Kitt Peak Astronomy Trip

Bruce Hugo

We stepped off the plane in Phoenix. My fiancée and I had come to Arizona for my combined birthday/Christmas gift... a night at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO)!

KPNO offers a course called the Advanced Observers Program. You spend a night with an astronomer with full access to the visitor's telescope and associated equipment.

On our arrival at the top of Kitt Peak, we checked in at the visitor's center and met our host Mr. Adam Block, Lead Observer. This name may sound familiar to some. If you happen to look at the by-line for photos in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines, you will come across his name at least every other month. He is a true astrophotography artist.

Adam showed us to our sleeping quarters, told us to meet him in the cafeteria in about 15 minutes and dismissed himself to go prepare for the nights observing. We looked around the room and unpacked a few things, preparing for a chilly night. The accommodations were basic but clean, reminiscent of college dorms. This was neither a surprise nor a letdown, as we weren't planning on sleeping much!

After supper, we followed Adam over to the visitor's center and to the telescope we would be using that night. The telescope was an Adaptive Optics guided 20-inch f/8 RC Optical Systems Ritchey-Chretien on a Paramount ME robotic telescope mount. The camera was a ST10XME imager. Quite the sight to behold for a person whose largest telescope is less than 5 inches!

Besides the Advanced Observer Program, KPNO offers the Nightly Observing Program, a 4-hour course that starts just before sunset. It is open to the public but limited to 36 people. Just as with the Advanced Observer Program, reservations are required. The Nightly Observing program provides a walking tour of the grounds, binocular astronomy and visual observing using the visitor telescope prior to the start of the advanced program.

After the Nightly Observing program was complete, Adam Block returned to the visitors telescope and we began discussing the night's agenda. Adam felt the high thin clouds would render visual observing poor but digital imaging would be able to shoot right through the clouds on brighter objects. So we discussed possible targets. Adam suggested the face-on galaxy Messier 63 and we all agreed this would be a good starting point for the night.

We began by taking darks and preliminary images of the galaxy. Once we were satisfied with the orientation of the galaxy in the imager's field of view we moved to the telescope's control room in the visitor's center.

Having never created digital images with a telescope, it was quite impressive as to the amount of work that goes into a single image. We started by creating luminescence photos. Then we began taking the 3 color sets. Using software, Adam began processing photos, subtracting darks and stacking images. Once the color sets were complete, we stopped processing the images for a moment and discussed our next target: the edge-on galaxy NGC4565. Once the images of NGC4565 began to roll in, we returned to our work on M63.

Approximately 3/4 of the way through the night, we were finally complete with our first image - M63 in all its splendor! It was beautiful!

We began processing the images of NGC4565 next. When we had acquired all the images of NGC4565, it was very close to sunrise and Adam made a suggestion of working quickly and imaging one last object, Messier 107. We finished acquiring the images for this globular cluster just before the sun reached the horizon.

We all stepped outside and talked a bit as the eastern sky began to brighten with a familiar glow. Adam suggested that we all turn in for the day and he would complete the image processing for us at a later date. We agreed and returned to our room to sleep for few hours. We woke up later in the day, went for a short walk around the grounds and bid a fond goodbye to Kitt Peak. It was a wonderful adventure!

Published in the February 2005 issue of the NightTimes