Gold Canyon, Az

Gold Canyon, Az
New Years Day 2015, Gold Canyon, AZ

Monday, December 8, 2014

Top of the World

One of the places we wanted to see was Kitts Peak Observatory.  It is located about 40 miles SW of Tucson but the brochure said it would be a 75 minute drive.  I would understand very soon how 40 miles of mainly highway driving would take 75 minutes.
Kitts Peak National Observatory is the worlds largest collection of Optical telescopes.  24 in total plus 2 radio telescopes.  We drove 30 very uneventful miles down the highway passing another one of those Border Patrol checkpoints.  When you are down here you realize very quickly how much of a problem the border states have with illegal immigrants from Mexico.  Some estimates put the number of illegal aliens at 10 million.  Border Patrol checkpoints, their green and white vehicles, and helicopters are everywhere.  Each night on the news there is at least one report related to problems with illegal immigration.   
We saw a few of the telescopes white domes way off in the distance.  From a distance we could tell they were at a much higher elevation but it never occurred to me just what would be required to go from 2500' elevation in Tucson to 6875' elevation of Kitts Peak.  We turned off the highway and got onto a small two lane paved road which headed off through the desert towards a mountain.  As we got closer I could see the road scaling the outside of the mountain.  I took a few deep breaths as I peered up the side of the mountain ahead of us (heights are not my friend).  As we started to ascend it wasn't too bad.  I looked over to the right and it was a nice view of the desert floor.  As we continued our ascent at an 8% grade a few hundred feet turned into a few thousand and there seemed to be no end to the switchbacks and the continuing ascent.  
I knew the view out the passenger window was amazing but I also knew that I dare not look over the edge.  Not that I needed a reminder but Lori kept telling me to keep my eyes on the road.  I have never focused so hard on the centre yellow line in my life.  Every time I glanced up all I could see was blue sky.  It was like looking over the side of the world.  Mile and Elevation markers kept us apprised of how far we had come and how far we still had to go.  I now knew why a 40 mile drive would take 75 minutes, or in my case 90 minutes.  The final 10 miles has a speed limit of 25mph and I was never in danger of breaking the speed limit.  Thankfully we had no cars come up behind us and didn't meet any cars coming down.  There were a few pullouts for those wanting to stop and take some pictures but there was no way I was stopping to stand on the edge of the world to take a few pics. 
We finally made it to the top and I could just feel the tension release from my body.  I literally had to wipe my hands on my pants as my palms were so sweaty.  I tried not to think about the fact that I had to drive down the same road. 
We signed up for a tour which provided us with some good info about the Observatory and some of the technology involved in the telescopes.  We walked around looking at some of the various telescopes and the unobstructed views from 6875'.  
On our way down we stopped at the picnic area and take a look at the 2 radio telescopes.  While we were there we met a couple from Thunder Bay and chatted with them for almost an hour.  We had timed our descent to coincide with one of the tours, thinking that no one would be driving up or coming down the mountain while the tour was on.  Our chat with the Thunder Bay couple messed up my timing and I was now concerned that there would be a lineup of cars behind me as I crept down the 8% grade in 1st gear.  We were only passed by 2 vehicles.     
As fantastic as the views were I can only imagine what a night time visit would be like.  They do offer tours at night and perhaps next time we are here I will be able to muster up the nerve for a night time ascent. 
Lori playing with the Plasma Globe.  Notice how the Plasma is attracted to her hand with increased intensity.
 The various telescopes are spread around the various peaks of Kitts Peak, all connected together with roads or walkways.
Planning and Construction started shortly after WW11.
Scientists from all over the world pitch their experiments and the winners are allotted time on a telescope to conduct their experiment.
 Just one of the views.  Absolutely breathtaking.
It was mostly clear at the top but on the desert floor there was a light haze which made the views only slightly less amazing.  
Lately the days have had a light cloud cover with a little more humidity than the usual 18%.  On Kitts Peak we were above much of that cloud cover and it appears as haze or a fog on the desert floor.

This is the solar telescope.  Used mostly for viewing the sun during the day.  One of the few telescopes in use during the day.  Also used for viewing the moon.  The diagonal is at 32 degrees to match the axis of the earth and so to provide a direct view of the sun.  The diagonal keeps going well down into the earth.  Can't remember how far.
The mountain top comes alive at night.  The scientists stay in small motel like rooms and sleep during the day.  They sit in front of computer monitors all night monitoring the equipment and viewing the results.
Unlike the little telescopes most of us are familiar with there is no one sitting peering through a view finder.  All the data is collected by various types of electronic or digital equipment and viewed and interpreted well after the time on the mountain.

 The haze had a neat effect on this pic.  Looks like the mountain is rising out of a misty sea.

The subtle colours and shadows kept changing making the same view look very different after a short time.
8% for 10 miles.  Now that will burn your brakes out.  Kept the truck in 2nd or 3rd gear all the way down and hardly touched the brakes.  The decent wasn't near as scary as I had feared.
One of the 2 radio telescopes.  Wonder if they have picked up any ET chatter.