Star light, start bright… Wow! I can actually see stars tonight

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Saturday night I zoomed up the Catalina Highway, a 28-mile serpentine course through craggy mountains leading to the tippy-top of Mt. Lemmon. An impressive 9,157 feet above Tucson, Arizona, sits the Mt. Lemmon Observatory. Operated in conjunction with the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, Mt. Lemmon has a research station that is home to some impressive space-viewing equipment and several biological research projects focused on the amazing mountain ecosystem.

The Whirlpool Galaxy. Photo by Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Sky Center

M51-The Whirlpool Galaxy. Photo by Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Sky Center, http://skycenter.arizona.edu/m51.html.

Arriving at dusk, I was there to see something nearly impossible to see in New York… stars. And to facilitate this wish was Adam Block, the Public Observing Programs Coordinator of the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center. The Sky Center operates as a part of the University of Arizona’s public outreach efforts, and to that end, Adam has helped organize several programs that are open to the public of all ages. I participated in SkyNights, a program providing the opportunity to explore the night sky with an experienced guide coupled with some astonishing technology. Adam had an easy manner and an incredible wealth of astronomical knowledge, but the real star was the 24” RC Optical Systems Telescope. We got a good look at this amazing piece of technology in the daylight, and were even able use it to see two stars so bright that they are visible in the daytime—who knew? Later we used this behemoth to view dying stars, incredibly dense star clusters, beautiful nebula, and the stunning galaxy pictured here.

The entire program was an elegant example of how this kind of public science outreach and learning, that has previously been relegated to museums, can be conducted effectively in an actual research setting. Bringing the public into an arena where science is actively studied is stimulating in a way that science exhibits, specifically designed for mass consumption, may not be. Add in the hands-on experience of using start charts, binoculars, and the 24” Optical Telescope to view the night sky, and you have yourself a winning program.

Sungazing2

Staring into the sun... with a special filter!

And on top of Mt. Lemmon, we were definitely in the presence of some hard-core science. The Catalina Sky Survey operates a massive 60″ Cassegrain reflector at the Mt. Lemmon Observatory, and with it they identify near-earth objects, specifically asteroids that could cause problematic collisions. Last fall, the Catalina Sky Survey identified a body that was earth-bound, and successfully predicted that it would break up over the Sudan. In addition, Adam uses the 24” to take gorgeous and meticulous photographs of stellar objects, which have garnered him some impressive renown, including NASA recognition.

My own interest in astronomy was eclipsed at an early age by my interest in biology. But who doesn’t dream of being an astronaut at one time, a dream that may yet be satisfied by technological advances in privatized space travel. In my narrow and biased opinion, I can’t understand how anyone would find the question of how life works uninteresting, but I do recognize the massive draw that astronomy holds for expert and layman alike. Because the night sky is ubiquitous, we have an almost equally ubiquitous fascination with the objects in the night sky. I think the success of the NightSky program at the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center lies in the wide range of themes and lessons they provide, so that everyone was bound to be touched by something. One of the main highlights for me was clearly viewing four of Jupiter’s winking moons through the use of simple binoculars. I found this particularly significant because binoculars are an important tool of my field of study, animal behavior, and having their functionality broadened in this way was quite surprising. And in listening to the conversations of the other people in our group, it was apparent that everyone gleaned a different gem of information that made them excited about astronomy, about science, and about the world around them. That is success. Look them up next time you are in Tucson!!!

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