Thursday, January 23, 2014

Astronomical Observing - Hitting The Mountain

Telescopes tend to be on mountains, far away from the lights of cities, spurious electronic signals, and above the bulk of dust and atmospheric water that can interfere with certain observations.  They also tend to be in places with good weather, of course.  This combines to put optical observatories in some very lovely places, i.e. scenic mountaintops that are sun-splashed in the day and capped by diamond skies at night.

Many observatories are very high and remote, and it can be a hassle getting there.  But it is always worth the trip, even just from a sight-seeing point of view.  Kitt Peak National Observatory is not so terribly high nor far from habitation, and the desert (if you like that sort of thing, which I do) is wonderful to drive through.

It is one of the perks of astronomy, just traveling to observatories.  There is something thrilling in taking a turn on a winding mountain road and suddenly seeing the brilliant white dome of a telescope come into view.  It feels magical to me - a place for looking deep into the darkness, and learning what's out there.

The drive up is always filled with a mix of hope and apprehension.  Working in visible and near visible wavelengths of light means you are at the mercy of the weather.  And even in places where it is "always" sunny, well, it isn't.  You have in your hands (or in your notes or your computer hard drive) the list of objects you hope to observe, but it is just a plan, an idea.  What you really end up doing will be based on weather and other considerations, like how the telescope and your chosen instrument are behaving.

So you take a few nice deep breaths of mountain air to clear your head, and then walk on up to the dome to see what the night has in store.  (And as for us, the first night went great, a dozen targets observed, and no time lost even when the water cooler insisted on leaking for an hour after we replaced the bottle on top.  Always nice when the telescope isn't the problem for the evening ...)

No comments: