I am looking at Saturn. • Not a photo of Saturn, not an illustration or a projection on a planetarium wall. • I am on a piney mountaintop in southern Arizona, looking intently through the eyepiece of a two-story-tall telescope with a 24-inch mirror at the sixth planet from the sun, more than 700 million miles away. • It fills my sight, a serene ivory orb girdled by dark and coppery rings in which its 61 moons seem to jitter almost imperceptibly.
I could gaze at it forever, except that I'm freezing my tail off and the little kid right behind me is starting to jitter very perceptibly and muttering, "It's my turn."
400 years of stars
In 1609, Galileo Galilei became the first scientist to use an astronomical telescope (an advance that led to his being convicted of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church). To celebrate Galileo's accomplishments and the four centuries of astronomy since, this year has been declared the International Year of Astronomy 2009 by the International Astronomical Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The IYA 2009 is an outreach effort to stimulate interest in astronomy and science in general, especially among young people, with programs all around the planet.
Whether you're already a seasoned stargazer or don't know a nebula from a neutrino, one of the best places to get up close to major observatories is southern Arizona, where waves of mountain ranges lift huge telescopes closer to the sky, and the arid climate offers many clear nights.
People have been studying the skies from this part of the Sonoran Desert for millennia. Many petroglyphs, the pictures chipped into rock by the Hohokam people who lived here as long as 2,000 years ago, are thought to be astronomical observations. Scholars think some of the petroglyphs record supernovas seen all over the world in the 11th century.
The inefficient eye
Astronomers today record their observations directly into computers. As Adam Block, program coordinator at Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, tells our tour group, most large telescopes don't even have eyepieces like the one through which I looked at Saturn.
"No longer do astronomers look through telescopes," he says. "One thing we've learned from these highly sensitive instruments is how ineffective and inefficient our eyes are."
But participants in the SkyNights tour do get to peer through an eyepiece, as well as learning to use a star chart and high-powered binoculars to spot planets and constellations.
My husband, John, and I have driven about an hour and a half from our bed and breakfast near downtown Tucson, across the city and up 27 miles of the scenic, switchbacking Mount Lemmon Highway to the observatory on Mount Lemmon. At 9,157 feet, it's the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which stretch across the north side of Tucson.
SkyCenter is one of several sites operated by the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The SkyCenter complex, formerly an Air Force radar base, now is home to half a dozen large telescopes. Two more are a few miles away on Mount Bigelow. (The largest, which has a 61-inch mirror, was used to survey the moon for the lunar landings.)
The Mount Lemmon site is open by reservation only for tours, which begin in late afternoon. The domes that house the telescopes are scattered around a grassy meadow rimmed with Ponderosa pines, the Catalinas rolling away in every direction. Because the astronomers who work at the site are still sleeping, we keep our voices down as we walk around.
Block has us spotting stars even before sundown. Our tour group of 22 gathers in the dome housing a 24-inch telescope to get a gander at Arcturus, a bright orange sparkle in the turquoise sky and very clear for an object 36 light years away.
We troop into the Learning Center for orientation, a kind of Astronomy 101 that Block delivers in an effective low-tech way. To give us an idea of relative sizes and distances in our solar system, he holds up a sheet of paper filled with a photo of the sun. The Earth: a tiny pebble between his fingers. How far apart are they? He walks across the big room and down the hall. Even the little kids get it.
How big is our solar system compared to our galaxy, the Milky Way? Picture one penny in an area the size of the continental United States. It's a little dizzying, but easy to grasp. "Appreciating how far away they are is part of the fun," Block says.
We dig into sandwiches and chips, then it's outside to watch the sun set. When we left the valley, it was 92 degrees — unusually temperate for Tucson in June, but still hot. Up on the mountain, as soon as the sun drops, the temperature plunges into the 40s and the wind kicks up. We're wearing layers of shirts and sweaters, but we wish for down jackets as we shiver.
It's just as cold back inside the dome. It has to be; if the inside air was warmer than the outside, when the dome opened, the telescope's mirrors would cloud.
Everyone takes turns dashing into the dome's small "warm room" for a few minutes, but the lines stay long at the telescope's lens, as Block focuses it on glittering star clusters and filmy nebulae, the birthplaces of stars.
As we drive back down the mountain near midnight, the sky seems more full of stars than ever.
Astronomy ancient and modern
From Mount Lemmon, Block had us focus our binoculars on one of Arizona's best known astronomical sites, more than 60 miles west. Kitt Peak National Observatory is the world's largest collection of research telescopes: 23 optical telescopes, including the world's largest solar telescope, and two radio telescopes.
A part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the site was chosen in the late 1950s, when light pollution from Tucson, with a population of around 200,000, was limited. Now the city has expanded to more than a million people, but astronomers still come from all over the world for Kitt Peak's facilities.
For the public, it's one of the most accessible observatories — visitors can drop in any day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Well, "drop in" may not be the right word. Kitt Peak perches in the Baboquivari Mountains on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, at 2.8 million acres about the size of Connecticut (with a population of 24,000 tribal members). From Tucson, the trip across the desert and up the well-maintained road to the peak at 6,875 feet takes about an hour and a half.
Admission to the site is free, and it was pleasantly cool there on a sunny June morning. The visitor center houses an exhibit about the observatory and the work done there. A gift shop has astronomy gear and Einstein T-shirts as well as crafts — baskets, jewelry and ceramics — made by Tohono O'odham people and members of other tribes.
One of the most fascinating and beautiful exhibits at the center is outside on the terrace scattered with picnic tables. A spectacular mosaic by Mexican artist Juan Baz depicts concepts from Mayan astronomy in brilliant colors and forms.
Guided tours are offered three times a day, or you can pick up a map at the gift shop and visit the three large telescopes on your own. The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope was the object we focused on from Mount Lemmon, and it's amazing up close. A huge, dazzlingly white shaft slants more than 100 feet in the air, but that's less than a third of the telescope's body. The rest plunges 200 feet into the mountain; inside, a giant vacuum tube allows precise images of the sun.
Kitt Peak offers a range of reservations-only night programs similar to those at SkyCenter, as well as longer stays — during our visit, a group of middle schoolers swarmed the site, excited to be at astronomy camp.
Daytime visits, though, offer great views of the terrestrial landscape. Ten miles to the south is Baboquivari Peak, the home of the Tohono O'odhams' traditional god I'itoi. Its massive, dark arrowhead shape rose through a thick haze of smoke as a wildfire burned more than 10,000 acres around it.
Seeking the Big Bang
Mount Graham International Observatory also boasts a telescope that is the largest of its kind in the world. The Large Binocular Telescope is so enormous — its boxlike housing rising about eight stories high — that we can see it from Interstate 10, about 30 miles south of its peak in the Pinaleño Mountains.
Visiting the Mount Graham observatory, the newest in southern Arizona, is not a matter of dropping in. When the project was conceived in the 1980s, it drew immediate opposition both from environmental groups interested in preserving wilderness and from members of the San Carlos Apache tribe and other Apache groups, who had long considered the mountain a sacred site. Legal wrangles went on for years, and the observatory's footprint on the mountain was strictly limited as a result.
Visitors may come in only by permit and thus must make reservations through the base camp at Eastern Arizona University's Discovery Campus, in the small town of Safford, about 130 miles northeast of Tucson.
The all-day tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays from mid May through mid November (snow makes the mountain difficult to access in winter).
We arrived in Safford at 9 a.m. and sat down for an orientation video before our group of 16 climbed into two comfortable vans, each with a driver and a volunteer tour guide who offered a store of knowledge about the observatory and the area.
Driving an hour and a half from the valley to the peak's 10,720-foot elevation means passing through seven life zones — the equivalent of driving from Mexico to Canada. The views are breathtaking all the way, and some of the hairpin turns will make you glad an experienced hand is at the wheel. We stopped briefly to eat our bag lunches, picked up from a general store in Safford, at a ranger station set in a pretty meadow. Steel yourself for the last 7 miles, though — it's all gravel road.
Mount Graham is home to three large telescopes. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope is owned by the Vatican Observatory and is guaranteed to elicit Galileo wisecracks from astronomy buffs — even though, as one of our guides said, "These days there are lots of Jesuit astronomers."
The Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope doesn't "see" in the traditional way at all. Instead, it uses observation of radio waves to measure objects and distances in space. During our tour, one astronomer sat before a bank of more than a dozen computer screens filled with data. No eyepieces here.
The big mamma jamma is the Large Binocular Telescope. Its name refers to its twin mirrors, each 8.4 meters (more than 27 feet) across. Don't miss the photo exhibit in the visitor center recording how those delicate, gigantic mirrors were transported up the mountain.
Seated on a three-story concrete base resting on bedrock, the telescope is simply enormous. We view it from a glass-enclosed catwalk, dwarfed by its intricate armature.
No looking through the eyepiece here, either. One guide tells us that research time on this instrument must be booked years in advance and costs $85,000 per minute. For now, it's the biggest and most powerful telescope of its kind on the planet (a larger one is planned for Chile, where there is less light pollution).
Telescopes like this one allow astronomers to reach through time and space as they have never been able to do before, a guide says. "They're looking for the Big Bang."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.