Students from SEDS and the Astronomy Club were recently given a very special tour of the astronomical facilities on Mt. Graham.
Leaving at 8 in the morning, after about a three hour drive we reached the Mountain Operations base in Safford, Arizona. Then we embarked on another hour drive up the mountain. This drive up the mountain itself can induce motion-sickness like few other roads or amusement park rides you may have experienced. Nevertheless, the campgrounds appear quite active, and the cabins occupied. As we approached the summit, the desert terrain gave way to thick forests, the air got colder, and snow began to fall. The temperature at the summit was in the mid-to-low-thirties, with snow flurries enveloping the SMT. Apparently, fall is not the observing season on Mt. Graham!
We were given a lengthy tour of the SMT, which is an awesome piece of equipment. The 10-meter dish of the SMT has been trued to a mean accuracy of 30 rms (root-mean-square) by use of satellite holography which already makes it one of the most accurate sub-millimeter dishes in the world. It will be eventually trued to an accuracy of about 15 rms, allowing astronomers unprecedented analysis of dust and molecular clouds in our galaxy. It is thought that this instrument will be able to shed light on long-standing mysteries such as star formation and the dynamics of the interstellar medium.
Right now, the SMT continues to be prepared for use by the astronomical community. Part of the reason for our trip was for Dr. Chris Walker (of Steward Observatory) to bring up another detector to be installed. An engineering/astronomy team was at the SMT and they slewed the dish around for us and showed us the control rooms and various instrumentation.
We also got a tour of the Vatican Observatory's telescope (right across from the SMT). This is an optical telescope whose mirror was manufactured here at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. It was a fairly radical design, being an "f/1" its diameter is equal to its length. This allows a powerful telescope to be housed in a pretty small dome. Initial results show that the design succeeded. We also got to see where the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) will be situated. The photo shows us standing at the center of the LBT site. Dr. Strittmatter, who forgot to bring a jacket, is wearing the blanket used protect the detector we brought up! Now that's dedication to astronomy!
Special thanks to Dr. Peter Strittmatter (Astronomy Department and Steward Observatory Director) for keeping a promise made to the Astronomy Club and to Dr. Chris Walker for the tour. Guy McArthur