Aug 2007 BLOG

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2007-08-17 nostalgic Kitt Peak

While getting to Tucson yesterday there was a strange nostalgia. Only 2 months back I had been there as also 3-4 times in the last few years. But this was different. I was going to Tucson to go to Kitt Peak. Tucson was the first place I had been to in the US and that was because I was to observe Sersic-Pastoriza galaxies at a 1-m class telescope. I had encountered many surprises there. Taxi-drivers discussing law; being given the keys to the dome and asked to observe all alone; the variety filled dishes etc. As it happened I was fogged out then. When the fog did clear a bit I tried to open the dome and immediately got a call from another dome that we should not open yet as there was thunder far off in the valley. Like it rains everyday in a rainforest, Kitt Peak has its share of thunderstorms.

All these memories came flooding, or rather trickling, as I completed my airtravel to Tucson. Getting to NOAO was straightforward. A dozen years ago I could not drive and had taken their bus from there to Kitt Peak. Now I drove their hybrid shuttle towards the observatory. The 40 odd miles upto the turn-off went by quickly. The only notable event being the passing of the sun behind a very dark cloud and creating the illusion of twilight. After that straight bit comes a 12-mile stretch when you climb a few 1000 feet to reach the summit at 6750. In the bleak desert the only companions were cacti, ocatiio and occasional hare. By the time I was at 5000 feet I started sensing a cool breeze. It was clear that a thunderstorm had passed by drenching the dry earth and leaving it refreshed. The sun was really setting now and it was spectacular. The colorful sunset clouds as you rarely see in California adored the upper horizon leaving the sun a clear area to set majestically between very rocky mountains.

During the day there are a few visitors to Kitt Peak. Like Palomar it is off bounds to public after 4 PM. As it is, the mountain is only now waking from its summer slumber. WIYN, the 3.5 m telescope where my run is, is the only telescope doing science and ours are the first nights on freshly aluminised mirrors. Even the birds are accustomed to being left undisturbed. Near the summit a hawk flew ahead of me and settled on a tree top by the side of the road. I drove slowly to within several tens of feet of it. Cars seem very inhuman and don't bother them.

It was dark by the time I reached the administration building. They had kept the key to my room there. But my reserved dinner was missing. I had to help myself to stuff at the kitchen. This is the kitchen that had impressed me with its dishes. Now I found it to be rather run-of-the-mill. With my vegan disposition, it is, in fact, almost impossible.

Had a good rest and strolled a bit looking at the astronomy industry here. That was another thing that had impressed me then. And it still did now. So many telescopes in one place. It is awesome. If you don't count the radio dishes, and the huge solar telescopes, the telescopes are not extra-ordinary, but they serve a large number of universities. The gift shop is relatively small and as far as shirts go, only had extremely long ones. Outside, many turkey vultures were soaring on the drafts. They were either just having fun or also looking for rabbits,squirrels and the plentiful rattlesnakes. A few bush-tits and chickadees were also seen, but not too many other species were on display.

The telescope became available a little late as the first day blues tormented the keepers. As the evening approached, a storm came and left without shedding its water. It was never completely clear. We took a few flats during which the software aborted twice and we learnt the use of the acquisition software. If you have seen one, you have seen them all. And now here we are practicing the virtue of good astronomers, waiting for it to clear up and deliver us our lenses.


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