Stargazer's Trek

There's a group of people who salivate at the thought of coming to the desert wasteland we Arizonans call home, a segment of the population that would sell its eyeteeth to be where you're sitting right now. And no, we don't mean the country's retirees, half of whom seem to be here already.

We're talking about astronomers. Arizona is a mecca for folks who yearn for nothing better than a dark, dry, star-studded desert sky--the kind you have to get away from the city lights to see. Amateur stargazers and professionals alike are drawn to Arizona like luna moths to the moon, and there are plenty of opportunities for you to join them in their quest for cosmic splendors.

During the week of June 13-20, for example, about 40 telescope owners will set up their instruments at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The annual Grand Canyon Star Party draws hundreds of fascinated park visitors who marvel at telescopic views of the canyon during the day and spectacular sights of the heavens at night. For several years, Dean Ketelsen and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association have been organizing the program at the park, usually to the astonishment of tourists. You see, the telescopes Ketelsen and his crew lug to the national park aren't your typical spyglass-looking department-store scopes but optical heavyweights that look something like pointable water heaters.

With these monster amateur scopes, be prepared to get an eyeful of nebular stellar nurseries, galactic star clouds and glowing star carcasses (unfortunately, this June is a little sparse on planets, but for the hardy, early-morning hours bring views of Jupiter's cloud belts and Saturn's rings).

At this late date, lodging at the Canyon will be full, but if you're willing to camp, you can still crash the Star Party. Call 1-800-365-2267 for camping reservations less than eight days before you plan to go. Campsites cost $12 a night, but the telescope views don't cost a dime. Call Ketelsen for more details about the party at 1-520-293-2855.

Arizona is also home to two of the country's most well-known professional observatories, and each has introduced new programs for visitors who yearn for telescope time.

Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff in recent years has greatly beefed up its visitor center. The hilltop facility was founded in 1896 by Percival Lowell (of the famous society Lowells who, John Collins Bossidy quipped, spoke only to the Cabots, who, in turn, spoke only to God) in time for a close pass by the planet Mars. From his observatory, Lowell pushed his equipment to the limit and claimed to see "canals" on the planet's surface, which he believed were signs of a Martian civilization. The canals turned out to be illusory, but decades later Lowell astronomer Clyde Tombaugh did worlds for the observatory's reputation by discovering Pluto in 1930. Today, Lowell astronomers do their observing at Anderson Mesa, about 20 miles away from Flagstaff's brightening lights, but Mars Hill is still an active research center and a historic treasure.

In June, besides daily tours, Lowell's visitor center offers evening shows about the night sky at 8:30, 9 and 9:30 p.m. (Sunday evenings the observatory is closed). Or, fork out $95 and you and up to 44 of your friends can commandeer a telescope at Lowell Observatory for the night.

Reservations are required, and can be arranged by calling 1-520-774-3358. It's a newer program that's part of a recent trend in astronomical sites around the country--for enough dough, you can rent a telescope, and in most cases, rent an astronomer as well. Kitt Peak has a similar program. Located in southern Arizona on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) operates one of the world's premier scientific research centers on Kitt Peak, and now, you can be a part of the action as well.

In the observatory's Nightly Observing Program, up to 20 people pay $35 per adult, $25 per child, for a night with an astronomer who will not only acquaint visitors with the constellations and star lore, but dutifully point a 16-inch telescope housed in a rotating dome to whatever celestial sights the group requests.

For the truly hard-core, Kitt Peak has something it calls the Advanced Observing Program: Two space cadets pay $250 plus $55 each for room and board and get the run of the 16-inch scope all night, including the use of high-tech devices for imaging and data capture--just like the pros! Both programs require reservations: Call 1-520-318-8726 to set them up.

--Tony Ortega

 
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