amateur astronomer, Whipple Observatory volunteer guide, and Quail Creek
resident John Hockemeier offered to lead a tour of fellow homeowners 8,500
feet up Mt. Hopkins on June 22, the tour filled up so quickly he had to
add two more tours.
After ascending and making two stops to see the Ridge and Gamma Ray Telescopes
and stopping for a picnic lunch, the group of 27 was headed to the big
telescope just three-tenths of a mile up when the tour driver received
a radio message to evacuate due to a fire.
A 10-acre brush fire quickly spread to 175 acres and caused the evacuation
of Madera Canyon and Whipple Observatory. Firefighters had it under control
the following day.
Earlier in the week the mention of temperatures 20 degrees cooler atop
Mt. Hopkins than in the valley was enough to quickly attract a group of
residents; many were also curious to see the valley from a new vantage
point and see the telescopes.
Cheryl Huerta said since she can see the observatory from her home she
was curious to see it up close. For John and Peggy McGee, going to Whipple
was something they had been meaning to do and this was a good time to do
it. Donna Camerlo said she’s made the trip before but found it so
interesting it was time to revisit.
Since 1968, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory has been used as the
site for experiments requiring extremely dark skies and a dry climate.
The observatory contains the largest single-mirror telescope in North America;
it’s six and one-half meters in diameter and weighs a whopping 10
Viewing a 30-minute video that showed how the huge telescope was transported
up the circuitous, narrow 8,500-foot road was mesmerizing. From the visitor’s
center at 4,000 feet to the top at 8,500 feet is a ride of 12 miles on
a single lane road, a road of more than two dozen precarious turns and
precipitous drops to the canyon below.
Hockemeier told the group the reason for the observatory’s remote
yet reachable location is because astronomers want to be above the atmosphere,
the higher the better. A joint venture of the Smithsonian Institute and
the University of Arizona, he said Southern Arizona is a haven for astronomers
because of its many mountains and friendly environment of light restrictions
that ensure dark skies.
Telling the group about the Ridge Telescope Hockemeier said, “The
axis of the telescope is calibrated for the axis of the Earth at this location.
It weighs three tons and is automated from Harvard University’s Center
for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
The purpose of the trip was to see the tools of the astronomer’s
trade, and the group got to see the Gamma Ray Telescope, which is comprised
of 280 mirrors, not including some that were missing.
Hockemeier took the tour group back on June 27 so they could see the “big ‘scope.” Housed
in a building that is four and a half stories high, rotates 270 degrees
in each location, weighs 550 tons and rests on huge wheels it has a 340
megapixel digital camera. From the 8,500-foot location, the group looked
down at the valley and realized all the heavy green areas were the pecan
groves. Some were able to pinpoint the location of Quail Creek.
Inside the building, Hockemeier explained in layman’s language all
that goes on here. Visiting astronomers, he said, must write a proposal
to get time to use the ‘scope; once time is booked, if negative weather
interferes, the astronomer needs to reapply.
A trip to the observatory lets visitors see Green Valley from a new vantage
point. It’s educational, inexpensive ($7 for the day), and provides
views of Mother Nature’s wonders, brush, boulders, cliffs, cacti,
mountains, mesquite, pine, and ponderosa trees.
Amateur astronomer and Quail Creek resident, John Hockemeier (center with
light blue shirt), led one of several groups to see the telescopes atop
Reprinted by permission of the Green Valley News.