5-4-3-2-1, Blast Off! Whoa…that’s a helluva G-force. I am feeling really nauseous and claustrophobic. I think I am going to be sick. I need to get off this thing. Where is that damn ejector button?
This is when I wake up from my nightmare. I would never make it as an astronaut, or get anywhere close to outer space. Fortunately, thanks to telescopes, we can safely leave planet earth and comfortably travel the universe.
To begin our cosmic journey, we visited the campus of the University of Arizona in downtown Tucson. According to U.S. News and World Report, the U of A has the #6 ranked space science program in the United States. The Department of Astronomy includes the Flandreau Science Center and Planetarium, the Steward Observatory, and a lot of brains that are very good at math.
At the department, we attended the Steward Observatory Public Evening Lecture Series, now in its 90th season. This evening, Dr. IIaria Pascucci, presented “Finding Earths Among Other Worlds”. In her Italian accent, Dr. Pascucci delivered a mind-blowing update of the quest to find other life in the universe. Based on data generated by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, Dr. Pascucci indicated that there are between 2 and 8 billion earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars, just in our own Milky Way galaxy alone!
After the lecture, to search for ourselves, we joined a public viewing of the night sky through a 21-inch telescope under the iconic Steward Observatory dome. In the darkness, two bright and captivating third-year astronomy students aimed the telescope at Jupiter and its four Galilean satellites, as well as our own waxing gibbous moon. As we gawked through the eyepiece, our galactic guides reminded us that the principal tool of the astronomer is still the telescope, and the most important part of the telescope is its shiny primary mirror.
Nearby, under the bleachers of the U of A football stadium, nothing much happens except for the creation of the world’s largest telescope mirrors. Inside the “factory”, we watched the spin casting and polishing of an 8.4-meter (27.6-foot) diameter parabolic mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be the world’s largest and most advanced when it sees its first light in 2021.
To get an up-close look at some pretty large telescopes, we drove to the top of 6,883-foot Kitt Peak in the Quinlan Mountains, about 60 miles west of Tucson. This is the home of Kitt Peak National Observatory, the largest collection of astronomical instruments in the world, with 25 optical and two radio telescopes. Our well-informed and conversant tour guide took us to see the 2.1-meter and 4-meter telescopes.
When it was built in 1973 at the highest point on Kitt Peak, the 18-story tall Mayall 4-meter telescope was the second largest in the world. Once the crown jewel of U.S. national telescopes, it continues to perform important research into the role of dark matter in the universe.
Since astronomers come to Kitt Peak for the clear dark night skies, we wondered what they do during the daytime? Given the derelict condition of their basketball courts, astronomers apparently don’t like shooting hoops. Instead, they probably watch re-runs of The Big Bang Theory, and they sleep.
Astronomers that have trouble sleeping during the day might take up helio astronomy, or the study of the sun. Atop Kitt Peak, the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope is the world’s largest solar telescope. Built in the early 1960s, the unusual-looking inclined telescope is used to study sunspots and the presence of water vapor on the sun. These large and famous telescopes of Kitt Peak were impressive to look at, but sadly we weren’t allowed to use any of them.
To look through Arizona’s largest telescope dedicated to public viewing, we drove to the summit of Mt. Lemmon, the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains at an elevation of 9,157-feet. There, we participated in the SkyNights after-dark program at the Mt. Lemmon Observatory, where we had the opportunity to view multiple intergalactic and deep-space objects through the 32-inch Schulman telescope.
Atop Mt. Lemmon, we could clearly see why the dark skies of the Sonoran Desert make Tucson and southern Arizona a haven for astronomers and star-gazers alike. Here, space scientists use long tubes and massive shiny mirrors to solve some of mankind’s greatest and most complex puzzles. For us, it was a launching pad for a side trip into outer space, without leaving the comfort and safety of our own planet Earth.