’m afraid despite relatively  low
levels of light pollution for a large city, the Milky Way wasn’t visible. The Flandrau observatory housed a fine 16” Cassegarain and we were offered views of Jupiter, M57 and M13. I owned up to being an amateur astronomer from the LAS and had a good chat with the lady operating the ‘scope. She was very enthusiastic and very involved with astronomy, amongst other things
she used to work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HIRISE project.

Our next stop was Kitt Peak, some 50 miles south-west of Tucson and a very nice drive to get up to the no less than 23 observatories at 6,800ft. Several tours each day lead by a ‘Docent’ take you to some of the observatories on the mountain.

Kitt Peak Observatory, taken in Summer 2008

Kitt Peak Observatory, taken in Summer 2008

We visited the famous McMath-Pierce solar telescope which projects a 36” image of the sun and includes various secondary mirrors that send the sunlight for more detailed analysis. The 2.1-metre reflector is nearby and although small by modern standards still carries out important work. A gold covered infra-red CCD detector was at the focus ready for the night’s work when we visited. Just up the hill is the 3.5-metre WIYN telescope which was one of the first ‘next generation’ telescopes, easy to tell by it’s unconventional ‘dome’ shape, much smaller than the older 4-meter Mayall telescope dome across the mountain. The wildlife atop the mountain was very rich, particularly the many large butterflies.

On another day we found the Phoenix Mars lander mission control centre as seen on the  Sky at Night recently with it’s large re-entry artwork on the outside wall. The visit was purely unplanned so unfortunately we didn’t arrive on a day when there were escorted tours. Despite pleading with the researcher on the desk he wouldn’t let me in! I did get to see some nice meteorites and displays in the entrance area and contented myself with the knowledge that down the corridor the scientists were commanding Phoenix’s arm to dig into the Martian soil.

Also on our travels we visited the Pima Air & Space Museum which is home to many famous aircraft including a NASA ‘Super Guppy’ that used to carry Apollo-Saturn components across the US. Another truly fascinating place is the Titan Missile Museum, this was one of the network of secret nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile bunkers scattered across the  US that would have helped ensure Armageddon. The missile and bunker (minus warhead!) was preserved as a museum when it was decommissioned in the mid-eighties. There were strong spaceflight links of course because the Titan II was also used to launch the Gemini two-man spacecraft.

Arizona is an amazing place to visit if you get the chance, you will never be short of astronomically interesting places to visit amongst the desert sunsets and Saguaro cacti.