Exploring Kitt Peak

After arriving at the mountain after dark, I stayed up as long as I could to get used to a night time observing schedule. I only made it to 1am, which I suppose isn’t that bad given the day of riding I had. As a result, I ended up waking up relatively early the next day and so had some time to look around Kitt Peak. I was particularly interested in Kitt Peak’s outreach and visitor program. There are large number of volunteers that do everything from presentations, tours, observing, and even over night stays with visitors on the mountain.

When people arrive at the mountain, there is a wonderful visitor centre there. It has a great exhibit about observing and the history of Kitt Peak, plus a little gift shop.

When people arrive at the mountain, there is a wonderful visitor centre there. It has a great exhibit about observing and the history of Kitt Peak, plus a little gift shop.

I couldn't help myself

I couldn’t help myself

This is the dome where they hold free public solar observing daily (subject to weather of course).

This is the dome where they hold free public solar observing daily (subject to weather of course).

The volunteer, Doug, made his observations of the Sun for that day.

The volunteer, Doug, made his observations of the Sun for that day.

I was surprised to see such large crowd of people! I met an elderly couple rom Niagara-on-the-Lake, a couple from Illinois, and also a couple who were from Toronto who ALSO rode their motorcycle up the mountain and who's nephew is ALSO an astrophysicist. Small world.

I was surprised to see such large crowd of people! I met an elderly couple rom Niagara-on-the-Lake, a couple from Illinois, and also a couple who were from Toronto who ALSO rode their motorcycle up the mountain and who’s nephew is ALSO an astrophysicist. Small world.

I met Doug, one of the many people who volunteer their time to teach people about astronomy. Doug is a retired military Captain and unbelieveably pleasant. We chatted for a long time about outreach.

I met Doug, one of the many people who volunteer their time to teach people about astronomy. Doug is a retired military Captain and unbelieveably pleasant. We chatted for a long time about outreach. Doug is pointing to two ‘scopes he was using that day: one which sported a white light filter, the other was fixed with an H-alpha filter. The two standards of solar observing.

Motorcycling the Southwest: Day 2

Day 2: Flagstaff, AZ to Kitt Peak National Observatory, AZ

Distance: 590 km
Duration: approximately 11 hours
Picking up from the last post, I woke up for day 2 of riding feeling a little negative. I knew how cold it was outside, and I knew that I was going to have to ride through it, and bear it. On the plus side, the Sun was up, which makes it warmer, and I bought a pair of winter gloves at the gas station the night before. In order to keep out the cold I wore several layers both top and bottom, including my motorcycle rain gear. I put the winter gloves OVER my riding gloves (double layer gloves) and I hit the road. Though not before I noticed there was frost on my seat:

In the morning, my motorcycle was covered in a layer of frost. Gives you an idea of the temperatures.

In the morning, my motorcycle was covered in a layer of frost. Gives you an idea of the temperatures.

This time I was going to finish what I started: see Meteor Crater. Here’s a map of that trip:

The roughly 55 kilometer trip from Flagstaff to Meteor Crater

The roughly 55 kilometer trip from Flagstaff to Meteor Crater. Click for Interactive Map.

By the time I got to Meteor Crater, my hands had frozen again (even with both gloves on), but it was much more manageable. I’ve really wanted to visit Meteor Crater for a long time. I’ll let me explain why it’s so cool:

As you can see the crater is HUGE. Actually you may not be able to see; there is a huge depth perception issue when looking into the crater. Trying to picture the opposite rim of the crater being over a kilometer across is very difficult. The crater is also the site of some in-field geologic training the Apollo astronauts took in the mid 1960s to prepare for working near craters on the Moon.

This is a small chunk of many found near the impact site of Meteor Crater. It's an iron/nickel mixture.

This is a small chunk of many found near the impact site of Meteor Crater. It’s an iron/nickel mixture.

I bought this small chunk of the meteorite from the gift shop of the museum. Meteor crater has been outfitted with a wonderful visitor centre. It has a museum, movie theatre, gift shop, guided tours, and other artifacts strewn about the complex. For instance, they have lunar test capsule you can at:

lunar capsule

A test capsule for training astronauts going to the Moon.

Honestly, I could have spent all day at this facility, but I had to put kilometers on the motorcycle otherwise I wouldn’t make my next target: the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Here’s one last picture:

yup

yup. The crazy thing is, from about 30 kilometers away from it, on approach, I could see the crater walls lifting above the plains.

The rest of the trip, while relatively short on the map (again you should look at the interactive map I have here), took me all day. That may partially be due the detour I took through Sedona, Arizona. Instead of taking the same I-17 south that I took north into Flagstaff, I took the scenic route, which features a large number of switchbacks down from the mountain area. This actually had two upsides: scenic, and got warmer quicker.

Here's a shot just starting out the switchbacks down into Sedona, AZ. That's what my road looked like for the next 30 kilometers

Here’s a shot just starting out the switchbacks down into Sedona, AZ. That’s what my road looked like for the next 30 kilometers

Stopping to take in the scenery.

Stopping to take in the scenery.

It was a long boring drive after that to get to Tucson, AZ, where I met up with another astronomer to get set up for my night on Kitt Peak. Unfortunately, I was behind schedule again and started my last leg of the journey out to Kitt Peak right when the Sun was going down. This means I had to ride nearly 2 kilometers up a mountain in the dark. This wasn’t as bad, however, as it was much warmer where the observatory is, and I had been there before. When I finally summited, the (almost) full Moon was bright in the sky. It’s pale glow bouncing off of the nearby observatories.

The Steward Observatory's Bok Telescope (foreground) and the Mayall 4-meter telescope (background). This image is entirely light by the Moon

Ghosts of telescopes in the Moonlight. The Steward Observatory’s Bok Telescope (foreground) and the Mayall 4-meter telescope (background). This image is entirely light by the Moon.

Once arrived, it was time to get into observing mode: stay up as late as I can to push my body into a night time rhythm. After my day of riding, I only made it to 1am. Not bad!

MDM Observatory: Day 5

On my last day at Kitt Peak, I decided to visit the 4m telescope.  This is the largest telescope on the mountain, standing about 18 stories tall, and actually reaches above the summit of the mountain.


In side the enclosure is a monster of a telescope, and they have a visitor viewing gallery that allows you to see it from the observatory floor.

Huge.  Just enormous.  and there are bigger telescopes in the world.  The largest optical telescope in the world is 10m (Keck I & II in Hawaii).  I can only imagine what they must be like to stand beside.

This was very impressive to stand beside.

The visitor area of the 4m also lets you walk a windowed area, showing you the view in all 360 degrees.  This is the view of the rest of Kitt Peak.  There are so many domes!

From the 4m lookout, this is a view of the MDM observatory.  The 2.4m is in the dome furthest to the left, the 1.3m is in the dome to the right of it.  The two foreground telescopes are both Radio ‘scopes (which operate day/night!).

The road down the mountain is amazing.

Heading home tomorrow!

MDM Observatory: Day 4

Plugging along merrily!

Every 12 hours I have to refill the instrument dewer with liquid Nitrogen.  This keeps the detector (CCD) VERY cold.  Nitrogen is liquid at -196 celsius, and the instrument usually stays about -120 celsius.  We want the detector cold so that there is no noise added to any images we take.

I’m getting into a good groove, and even checking out my spectra.  About 20 minutes of exposure will create that graph! cool.

MDM Observatory: Day 3

Today I went up to the Kitt Peak Visitors Centre to check out their outreach initiatives and giftshop/etc.  This is the visitor centre building.

That’s right, the visitor centre has its own observatory.  In fact, the visitor centre has at least 3 telescopes!  Impressive.  In the centre they had a number of small exhibits and information on the mountain/observatories/history/etc.  Very fun, I found a very large meteorite:


The centre was very good explaining the science behind telescopes, mirrors, and observing.  Here’s me at the focus of a small primarty!

I already posted this pic in twitter today, but it warrants another post here.  This telescope is so big, the instrument+detector are as tall as me!

While I don’t appreciate the clouds at night, they make for an amazing sunrise