Once I’ve had my breakfast at the hotel, I decide to go to a local park, the Sabino Canyon Recreational Area since it is so close to where I’m staying in the Oro Valley. It is only $5 to enter the park, and another $10 to take the tram up the canyon. There are some people walking, but it is a long uphill trek, and it is threatening to rain. The tram is narrated on the way up. There are nine stops along the way, so people are picked up or dropped off at many of the stops.
It gives me an interesting peek into the Catalina Mountains that are north of Tucson, and the Riparian areas in the canyon. The Bajada Loop is a very short trail right next to the Visitor Center, and it has a wonderful variety of cactus and bushes of the desert. The half hour drive there and back allows me to see how people live in the suburbs of Tucson. I’m back at the hotel at noon.
Feb 27, 2017 Monday – 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), Tucson, Arizona, USA
I drive to the Pima Air & Space Museum and buy a ticket for their AMARG “Bone yard” tour for US$7.00. Most of the people showing up for the 9AM opening are also after tickets to the Bone Yard tour, and although there are several tours running today, they fill up quickly. A full-sized tour bus pulls up to the front entrance and takes my 10AM group on a one hour tour along with a Docent describing all the aircraft, the history of the place, and the reason it exists. We drive through the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base base gates twice in the process, so we have to be careful to not take photos inside the base. There is no opportunity to get off the bus, so my photos are mediocre. That said, the tour is very interesting, and it’s the only way to see this facility from the ground.
AMARG is massive – 2,600 acres or 11 square kilometres. Some 4,400 aircraft are stored here, making it the largest aircraft storage facility in the world. The ground in this area is so hard, it can support any aircraft without pavement. Since the air is so dry in this area, the aircraft don’t deteriorate rapidly once their windshields and sensitive parts are covered in a white plastic film. I hadn’t realized that some previously-piloted aircraft are converted to drones to save money.
After having breakfast at the hotel this morning, I drive to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The museum is in the western part of Suguero National Park. The desert landscape in this area is spectacular, and the museum presents very interesting displays of the various ecosystems found in the desert. The two captive Coyotes are quite active, and bark like dogs for awhile, getting everyone’s attention. Several docents are displaying birds of prey on their arms and describing their respective features and behaviour, so I take some wonderful closeups of the Peregrine Falcon, Spotted Owl and Barn Owl.
I have a sandwich for lunch at the little cafe off the gift shop, although there are two other restaurants on the site. Some of the Docents have owls and falcons to show people, which makes for some great closeups of these normally elusive birds. The museum has a surprising number of other birds and animals on display, including Javalinas (wild pigs), snakes, prairie dogs and squirrels, lots of birds, and some cats. So it isn’t just cactus on display, although there are endless varieties of those as well.
February 24, 2017 Friday – Kartchner Caverns & the night sky at Dragoon Mountain Ranch, Arizona, USA
Garry reserved (a few days ago) the Big Room Tour for the Kartchner Caverns for this afternoon. We depart around 1PM so we have time to look around the visitor centre before the tour starts. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed, and they even insist that we leave our cellphones behind in a locker. The tour starts by everyone being taken up the hill in a tram, and then we enter the caverns through a series of doors and air locks. The Big Room is indeed very big, and the history of the caves is interesting, with lots of stalagmites, stalactites, and other cave objects to see. We also learn about the bats who inhabit the cave and use it as a nursery.
On the way back, we go to the Benson Golf Course for dinner. It is a modest place, but the food is good and inexpensive. This is our last meal together, since John, Wendy and I leave the group tomorrow.
We head back home to do some observing – my last night at Garry’s observatory. Garry and Matt struggle to get focusing working while using the Ha filter, but eventually have to admit defeat. Garry restores the system back to normal so I can image an object of interest – NGC 2174, an emission & reflection nebula. I stay inside the house to stay warm while the system takes the images until the series finishes at 2AM. Garry and Diane get up at that time to observe Omega Centauri (photo), so I join them to have a look before heading off to bed. My observing report
February 23, 2017 Wednesday – Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Both Reg and I drive the group into Tucson to visit the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab. John and Garry have visited the lab before, but come along again since it is fascinating. For Reg, Diane, Matt and I, this is our first visit. This lab produces many of the world’s largest astronomical mirrors.
The Mirror Lab’s current multi-year project is to make the seven 8.4 metre mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which will be located at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Combined together, the seven mirrors will form a single parabolic surface some 24.5 metres (80’) across! GMT is scheduled to be operational in 2022 with four mirrors, and will be fully operational in 2024 with all seven mirrors. The first mirror is completed, and the second through fourth mirrors are currently in the process of being made.
The weather is wonderfully clear this evening, so Diane, Reg and I use the 25” telescope for visual observing from Garry’s observatory. My observing report
We leave this morning around 10AM for the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Reg is driving us from Garry Sedun’s place to the observatories, with Matt, Diane and myself as passengers. We take the 4 metre Mayall optical telescope tour at 1:30PM, which takes a couple of hours, and involves climbing the hill to the high point-of-land. It is exciting to hear from our guide that this venerable optical telescope has found new life and a new funding source, which will allow it to contribute to finding answers about dark energy in the Universe. The facility closes at 4PM, so we don’t have time to explore further, so we head back down the mountain road.
It takes about 30-45 minutes to drive SW to Kitt Peak from Tucson on the West Tucson Ajo Highway, and then up the access road. It takes us over two hours each way from where we are staying east of Benson. We passed the Border Patrol security check point on the way to Kitt Peak, and on the way back everyone is stopped for a dog inspection of the vehicle, and a personal ID check. When traveling in this region so close to the Mexican border, be prepared for security check points by carrying your ID with you. Non-US citizens should carry their passports.
We stop in Benson on the way back to stock up on a few food and drink items. John and Garry did not join us today, so they are ready with dinner upon our arrival. Everyone enjoys our meal and we are eager to get outside to do more observing. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t ideal this evening with cloud cover dampening our enthusiasm, so we have to entertain ourselves playing a new board game for many of us: Mexican Trains (a domino game).
Feb 21, 2017 Monday – Dragoon Mountain Ranch, St. David, Arizona
Today is a “down day”, meaning we have no daytime activities planned, so the group can relax and do what they want. I catch up with my social media and email, and work on my journal entries. My blog is still behind – the last entry was for Victoria-Seattle – the first days of my travels, but at least I now have the material to write those blog posts.
It is my turn on the imaging telescope this evening, but when John and Garry try to take some flat frames before sunset, the sensor ices up. This means the desiccant inside the CCD camera is saturated with moisture, and needs to be baked so it dries out to make it effective again. This delays my imaging session of M1 the Crab Nebula by an hour and a half, however I am imaging on the 20” Newtonian Astrograph by 9:20PM and wind up my run just after midnight. Without a doubt, this is my best image of the Crab Nebula. The detail within the object is fantastic, and this is the first time I’ve imaged the green fringe around the nebula! My observing report
After having breakfast, I drive over to Garry’s place to take Reg, Matt and Diane to the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson. We spend most of the day there exploring the huge number of aircraft on display inside, have some lunch onsite, and then take a tram tour of the many aircraft displayed outside. We have some time to wander around outside, so Diane and I check out the TWA Constellation and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I also check out the Boeing B-17 bomber, which has a building all to itself. Before returning home I buy a nice lightweight jacket from the gift shop as a keepsake for this wonderful aviation museum.
Since the skies are nice and clear, we make good use of Garry’s observatory. I have a wonderful time with visual observing tonight, using the 25″ Newtonian operating at f3.3 – what a treat! I also shoot a two hour time lapse of the night sky. My observing log
I am up about 7AM and walk across the yard to the main house where John and Wendy are staying. I make myself some coffee and soon John wanders in. After having some breakfast, we drive over to Garry’s place to meet the rest of the RASC Victoria group, who arrived very late after flying from Victoria to Kelowna and to Phoenix last night. Matt Watson, Diane Bell and Reg Dunkley then drove down to Tucson and to Garry’s place to complete our little group of Victoria RASC members.
This morning, we drive to Tombstone in two cars to see this historic town which highlights life in the old wild west. We have some lunch, see a shotgun weeding skit, and just walk the streets in the old part of town. Our final stop is the Tombstone Courthouse, which is now a museum, and includes gallows in the back.
We stop at the Safeway store in Benson on the way back to do some grocery shopping, since this is a self-catered affair. After returning back home, I make a roasted chicken dinner for the group at the place where John, Wendy and I are staying, since it has a bigger kitchen and dining room. The meal is a big hit, and since the weather is overcast, we spend the evening drinking wine and beer and telling stories around the table before retiring for the evening.
Feb 18, 2017 Saturday – Tucson train station to Garry Sedun’s home at Dragoon Mountain Ranch, near Benson and St. David, Arizona
After my arrival this morning in Tucson aboard the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Los Angeles, I call Enterprise Car Rentals asking them to pick me up. They state I am out of their pickup area, so I go outside the train station and catch a taxi to the car rental office. After checking in at the desk, the young woman takes me out to their lot to show me the Toyota Corolla I had previously selected online (Intermediate car). After she got into the driver’s side to check the odometer, she quickly closed the door and say she couldn’t rent me that particular car because it had a strong smell of marijuana! Eventually, she manages to send me on my way in a VW Jetta, which is a good fit for my needs over the next two weeks.
Cody’s house in the early morning light
I drive to my friend Garry’s place, which involves driving east on the I-10 freeway just past the small town of Benson. I stop in Benson to pick up a few groceries before driving the rest of the way to Garry’s place. It takes me about a half hour driving south of the Interstate on dirt & gravel roads through the Dragoon Mountain Ranch development, which is 8,400 acres (13 sqmi) in total. It is overcast and lightly raining in spots, but I hope it will clear off for the coming week when my astronomy buddies will be here. Garry and I go over to his neighbour Cody’s place, which is where I am staying along with my friends the McDonalds, who are already settled in.
As it turns out, I have a bedroom in the adjacent garage, which is massive, with an apartment attached consisting of a kitchen, great room, bedroom and bathroom. I am quite comfortable once I turn the heat on and get the place warmed up. The temperatures in this part of the high range land plateau can get down to close to freezing at night, and daytime temperatures are not hot, although the Sun can be intense. The reason I’m here? The very dark skies, of course!