Tuesday, March 27, 2012

SkyNights at the UofA SkyCenter on Mt. Lemmon

 Last Friday night I attended an incredible astronomy program called SkyNights.

SkyNights is a program put on by the UofA's SkyCenter on Mt. Lemmon, in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson.

We began at the Mt. Lemmon ski area with our program leader Adam Block picking us up to drive the remaining 2 miles to the SkyCenter facility  (9157 ft elevation).

First stop was to visit the dome where we would be spending much of the evening.

Adam went over the history of the facilities as well as the purposes of the telescopes in several other domes.

The dome to the right was used by the U.S. military back during the Cold War days to detect potential bomber threats coming from the Pacific and/or up over Mexico.  It is no longer in use.

The dome to the right (below) contains a telescope used by South Korean astronomers who operate it remotely.  One of the big changes in the last couple of decades is the ease of remote operation of telescopes due to the increased speed and robustness of communications networks.

The domes below contain telescopes used by the Catalina Sky Survey to detect Near Earth Objects that pass by the Earth.

This is the dome that houses the 32 inch telescope that we will use tonight after the sun sets..  We step inside so that Adam can give us an overview while the lighting is still good as well as show us some objects through the telescope viewable even now.

The 32 inch telescope and control equipment.  Plenty of seating around the perimeter of the dome.  As the evening progresses you will see folks wearing more and more clothing.   It can get cold up here.

Adam explained many things about the equipment and astronomical observation methods.   Below I think he was explaining to us how to approach and find the eye piece in the dark.

Its a really nice facility -- everyone involved with this program should be proud.

We viewed sunspots and solar flares through a small telescope set up especially for safe viewing of our Sun (don't try this at home unless you really know what you are doing and what precautions to take).

We then did some daytime viewing.   Adam would align the scope on an object, explain what it was we were looking at, and then we would form an informal line to take turns viewing the object.  Regardless of the orientation of the telescope/eyepiece, it was always easily viewable by people of different heights either by stooping a little or by stepping on a small step ladder.

After our daylight familiarization, we went to the classroom building where Adam gave and excellent presentation explaining the size and extent of the known cosmos.  I learned a lot here and finally gained a much better understanding of relative size and distances with our solar system, our galaxy, between galaxies.   I now feel even smaller than ever!

We were each loaned binoculars, a red led flashlight, and a sky chart for the duration of the night's activities.   Adam went over the proper use of binoculars and how to read a sky chart to find constellations.

Right before sunset our group of 16 trotted out to watch the sunset, learn about blue shadows, the refraction of the sun through the atmosphere, green bands, and more.   We were also able to take a look at a few bright stars and planets even at this early hour. 

We then retreated back to the learning center where Adam continued an excellent presentation while we ate a dinner of sandwiches, chips, salad, lemonade and a cookie while we waited for it to get darker outside.

Ah, nighttime!   Beautiful stars on a clear night.

Adam would align the scope, explain what we would see (the end of my post describes what we saw), and then we would take turns viewing.   While we were waiting our turn, Adam would point out constellations and objects through the dome opening using a green laser pointer which was very effective.

Here, Adam is using the control computer to select the coordinates to move the telescope to our next viewing location.   We looked at close objects such as an excellent view of Saturn with it's rings, as well a supernova in a galaxy 40 million light years away (M95).  Pretty darn cool!

Most of the time the interior of the dome was very dark with us just using our red flashlights occasionally to move around for viewing, but we did have some lights on briefly at one point allowing me to take the few photos you see here.

The small interior rooms in the dome contained a restroom (as did the learning center) as well as a "warming room" where people could retreat if need be on a cold night to warm up a bit.  

Our group spent just a few minutes in the warm room while Adam showed us a very cool computer simulation of multiple stars paths being affected by each other's gravitational fields over huge time spans, binary star pairs forming and parting, and "sharper" path changes than I would have thought would be the case.   Way cool.

This was a really excellent, educational, inspiring, and unique experience.  An excellent value.  I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in astronomy as well as anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky and wondered...  

Adam Block is an accomplished astrophotographer and many of his photos have been published in astronomical circles, publications, and featured on the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day site (type Adam Block in the search string to find pictures he has taken from the UofA SkyCenter).

There is a small gift shop in the educational center where one can buy things to take home if desired: red led flashlights, star charts, warm caps/blankets/sweaters, and a great assortment of some of Adam's photos for very reasonable prices.

At the end of the program Adam got on a computer and selected images (previously taken) of the various objects that we had specifically looked at (by naked eye, binoculars, refractor telescope, and/or the 32 inch telescope) to email us images to remind us of what we had seen that night.

Here is the list of objects we viewed on our visit with photos by Adam Block

[Note: although these are the objects we viewed, we did not see them in the full color/detail shown in the photos -- this is because the colors are relatively dim to the eye and the photos were taken with long exposures with a special CCD camera and post processed by Adam on a computer.]

The scheduling, advance trip coordination, rescheduling (our original evening was cancelled due to a winter snowstorm on the mountain), and advance communications were all excellent.

Advance tickets cost $48-60 dollars per person, including a light sandwich dinner, the 5 hour program on the mountain, and the opportunity to view the heavens using the 32-inch Schulman telescope.  For more info and reservations, visit the SkyCenter web site.   I found the experience quite enjoyable, educational, and enlightening.


  1. Very nicely done! An excellent reference for the program.

  2. @anonymous -- thanks for the comment and stopping by!

  3. What a treat. I'd like to do that some night.


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