Starstruck by Tucson’s brilliant night skies
Clear desert air and light-pollution controls make southern Arizona a hot spot for astronomers.
The Washington Post
If you go
Seeing stars in Tucson
University of Arizona Flandrau Science Center, 1601 E. University Blvd., Tucson; flandrau.org . Free observatory telescope viewing Thursday-Saturday 7-10 p.m. year-round. (Call ahead to confirm.)
University of Arizona Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, mirrorlab.as.arizona.edu. Public tours $8-$15 per person, usually at 1 and 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, but call to confirm. Reservations required.
Spencer’s Observatory at Cat Mountain Lodge, spencersobservatory.com. Guided star tours for up to five people start at $100 for two hours; discount for lodge guests.
Sky Bar, 536 N. Fourth Ave., Tucson; skybartucson.com. Telescopes open daily for free public viewing; astronomer on site Tuesday-Saturday.
Dry heat or not, 109 degrees is a frankly ridiculous temperature.
That’s why, if you find yourself in Tucson, Ariz., in the summer, the best plan is to spend daylight moving quickly from one bubble of air conditioning to the next.
Luckily, when the sun sets and the air cools to a balmy 90 or so, you’ll find that the night was worth waiting for. Thanks to a local ordinance that strictly limits artificial-light pollution, Tucson supposedly has the darkest night skies of any U.S. city its size.
The law was first passed in 1972 to conserve energy and to preserve the crystal clarity of the dry desert air, which has drawn professional astronomers for more than a century. Today, astronomy and its spinoff industries are big business in southern Arizona. Many of the state’s dozens of federal and university observatories are within a few hours of Tucson.
Stargazing in the city
For a city of 500,000, Tucson is an astonishingly good place for stargazing. Best of all, you don’t even have to make the hour-plus drive to the large observatories at Kitt Peak or Mount Lemmon.
On my first evening in town, I climb a curving staircase at the University of Arizona’s Flandrau Science Center to a small circular room with a hemispherical dome split open to the sky. A 1970s-vintage Cassegrain reflector telescope takes up most of the space, which is dimly lit by the glow of computer screens and red lights to help preserve night vision.
Two volunteer docents, using sparkling-green lasers, point out stars and planets to a handful of guests.
Two young couples from Honduras take turns climbing the two steps to look through the eyepiece.
“Wow,” says one of the women.
“We like ‘wow,’ “ says docent David Acklam with a smile.
When it’s my turn, I see what the woman means. The moon looks so close that only a slice is visible at a time. You can see craters within craters, everything as bright and sharp as glass.
The next afternoon, I’m back at the university, or more accurately, under it. The Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, one of the few facilities that can make mirrors for the world’s largest telescopes, fills most of the space beneath Arizona Stadium, the 50,000-seat home of the Wildcats football team.
A guide leads our tour group downstairs to a cavernous space filled with ultra-high technology on an industrial scale. We look down on a round mirror the size of a modest living room. It’s just part of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, destined for a mountaintop in Chile. Astronomers will stitch together images from its 3,200-megapixel camera to create unparalleled images of the night sky and a 3-D map of the universe.
A spinning machine is slowly polishing the mirror like a Zamboni on the world’s most expensive hockey rink. There’s no room for error: The surface needs to be almost perfectly smooth, no imperfections larger than 20 billionths of a meter.
B&B with observatory
Climbing back to ground level, I decide to make a daylight trip to the Cat Mountain Lodge on the city’s western edge. The hacienda-style B&B (catmountainlodge.com) has five rooms around a plant-filled courtyard, but I’m here for the small attached observatory, where guests and visitors can book guided viewings.
Robby Tackett, who runs the observatory, is already here, bent over a small white telescope in the kilnlike heat. The former skydiving instructor and amateur astronomer personally picked out the big guns used for night viewing — a 14-inch Celestron SCT and a 10-inch Meade LX200 SCG — as well as the smaller scope that he’s currently aiming at the sun.
Through unfiltered glass, looking at the sun would have the same effect on an eyeball as a magnifying glass on an ant. But a special filter lets through only a fraction of the star’s glare, making it safe to view.
Tackett steps aside so that I can take a look. The burning orb in the sky is reduced to a dark red ball whose surface seethes with convection cells.
As it happens, Tackett also helps run the Sky Bar in downtown Tucson, where I head after sunset on my last night in town.
At first glance, it looks like any other college bar on funky Fourth Avenue. Then you notice that the photos on the wall and the video screens are all of planets and galaxies and other “Trek”-worthy objects. On the outdoor patio, Tackett is lining up Saturn through a $9,000 motorized telescope.
The rings are as clear as tracks on a record, as are four of the planet’s 62 moons. The Sky Bar offers free viewing most nights.
“Sometimes people cry,” Tackett says as the scope’s automatic tracking system swings it slowly toward the Ring Nebula. “I’ve shown homeless people Saturn. It’s amazing when people see things they’ve never seen before.”