Tucson Observatory: The SNHS Adventure

By Kelcie Kruse

This trek throughout southern Arizona began the morning of Monday, April 28th. Science National Honor Society visited the Tucson Observatory two years previously, and the students were excited at being able to repeat the trip. This particular trip explores extraterrestrial science as well as subjects a bit closer to home.

The SNHS students took two vans and headed down to the University of Arizona (Bear Down!) to visit the mirror lab Monday morning. At the lab they met their guide, Bill Gates. While Mr. Gates was not famous for his technical exploits, he volunteered at the U of A mirror lab. Gates taught the students about the giant mirrored lenses that the facility makes for telescopes around the world. The students were even able to see a completed lens that was in the midst of final testing before being shipped off to Chile, for one of the largest telescopes in the world.

After thoroughly exploring the techniques of off-world observation, the students went to Mt. Lemmon for a more practical approach. The University of Arizona sponsors some of the telescopes and programs on Mt. Lemmon, as well as the Biosphere where the students later visited. In order to get to the summit of Mt. Lemmon, TCP students had to drive up a winding road. They rose so much in elevation, to over 8,000 ft., that the environment changed around them. The bottom started out with Tucson plants, then higher up it was like they were in a part of Canada, then the top of the mountain was similar to the White Mountains in Arizona.

While at the summit of Mt. Lemmon, the students stayed in dorms and looked at anything from stars to constellations and nebulas via telescope. While the University of Arizona has programs and telescopes on Mt. Lemmon, it is an international site. There were even telescopes owned by South Korea, controlled electronically from across the world.

While on Mt. Lemmon, the students got to look through and even operate one of the telescopes to look at different parts of space. They used star charts to find constellations and planets; including Mars. With the telescope they could even see the gas on Saturn and ice on the surface of Mars. They saw clusters of stars, along with different galaxies and nebulas. They used binoculars to see some passing satellites and to identify the North Star.

Other than telescopes, SNHS students saw videos with images that had been taken at the site they were visiting. They received a brief how-to on photography and saw the video on the recent eclipse that had been taken on Mt. Lemmon. Another, less extraterrestrial, video was of a particular skunk and fox duo that visit the site fairly often, along with various other wildlife.

Tuesday morning led the students closer to earth as they traveled down the mountain to Biosphere 2 (Note: Biosphere 1 is Earth). The Biosphere had been a project to see how sustainable a group of scientists could live in a completely sealed environment. There was no outside air flow, water, or food. Merely a group of scientists that grew their own food and managed the various biomes found in Biosphere. While the project was not seen as a success to the outside world, the scientific community views it as groundbreaking.

The building has been converted to a research facility since the experiment ended. The environment varies from rainforest, desert, and even ocean. The facility currently doesn’t need the “lungs” because it is no longer sealed airtight. When the Biospherians were inhabiting it, however, the lungs played an important role. They were large, empty chambers that expanded or contracted based on the temperature. Without this system, the rising heat would cause the air to expand and the windows of Biosphere to break. Now the lungs are the closest thing to a ride that Biosphere 2 offers to the public.

After seeing all of these eventful places in Southern Arizona, the SNHS students had to return home. They learned about many different subjects and hopefully some future opportunities that the University of Arizona has to offer for those interested in observing not only the Earth, but space.

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