A Star Gazing How-To From Arizona's Astronomers Arizona's wide expanses and dark skies make it a perfect place for amateur star-gazing. The state is also home to some sophisticated observatories and high-end telescopes. The region's top star gazers weigh in on how to get the best view of the night sky.
NPR logo

A Star Gazing How-To From Arizona's Astronomers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/94809496/94813374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Star Gazing How-To From Arizona's Astronomers

A Star Gazing How-To From Arizona's Astronomers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/94809496/94813374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to Talk of The Nation, Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow and for the rest of the hour we're going to be talking about the night sky, and I'm really jealous of our Science Friday crew. Last night they got out to see the night sky and the beautiful stars and the nebulas, and planets that they could see. And one of the - well, my most favorite things and you won't find a better view of the night sky's from here in Arizona because you have the clear weather, it's dry, the moisture is gone, you have the dark skies and this desert south, east, and along with some high mountain peaks. It's a ideal occasion for looking out at the stars, but forget about binoculars and the sky chart because we're not talking about taking out those binoculars, you don't really need to do that here.

Let's all look at the constellations, because you can actually go out and look at some of the world's best telescopes, look through the telescope yourself and you can see the globular clusters, the white dwarfs and the far away galaxies and all it takes is one visit to Arizona's World Class Observatories where they have these public viewing programs. I'll give you a chance to spend an evening, you can even overnight there sometimes with a professional astronomer, who's going to guide you through the milky way and beyond.

And I'm talking with me - joining me now to talk more about this are my guests Adam Block, is the public observing programs coordinator for the University of Arizona's, Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, he's also an astrophotographer. Thank you for being with us today.

Dr. ADAM BLOCK (Astrophotographer and Coordinator, University of Arizona, Mount Lemmon SkyCenter): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Douglas Isbell, is the associate director of Public Affairs for the Kitt Peak National Observatory, also co-chair of the U.S. Program Committee, an International year of astronomy 2009. Thank you for being with us here today. Let's talk, Doug, why is there so much astronomy going on here in Arizona? Is it basically the weather so, so great?

Mr. DOUGLAS ISBELL (Associate Director, Public Affairs, Kitt Peak National Observatory; Co-chair, U.S. Program Committee, International Year Astronomy 2009): Yes, it's basically the climate. The clear dry skies during the day and night and of course they also wanted to be close to an air port, close to a major university those are some considerations, so it was actually 50 years ago this year that Kitt Peak was elected to be the side of the National Observatory on the land of (unintelligible). And so, we have sort of a neat mission. We're the open astronomy center for any astronomer in the world ready to apply and come observe and do their science.

FLATOW: And how can we amateurs get involved?

Mr. ISBELL: We have a very popular evening program. It's a four hour program where you really gets take your time and look at the night's sky. And Adam worked in that program and help develop it and I was taking it too - a new location and there was some new twists. We have an overnight program for two people to enjoy the rest of the night all by themselves with the guide. Those are two good ways and then we're doing all kinds of things next year to help bring new people into astronomy.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Adam, tell us about the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter?

Dr. BLOCK: The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is really a premium place to take advantage of the skies and the conditions that you were talking about. It is effectively a way to access the universe in Tucson's backyard. It's the tall mountain that rises 9,000 feet right behind Tucson.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 here in the audience step up to the mike if you'd like to ask about observing the skies, it may be your only shot at talking to the astronomers before we get there. And Mount Lemmon man was actually a military operation first, was it not?

Dr. BLOCK: That's right, there are still the old cold war relics that still stand there and remind us of what times used to be, there's a very tall radar facility that you can see from town, it's called the Army Tower. But, more importantly is of course are all of the various observatories that populate the mountain top.

FLATOW: Uh huh. 1-800-989-8255. Doug, you know we keep hearing more about night pollutions. Night pollutions, is that becoming a problem, light pollutions leaking out?

Mr. ISBELL: Well, at first came to a head here in Tucson even in the 1970s that the local city ,and county - Pima county had been a world leader and trying to limit that light pollution. We've seen light pollution growing and get peak, but less than the population growth, which we regardless of positive sign. Flagstaff has also been a world leader, now we're trying to work on Phoenix and get them - because we can actually see the lights of Phoenix from most of the major observatories in Tucson.

FLATOW: Are the towns actually cooperating and...

Mr. ISBELL: Yes and in fact...

FLATOW: In what way - how can you keep the light down?

Mr. ISBELL: Well, there's a recent example - people have probably heard about LED lights.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. ISBELL: Of course and LED billboards are coming, and so the township of Miranda which is just north of us here - north of us here in Tucson just passed one of the first legislations on limiting a lumens cap on how bright those LED billboards can be.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And parking lots and things like that?

Mr. ISBELL: Yes. It's really actually pretty simple, you want a low pressure sodium bulb but the most important thing is just a fixture, a full cut off fixture that directs the light downward instead of putting it upward. And it actually starts with being a pocket book issue, you use less energy, a lower wattage bulb, if you have a good dark skies fixture.

FLATOW: And astronomy's a really big business here.

Mr. ISBELL: It is. It is - there were start really in depth studies of this done by the University of Arizona College of Business last year, astronomy and space science and related subjects, bringing 250 million dollars a year to Arizona, both directly and indirectly.

FLATOW: And Adam Block, tell us about the public viewing programs at Mount Lemmon. You have a 24-inch telescope at the moment, right?

Dr. BLOCK: Yeah. And you know, what we try...

FLATOW: That's pretty darn big for a telescope.

Dr. BLOCK: That's a very big telescope. In fact, unless you can get your hands on a larger one and plop it down at a better site, the views that we offer the public are just about as good as they get.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And...

Dr. BLOCK: Go ahead...

FLATOW: No, I...

Dr. BLOCK: Well, I was just going to say that from the top of Mount Lemmon, we are giving the opportunity to peer beyond the blue horizons that adorn our southwestern skies. And see all of the wonders that have fascinated people from time immemorial.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And people just - do you look into the viewfinder like you have in your old fashioned binoculars or telescope? Is it that simple?

Dr. BLOCK: It is really as simple as looking through an eyepiece. You're right. Although, looking through an eyepiece is not necessarily an easy thing to do. It takes some practice, and that's part of these programs is to give people access to the universe, but at the same time make it easy to understand and do. So no frustration is allowed at these programs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Hi, Nick in Haley, Idaho. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

NICK (Caller): Hi, thanks. I have a quick question. What objects can you see with the unaided eye, that are outside the Milky Way?

Dr. BLOCK: Mm. Well, the obvious answer is our nearest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, that is a separate galaxy from our own. Depending upon...

NICK: Is that M31?

Dr. BLOCK: Yeah, that's M31, and depending upon how dark your skies are, and here in The Southwest of course, you can go to places where the skies are exceedingly dark. There are a handful of other 0 perhaps other galaxies that you might be able to checked with your unaided eyes, but far easier is to really take up a simple pair of binoculars, and see what else is out there.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

NICK: Yeah.

FLATOW: Doug, tell us about what you offer people at Kitt's Peak?

Mr. ISBELL: We have three telescopes for our public observing programs, and - but it's really a sort of a relaxing, engaging experience. You have a little meal. You get a video. You get a talk. You learn how to use the star chart. You learn how to use binoculars, because you can see a lot of interesting things with binoculars alone. And then we break up into small groups and you spend an hour and a half or so at a telescope, seeing six (unintelligible) different things, and being able to ask lots of questions.

FLATOW: Does Kitt Peak offer one of these overnight programs?

Mr. ISBELL: Yes, yes. Like I said, if you are really into it, then you'll want to have sort of a special gift or experience with one or two other people, we have an overnight program where you stay at the telescope all night. You get to sleep in the dorms, go to the dining hall, eat the astronomer food. So it's quite glamorous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Doug, have you got anything to offer a next year International Year of Astronomy? Anything special?

Mr. ISBELL: Yeah. We got a lot of plans that are building up. This is really a truly international effort. It's all about outreach. Mostly these International Years have a science component. This is all about public outreach. There is a 123 countries involved. Twenty-five other space agencies were doing lots of things with dark skies observation, such as "GLOBE at Night," which happens in March.

And there's a big weekend of astronomy planned in early April called the "100 hours of Astronomy." But I guess our showcase project is an effort -we're in the middle of right now, to design something called the Galileo scope, which is an idea for an inexpensive telescope kit for everyone. Something like ten dollars. We are still looking for that major donor to push us over the edge to give us that first big order. But it's basically a 25-power telescope with a high quality view that can use anybodies eyepieces, and on the way to being a telescope, it's an optics bench to teach middle school kids about optics properties, and help these kids retain their interest in science.

FLATOW: So you actually help them make a telescope?

Mr. ISBELL: Yes, yes. It's for the classroom for science centers. We're hoping it's going to be one thing that carries on far past 2009.

FLATOW: And how many telescopes would you like to see being made.

Mr. ISBELL: Well, our goal is, you know, the round number of a million next year, and many more beyond that. But like I said, they're about 10 dollars, and we're looking for that first big donor. We've got some interest from somebody in the financial sector, but it's not been a very good month for that so, we're going to hang in there, bit - and so the goal is to get as many people possible as looking through telescope next year.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Let's go to the audience here. Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man: Two things, first I'd like to pitch something called the "Astronomy Picture of the Day," which is available on the web. That's what my browser launches with every morning and the pictures are absolutely unbelievable. But one thing I'd like to ask about, I have this sort of dim memory from having read something somewhere all together too quickly, that there are people here in Arizona who have some businesses that provide telescope time to amateur astronomers using the Internet. I wonder if you could comment on that please.

Mr. ISBELL: Yeah, that's certainly another way to take advantage of the conditions that avail themselves here in this part of the world, is to build an observatory of your own, and perhaps make it available to other people. That's certainly something that both our programs here at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter and through the Kitt Peak programs will be offering as well.

FLATOW: One of your pictures was a picture of the day, was it not?

Mr. ISBELL: If one of them was, in fact, that was the inaugural picture that was part of the Skycenter, although, in the past I've had, you know, 30 more.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. ISBELL: Yeah.

FLATOW: We have one of them on our sciencefriday.com website if you'd like to see a picture of it.

Mr. ISBELL: Yeah, please. Check those out.

FLATOW: Check them out. Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified woman: I'm wondering what the next or the current big question in astronomy is that astronomers are trying to answer at your facilities?

FLATOW: Why do this at all? Doug, you want to talk about?

Mr. ISBELL: Yeah. I think by far the most profound thing we're grappling with, is the whole energy budget balance of the universe Basically, the prevailing theory in astronomy is that everything that we can see, all the stars, all the galaxies, all the dust in between is roughly four percent of the universe. There is another 23 percent that's believed to be dark matter which is some sort of subatomic particle probably that does have gravitational effects, but doesn't interact with us in other ways.

We can - one of the profound findings about that was done at Kitt Peak where we found the stars and galaxies were orbiting at the same speeds. All the way out, there must be some other mass out there holding them in. But the other 70 percent of the universe is a mysterious force called dark energy. It's actually pushing the galaxies apart faster and faster, and this has caused everybody from astronomers to particle physics - physicists to sort of bring their hands and work together...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. ISBELL: And no one really has a clue what dark energy is.

FLATOW: Are our astronomy clubs good places to start?

Mr. ISBELL: They are. They are. That's how - we're relying on them and the International Year of Astronomy to be our local conduit to have the star parties, to teach people how to use their telescopes. So there's some great amateurs out there. There is a great club here in Tucson. They're really the place that is the best place to start.

FLATOW: My first - most recent - I stumbled on when I was in Las Vegas, not being a gambler, I was headed to national park right outside of town, and happen to wonder on an astronomy observing night in the parking lot. And it was - there were about 50 people with telescopes there, it was fantastic.

Mr. ISBELL: You know it's interesting is there's this interesting dichotomy and that here we have obviously very large clubs, but also in parts of the world they don't often see clear skies. There are also exceedingly large clubs which goes toward the ideas of the desire to get out, and do these things that are - observe the universe...

FLATOW: Mm.

Mr. ISBELL: Like in Seattle and Portland.

FLATOW: Yeah. Talking about the night skies here in Tucson on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR news. Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man#2: I've had the opportunity to visit both Kitt Peak and Mount Lemmon now when you had day programs, but not the night programs. Are other observatories such as Mount Graham and Mount Hopkins, do they have any public outreach programs?

Mr. ISBELL: They do, they don't have the style of programs that we do. They have daytime tours and things of that nature. Mount Graham is this particularly remote. It's a very tricky road to get up to Mount Graham, whereas Kitt Peak and Mount Lemmon both have very easily accessible roads. So that's one of our great advantages.

FLATOW: There's got to be some rivalry between the two of your organizations.

Mr. ISBELL: I would think. You know, being in Arizona here and you know, while I got this new thing coming, what have you got? Yeah, that sort of thing.

Dr. BLOCK: Sure there is. However, at the same time, this all goes towards very good goals. I mean, what we're both trying to do is offer perspectives to the public.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. BLOCK: Perspectives that give the people the opportunity to appreciate the kinds of research that take place, and why astronomers might get so excited to do it in the first place.

FLATOW: Do you get good turn outs at these nights?

Dr. BLOCK: Absolutely. And one of the things that we're taking advantage of is that intrinsic, that nature for people to curiosity to learn more about the universe, and it's an innate thing that most people have, just to want to know more. And see the things that they may have seen in pictures and books...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. BLOCK: But here to see with your own eyes through a telescope is really a quite an experience.

FLATOW: Do you have to get far out of town?

Dr. BLOCK: You don't necessarily have to get far out of town. Tucson of course, with its light pollution ordinances...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BLOCK: Really do help in that, and probably 10 or 15 minutes just outside of town is enough to see quite a bit, and to see everything from the Milky Way, even to the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbor.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. So what's the future? Do you plan an upgrading your telescopes or...

Dr. BLOCK: At the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, the telescope that we're currently using, the 24-inch telescope, and that by the way describes the size of the mirror, that's the diameter of the mirror. It is on loan to us by the company that's in Flagstaff, RC Optical Systems.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. BLOCK: They're building a bigger one for us. It's going to be a 32-inch telescope that's been donated to us by the Schulman Foundation.

FLATOW: Now, I have an old 8-inch Celestron that, you know, I point at the sky and hope I hit and see what I am looking at. I mean, things are a lot electronically better these days.

Dr. BLOCK: Yeah. Although, I could exercise, you know, my testosterone, turn off the computer, and go find things in the night sky, but it sure is faster to type it into the computer. So if I wanted to find the moon, I type M-O-O-N.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And the moon still offers good stuff to look at. People say, I have to look way out into the galaxy.

Dr. BLOCK: No, the moon is certainly great. One of the sad things unfortunately is that our eyes do not make terribly good detectors at low light levels. The moon certainly has plenty of light, and so you see things very well.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. BLOCK: But you need a large telescope to be able to see some of the other dim things out there.

FLATOW: Doug, did you want to say something?

Mr. ISBELL: Our goal with the Galileo scope is to get people to the ability of about 45-power to be able to see Saturn's rings, because that really makes the "A-ha" moment for many people.

FLATOW: Yeah. That is the "A-ha," for me it was, and then I've done the four moons of Jupiter or so, you know?

Mr. ISBELL: Yeah, exactly. We want to help people do what Galileo did, which was see Jupiter's moon. See mountains on the moon. See the faces of Venus, and see something odd about Saturn and it's handles. You know, we want to go a little bit beyond that.

FLATOW: And it really is something about seeing it on TV or in print, but then actually seeing it...

Mr. ISBELL: There...

FLATOW: It's a moment, isn't it?

Dr. BLOCK: It's a visceral reaction, and one of the things that I get a certain enjoyment about is being able to share my passion about astronomy, but what I get in return, someone looks at Saturn through the telescope, and there is just that moment of "wow" and there it comes naturally.

FLATOW: Right. One of the greatest satisfactions I had as a father was dragging my 17-year-old daughter to - I was out with my telescope looking at the Saturn rings, they were really good the last couple of years. Dragged her out, but when she looked into the eyepiece, she says, cool, dad. She was really was impressed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That was a moment of visceral for me. Gentlemen, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. Adam Block is the public observing programs coordinator for the University of Arizona Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.

And Douglas Isbell is associate director of public affairs for the Kitt Peak National Observatory, also co-chair of the U.S. program committee for the International Year of Astronomy 2009. People can find out more about that year of astronomy by going to what site?

Mr. ISBELL: It's www.astronomy2009.us

FLATOW: And they that'll be going on and celebrating all next year.

Mr. ISBELL: All next year, maybe even a little bit into 2010, because Galileo makes an important observation site, I believe we'll have sun spots in January 2010.

FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time.

Dr. BLOCK: And you can find more about the SkyCenter at skycenter.arizona.edu.

FLATOW: Well, that's it from Tucson. We've had a great time. I want to thank all of you here at the University of Arizona for making us fee so well, also at the KUAZ, and just to thank our folks here for making it so hospitable for us to be here. Greg Smith composed the theme music.

And we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky, and if you missed any of the links we talk about, you can surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com. We're also podcasting and blogging, and we're taking great - Flora's making great videos out of the stuff we cover and original ones. If you want to see the chilly farm, we've got it there, Ed Curry's place.

We're going to make a big video out of it, if you missed any part of this broadcast, and you'd like to see video of it, we'll have it up there in our wet - website. We also want you to send us your videos. If you got some great videos, maybe you got some great astronomy videos that you have taken or you think they're great, and you'd like to share them.

Send them to us, we'll take a look at them, maybe make them a little better, add some stuff to them. And we'll stick them up on the web. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week back in New York. I am Ira Flatow here in Tucson.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.