Stargazing Adventures: My Week on Kitt Peak

(an archived collection of blog posts - June 2013)



The moon is bright enough to see by as we drive up the mountain past the "road closed" sign.  YES! - I am officially behind-the-scenes, visiting Don Terndrup, my astronomer friend who has a two-week run at the McGraw-Hill telescope on the southwest ridge of Arizona's Kitt Peak.  I inherited my love of the night sky from my Dad, who's been an astronomy buff longer than I've existed.  I was then lucky enough to have gone on plenty of grade school field trips to the Hillcrest planetarium, where Mr. Prosek would take us on magical journeys through the starry night. I never wanted the lights to come back on. 

That I would one day make a friend who loved the stars enough to become an astronomer, and who would offer me the opportunity to look into the depths of space with him on this iconic mountain... 

It is a dream come true to be here, soaking up everything I can and photographing along the way.


Just under the wing are the Quinlan Mountains west of Tucson, of which Kitt Peak is the highest point.  I could see all the little white telescope domes from my window.  I had no idea I'd wind up getting this gorgeous preview when I chose my seat.  The entire plane ride was a 30,000-foot fly-by of the great American landscape: prairie lands, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley (which looked like a handful of pebbles from that altitude), Utah's canyons...  Looking down I found it hard to believe that a bazillion years ago all that desert and red rock was under an ocean. 


We drop off groceries and head to the observatory.  Moonlight and darkness.  Don opens the dome and lets in the stars and when I look up I am awed and humbled and full-up with wonder.  I am so tiny.  And I am standing at this window open to the heavens, watching a telescope peer inconceivable distances into space.


Waking up in the Desert

There's that moment when you wake up someplace new and all of sudden you realize you're not in your own bed at home, and you know that when you get up to look out the window the scenery is going to be completely different.  Sure enough, there it was when I opened the curtains: the view of the desert from the top of a mountain.  I'm not in Ohio anymore.


English muffins, bananas, tea. What else do I really need?  I've made friends with the spider in my shower, discovered that my telephone works if I take a little walk behind the dome, and found a good spot to sit and scribble in my journal.


I spend some time poking around the observatory library, looking at books and mostly incomprehensible academic papers, and the gorgeous old flat file drawers containing the Palomar Sky Survey.  These are photographic charts of the entire sky taken in the 1950s at the Palomar Observatory in California, developed in a darkroom on real fiber-based photo paper and overlaid with transparencies labeling all the "stuff" out in space.  These days everything's digital - and so much easier - but what a treasure to have these prints.


This morning I met Tony, the machinist at the observatory.  He's got a picture tacked to a shelf in his workshop of Albert Einstein sitting at a desk.  Einstein quotes: "If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign?"  I'm always amazed by the interesting things people do: Tony told me he broke his knee a long time ago in an "armored combat" tournament, where apparently you dress up in - literally - suits of armor and whack at each other with clubs and swords.  (Suddenly my life seems very boring.)  "I don't do that anymore," he said.  He was in the kitchen making a smoothie. Here he is in the shop:


Telescope fixin' tools!  I almost forgot to mention... the observatory has the biggest crescent wrench I've ever seen (although I'm told this is sort of a mid-sized model).


And there's a total science-nerd light switch that I love: 


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 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.

CM Draconis (the red dot) 

CM Draconis (the red dot) 

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:  shooting stars... 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... and the shortest night of the year spent sleeping on a cliff ledge, then looking 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. 


Waiting for the Milky Way

In the interest of packing light, I didn't bring my tripod on this trip.  I knew I wanted to try my hand at some night sky photographs, but I'm usually pretty good at creating some sort of tripod substitute if needed, so I left mine at home.  Silly me.  Had I not been fortunate enough to find an old telescope tripod in the observatory, I don't think my night photography experiments would have turned out as well.


The moon lit up the dome, made it easy to see what I was doing, and so I just held down the shutter button and counted.  Yay for digital! - I could view the results right away and make adjustments.


I'd planned to go out during a moonless hour on my last night to see if I could capture the Milky Way, and during the day I found a good spot to set up the tripod so I wouldn't have to fuss with carrying it up the rocks in the dark.  But - wow - dark is DARK up on the mountain, and there I am at midnight hiking around with my little flashlight hoping I don't startle critters in the process.  I sing them a little song to let them know I'm coming...

Mountain lions, monsters, don't eat me; I am only skin and bones, you see...

When I finally get to the tripod I realize I only have two hands to screw on the camera while holding a flashlight. Why didn't I think of this?  Muttering, I figure out that holding the light with my shoulder like a telephone seems to work the best, and finally, there it is: my Milky Way.

Thank you thank you! 


Two hours off the mountain

I had all these plans.  I'd spent time in Tucson before (almost moved there 16 years ago) and I was excited to visit favorite spots:  Gates Pass, Antigone Books, all the vintage clothing stores on 4th, the Donut Wheel, etc.  The day after I arrived at Kitt Peak Don said, "Let me know when you'd like to go somewhere." But I just looked at him.  Leave the quiet paradise of the mountain for the crazy world below?  No way.  I didn't even go to the Center for Creative Photography. (I know, I know... just shoot me.)

We did, however, spend a bit of time at the San Xavier Mission while on a grocery run...


In the Night-Magic-Land

On the first morning of summer, Tony called down to me from the observatory roof: "Hey!" he said.  "How was your night?"  I thought for a minute. "You know how there are these moments in your life...?"  My eyes welled up with tears at the same time I was grinning from ear to ear.  "... This handful of unbelievable experiences you know you'll remember forever?"  He smiled at me.  "And best of all, you're lucky enough to recognize them even as they're happening?!"

That was my time on the mountain.  And it felt like this:

Albert Einstein's bookplate, by Eric Büttner, 1917. 

Albert Einstein's bookplate, by Eric Büttner, 1917. 

It started with a little drawing Don made to illustrate our place on the earth that night... 


...which would later inspire my favorite photograph:


Don told me he was on an airplane once working on his laptop when the lady next to him asked why he was an astronomer.  "What's the point?" she said.  And I think about that.  Sometimes the point is just to look.  To watch.  To be curious.  To find out.  To maybe come to understand even a little bit, and to be awed by everything we don't.


How do I even begin to say thank you for this amazing gift of time in the night-magic-land?  Words fall so short. 

Don Terndrup

Don Terndrup