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Adult Beginners Astronomy Camp Mt. Lemmon

Posted by Robert Morlan   12/20/2006 05:52PM

Adult Beginners Astronomy Camp Mt. Lemmon
Written by Robert Morlan and Chris Guynn

Adult Beginners Astronomy Camp through the University of Arizona

This review is a little late in getting completed. Life sometimes gets in the way. Being
lazy also delayed this. So with that, this is my review of a recent trip to Tucson in October.

Having only been in the hobby now for almost two years, I've only attended a couple of star
parties. I've gone to very few places besides my backyard. The largest scope I've looked
thru has been a 20" reflector. My skies are decent but by no means ideal. All of this, with
the help of my wife having visited Tucson last year and telling me how many stars she could
see, pushed me to visit a truly dark site with larger scopes to look thru. Searching on the
internet led me to a couple of choices in Arizona. From there I decided to look into attending
the camp on Mount Lemmon via the University.

There were a few things that helped make up my mind. First was the fact that they offer
views thru 12", 40", 60" and 61" scopes. Something I don't get the chance to do everyday.
The cost seemed reasonable at $550 per person. So I exchanged a few emails with Dr. Don McCarthy, Astronomer at Steward Observatory and the point of contact for the camp. Don was very friendly and quickly responded to everything I asked. More about Don later. So at that point I decided to ask the wife about going. After getting the go ahead, a fellow CN'er (Chris Guynn) and I reserved a spot in the October Class. They have two beginner classes a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, which are typically good viewing times.

Before leaving we found out that there were only going to be four of us in the group, not
very common. Groups usually are somewhere between 15-20 attendees. This was great news for the four of us. Small groups mean more time at the eyepiece, more one on one talk with the leaders and more flexibility with the program. Don emailed asking if we would like to sit in on one of his classes upon arrival. The campus was just beautiful. We were met by Dr. Eric Hooper at the airport. Now at the University of Wisconsin, he was formerly involved with the program at University. From there we attended his class on whether Pluto should be a planet and met our fellow group members. After the class we stopped for lunch and discussed the basic layout of the weekend. Then it was time for the drive up the mount.

Upon reaching the camp we were shown around and taken to our rooms. Housing and meals are included in the price of the camp. The meals were completed mostly by Don and Eric. The rest of us chipped in here and there. This was a very nice touch that I wasn't expecting. Now the camp is at 9157 feet. This took a little getting used to. Even during the day the skies are incredible. The darkest blue I've ever seen from the ground. After dinner we went out to see our first sunset. Wonderful! Don explained what the Venus belt that we were seeing actually is. Here I will say that Don is probably the most knowledgeable person I've ever met with regard to astronomy. However he is also one of the most friendly and easy to talk with. From here we drove down to Mount Bigelow (8230 feet) where the 61" reflector is housed.

Let me just say that walking in to see your first big telescope is a breath taking event.
This thing was huge. They let us open the observatory up. We were encouraged to drive the
telescope throughout the night. We were allowed to view any object that was available in
the sky. There were of course the recommendations of the best sites through the scope. My
favorites were by far the Planetary Nebula. The color was just amazing. One after another
we took our turn climbing the steps to a site that most of us will have to wait a long
time to see again. There were the familiar and objects I've never heard of. One of my
favorites was the Campbell's Hydrogen Star. This is the one object I will never forget.
I've tried to find a photo to represent the view and couldn't. Don had mentioned that not a lot of research has been done on Campbell’s Hydrogen Star and that the Observatory had plans to do more research on it. From here we were off to galaxies, planets and anything else we could think of. Around 4 a.m. we were all about ready to sleep and drove back to our rooms.

The next day we all woke at different times and met in the main room to eat and discuss
different topics. This was a real treat to hear others’ ideas, just shows the variety of
interests in our hobby. We did a little solar observing with the 12" Meade SCT and a
Daystar solar filter. From here Eric showed us an experiment to get a rough estimation
of the brightness of the sun with a light bulb. Yes, this is possible. We then took a tour of
the other telescopes and their housings.

After dinner and another sunset it was back to the 61" to see some of the sights we missed
right after sunset the night before. Then we decided to go back up the mountain to use the
other scopes, try some ccd imaging and visit the Near Earth Object telescope. Here we were
shown how they are tracking different asteroids and searching for new Near Earth Objects, in fact they had discovered 4 new objects that night. Also, these folks are discovering comets that they actually get to name. It was very interesting to actually see research being done. Then I went over to the 20" Jamieson Infrared Telescope to view Saturn. I had viewed thru the 20" earlier in the evening. For the size of this scope, I was shocked at how beautiful the views were. The 61" is like nothing else but the 20" was tack sharp. This is the scope I'd love to have in my backyard if the bank account would permit.

Let me not forget to mention that we were lucky enough to have our camp during the Orionids.
I've not seen many meteor showers but this will probably be the best for some time to come. It was my first time being able to visually see the trail left as they hit the Earth's atmosphere. After that, I was off to bed.

After breakfast and packing up we left for our last stop, a tour of the Steward Mirror Laboratory
at the University. This was a wonderful way to end our visit. Seeing how they make the 8.4 meter diameter mirrors was something I'll never likely get to do again. Standing under the mirror to take photos was something I didn't expect. The ability to get right next to all the equipment and mirrors really helps to understand how much work goes into making one of these.

To me this camp was a huge success. One of the biggest things I wondered about before going
was if it would be worth the cost. It was well worth it. I feel the experience far surpassed the cost. (Actually the cost was a value for what I received.) It was a joy to meet everyone involved. I'd like to go back at some point for the advanced camp. My goal is to make one trip a year to camps like this around the States.