Really-dark-sky observing

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Arizona Sky VillageLast week, I traveled to Tucson, Arizona to produce several stories for Astronomy magazine, which you’ll see in upcoming issues. I was privileged to travel with my colleague, Senior Editor Michael Bakich, and his wife Holley, both seasoned sky observers. After our exploration of the meteorite scene at the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (see previous blog), we made our way down to Portal, Arizona, a 2½-hour drive from Tucson, for some dark-sky observing.

Tucked beside the Chiricahua Mountains, at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, stands a unique institution in amateur astronomy. The Arizona Sky Village, the brainchild of amateur astronomer and real-estate developer Gene Turner, consists of a complex of houses with built-in observatories. Amateur astronomers from around the world retreat to the Sky Village whenever they can for a first-class view of the night sky. (See “The darkest sky under the stars” by Michael Bakich, February 2008 Astronomy.)

I’ve observed for thousands of hours under dozens of different locations during my career. I know dark skies quite well. With the exception of the sky at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the sky at the Arizona Sky Village is among the very best I’ve ever seen — so dark that naked-eye stars are almost dizzying in their numbers.

Couple that black sky with a 30-inch f/4.3 Starmaster telescope, a beautifully made Dobsonian that is computer-controlled and with an exceptional mirror made by Rick Singmaster, and the Arizona Sky Village becomes a deep-sky observer’s paradise. Old friends occupy the site: astroimagers Jack and Alice Newton, whom I’ve known since I was 17 years old, are there this night. Also, along with a group of about 20 observers who all long to see distant galaxies and nebulae.

After a wonderful group dinner in the community house, we traipse outside to the telescope, warm clothes (including winter coat and gloves) draped over our forms. The night starts slowly, with a prolonged view of the Orion Nebula as we begin to dark-adapt. In the first few minutes, we see subtle colors in the Orion nebulosity, a beautiful painting of light and gradations no photograph can capture. The beauty of a visual look at M42 in a really big scope is breathtaking. Only the pure dynamic range of the human eye can capture this sight as the photons stream in and strike us after journeying for 1,500 years through the galaxy.

As we turn and get ready for the night’s observing, Jack Newton starts to gesticulate and clamor with excitement. What he points out to the crowd is mind-blowing. One side of the galaxy, he notes, on the right side as we face Orion, falls off into pure blackness and stars, while the left side of the Milky Way falls off in light gradually. Turn to the other side of the sky, and it’s the reverse. Jack points out that we are seeing the disk shape of our galaxy’s closest arm in 3-D, only because the sky is so amazingly dark. Also, we all gawk at the exceptionally bright zodiacal light, which forms a glowing wedge high into the sky, terminating near the Pleiades.

Then the parade of objects begins, each one amazing, many better than many of us had ever seen them before. There’s the brilliant blue-green planetary nebula NGC 2022 in Orion. The reflection nebula M78, located nearby, looked like a weakly-colored photograph. We turn the telescope back to the Horsehead Nebula only to be shocked: there it is, plain as day, large and dark, with direct vision and without even being fully dark adapted. One of the Sky Village residents shouts, “It was better last week,” referring to the slight amount of dust in the atmosphere tonight, kicked up by a little wind. Bakich and I fire back in unison, big smiles on our faces — “How spoiled can you be?!”

The objects roll out for hours: galaxies and more nebulae, with a focus on planetaries. The nebula NGC 2371–2 looks better than I’ve ever seen it, with its weird asymmetry. The edge-on galaxy NGC 3628 shows amazing detail in its central dust band and great outer nebulosity. We observe until we’re exhausted after the long day, soaking up the greatest views we’ve had in months.

The Arizona Sky Village offers a spectacular opportunity for amateur astronomers. Turner, the Newtons, and others involved in the venture plan on offer extensive astronomy, geology, birding, hiking, equestrian, and other programs at the site in the future. 

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