Fri Nov 1, 2002

What is the stars?

I spent yesterday evening participating in the Nightly Observing Program at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kitt Peak is an 8,000ft mountain on the Tohono O’odham reservation, about sixty miles west of Tucson. The Observatory, part of the NOAO and run by the National Science Foundation, has more optical telescopes in one place than anywhere else on earth—- almost 25—- as well as a few radio telescopes.

The friendly guys running the program start by teaching you how to read a planisphere, then you go outside with a good pair of binoculars and get a tour of the sky. Because Kitt Peak is high up, and the light pollution is so low, the views are fantastic. Knowledgeable guides and good observing conditions make a great combination. It’s amazing how much you can see. For instance, last night was the first time I really appreciated that the Milky Way is a real object in the sky—- a bluish-gray lane of dust and stars running to the western horizon.

After the binoculars, you get to look through a 16-inch (soon to be 25-inch) telescope in one of the domes. We saw the dumbell nebula, the M15 Globular Cluster, Andromeda, a binary star system, and a bunch of other stuff. And it wasn’t even a perfect night—- there was some high cloud and haze that messed things up a little.

You may have guessed by now that I want to go back. I’d strongly recommend it if you’re ever in Southern Arizona and have even the tiniest bit of curiosity about the Universe. You’ll end up—- as I obviously did—- feeling like a 10 year old and talking like that section of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space, it says, is big—- really big. You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the street to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen…”