And so go the nights...
6:15 - Hike to the point to check the weather in person.
6:45 - Close the curtains in the house to keep the light in. Make coffee (Don). Make tea (me). Grab flashlights for when it gets dark and head to the observatory.
7:00 - Open up the dome and all the doors. Refill the liquid nitrogen. Don explains to me that this keeps the image sensor cold. "We don't want any electrons moving around in there," he says. (Those little troublemakers!)
8:00 - Walk to the cliffs to see the sunset. Look for Venus, and then Mercury, who happens to be standing next to her this week.
8:30 - Turn on the jazz radio station which we can pick up from Phoenix and then get to work.
Don's got a couple projects in the works during his run at the observatory, but on most nights we are watching the daily life of CM Draconis, a binary star that's (a mere) 50 light years away off the curve of Draco's tail. Every 39-ish hours one of its stars passes in front of the other and the system becomes less bright. As the telescope records images, the data is plotted on a graph. Over time - a very long time - the period between these eclipses will grow shorter as the stars move closer together.
My old-school romantic notions of looking through an eyepiece out into the universe were sadly squashed. Not that graphed data isn't beautiful, but viewing is all on computer screens nowadays.
1 am - The jazz program ends, so we hook up the stereo to Pandora's "chill-out radio". In between peeking over Don's shoulder and asking him a bunch of questions about what's what, I'm working on photographs of my own. It's nice to have this quiet "studio time". Somewhere around now my eyes get too tired to stay open and I curl up in my workstation chair for a nap.
2 am - My second wind, and the perfect time for dinner, so I head out to fix something. Now, I've been warned about scorpions, poisonous snakes, mountain lions, etc., but the thing that scares me the most is walking past the coat rack in the shop on my way to the kitchen.
Aha! The Buttermouse strikes again! Wanted for crumb-stealing, butter-licking, and well-executed M&M raids in the middle of the night. I'm rootin' for ya, Buttermouse, cause you're so darn cute!
4 am - With the dimmest of light beginning to glow in the east, we close up and I head off to bed, my brain spinning with whatever magic there was that night: Supernova hunting... Not just a full moon but a super moon... The space station whizzing by at 17,000 miles an hour... The dark time between moonset and sunrise when the Milky Way spills itself across the sky... The shortest night of the year spent sleeping on a cliff ledge, then watching the west at sunrise as the giant shadow-triangle of the mountain moves slowly toward us over the dusty lights of Ajo.
I pinched myself a thousand times on this trip just to make sure I wasn't dreaming.