Keith H. Johnson
Kitt Peak. In college, and especially in graduate school, I spent some time on Kitt Peak. What used to be called Kitt Peak National Observatory, and is now called the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), is a collection of optical telescopes operated by Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). Other telescopes from other institutions are also present. The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory (which is actually a university department) operates several telescopes on Kitt Peak. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) had a 36-foot radio telescope there, though that is no longer in operation. Kitt Peak itself is a mountain about 6500 feet high, about 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona.
In fact, my first experience at Kitt Peak was as a summer student for NRAO (see my semi-pro page), working at the 36-foot. I arrived a few days before my summer advisor, Dr. Ken Kellermann. I was taken up to the mountain, and installed in a small dormitory. I had nothing offical to do until Dr. K. arrived, so spent my first day wandering around among the telescopes, wondering what I would find myself eventually doing. I knew that the sky was likely to look pretty good here, being far from any large cities (Tucson was about 40 miles away) and at an altitude (about 6800 feet) that put me above the thickest layers of obscuring atmosphere.
So I decided to take advantage of my situation. After sunset, I grabbed a blanket and pillow from my bed, walked out of the dormitory, spread out the blanket, lay down, and looked up at the night sky... and my jaw dropped. I had never seen a sky with so many stars! I had seen good skies in northern Minnesota on vacation trips, but nothing like this. Anyone who has not seen a really good sky does not know what she is missing. I had trouble finding my old favorite constellations, because there was such a profusion of stars, but the Milky Way was more prominent than I had believed possible. I looked in all directions for many minutes, drinking in the sight.
Eventually my brain settled down, and I started wandering around the dark observatory grounds. Many of the telescope domes had music drifting out of the open slits. Some was classical, some country, some popular; fortunately, rap music had not yet been invented. Being on the mountain at night became one of my most peaceful times.
I had been alerted to one unusual feature of the observatory, and ended my evening walking up to the cafeteria for a midnight lunch!
36-foot radio telescope. After Dr. Kellermann arrived, I started my work at the NRAO 36-foot radio telescope. This instrument, like so many others, had an interesting life. Its original plans were rather small-scale. A small number of interesting objects had been discoveredradio galaxies, quasarsthat seemed like they might have some interesting properties that could be observered best with high-frequency telescopes. Since there were not many of these known at the time, and it wasn't obvious that the telescope would be useful for much else, there was not much in the way of resources invested in it.
Then came interstellar molecules. It was found that clouds of gas floating between the stars might contain complex molecules, such as carbon dioxide and water. To prove this hypothesis, a new sort of telescope was necessary, since these molecules tended to emit radio energy at frequencies higher than could be observed with most radio telescopes.
Well, waddya know! Here's this new, small dish in Arizona that just happens to work at high frequencies! Do you suppose we might be able to use it? Sure enough, we could. And plans were set forth to improve the telescope structure, and add sophisticated new receivers to it, and upgrade its performance. I happened to be a summer student just when these exciting changes were being undertaken. I served as a telescope operator for astronomers who were working on very important observations. I remember being asked not to record in my log book the wavelengths one group of observers were using, in case another groupo coming in later in the week saw them and tried to scoop them by making important discoveries before the first group could announce them.
I was a summer student for at least three years. Upon moving to Tucson for graduate school, I returned to the 36-foot in the summer, as a "Summer Research Assistant" now. But I still was asked to dig a ditch for a water line, and help physically turn the dish to help force lubricating oil out of the reservoir so it could be replaced. I must take this opportunity to scotch one rumor that has followed me around: it was NOT me that put the pickax into the main water line to the rest of the mountain, leaving them without water for half a day! But I was around when it happened.
Steward Observatory. A couple years after my first NRAO summer I found myself in graduate school at Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and had a chance to use a couple of the optical telescopes at Kitt Peak. I was lucky enough to be allowed to be a solo observer with the 90-inch telescope, for several years the largest on the mountain (until the 158-inch was built) (and please excuse me for using inches rather than centimeters or meters to express mirror diameters. We used inches at the time, and that's how I'll always think of the dimensions. I'll call it the 36-foot rather than the 12-meter, too.). The first dome you see here, that looks like a can of spray deodorant, is the 90-inch.
Observing with the 90-inch was nothing like what I was used to with the small amateur instruments I had used. When you were out in the dome, you had no view of the sky, sitting under the instruement. Some observers used a new-fangled gadget called an "autoguider," that used a bright star to automatically keep the telescope centered on the area you were interested in. But finding a bright star near your object of interest was always a challenge, and the autoguider often misbehaved, so I usually found myself guiding the telescope by hand, pressing buttons on the control panel to keep a star on the crosshairs in the eyepiece. Since that time, guiding has become reliable, so today's observers generally don't know what it is to sit on an observing platform in an unheated dome in the middle of winter at 6500 feet with the wind freezing your ears. And we had to walk to the telescope, too, uphill in both directions. And we liked it that way!
Sometimes I helped other students and faculty with their observing programs. At one of these sessions, I had a nearly-awesome experience. Three of us were taking turns sitting under the back end of the telescope, guiding it. My turn came around, and the other two obervers went out onto a small parapet attached to the the main building to enjoy the sky. I had just taken my seat when the inside of the dome lit up as if someone had set off a bright strobe. I nearly bumped my head on the telescope (I wasn't wearing my hard hat), and immediately realized what I had missed. Sure enough, Eric and Santiago came running into the dome exclaiming over the bright fireball I had just missed.
Planetarium Experiences. At some point I realized my forte was not astronomical research, but rather telling the story of that research to the public. So I turned to a career in planetariums. I was active in the professional organizations dealing with planetarium workers; I attended conferences, and served in various elected positions. I served as treasurer for the Southwestern Association of Planetariums (SWAP), and for the Pacific Planetarium Association (PPA). I was also the treasurer of the International Society of Planetariums (IPS) for several years, an office that required me to keep track of over 500 members around the world and prepare the directory of world planetariums published by that organization.
I learned some surprising things as a result. How many permanent planetariums (as opposed to small portable planetariums that one sets up and takes down in a temporary location) would you guess there are in the U.S.? The answer: over 1300, and an equal number in the rest of the world. I once calculated that the total area covered by planetarium domes in the world would be sufficient to serve as an effective umbrella for the entire Vatican, plus a little more.
The most rewarding part of membership in the professional organizations, though, are the annual conferences. My first conference in Texas gave me a chance to pick members' brains for ideas on how in the world we were supposed to do this stuff, and I've tried to attend as many as I could ever since. Talking to colleagues every year serves to recharge my batteries; hardware and show vendors give me a view of what kinds of new products are available (and the field is changing rapidly right now).
Of course, professional conferences give one the chance to visit parts of the world one would likely never see otherwise. Being an officer in IPS led to me visiting Trömso, Norway, and witness the 24-hour day I had taught in the planetarium so often. Japan is one of the most active countries in the planetarium field, and a conference there in 1996 (I think) allowed me to watch twilight cormorant fishing, and use most of the various excellent Japanese public transport systems (though I was smart about it: I let my wife figure things out while I was at the conference, and just followed her around afterwards).
[More to follow]