Binocular Vision: a week under the stars

My trip began on June 18 when I traveled over 2,500 miles from New York City to Tucson, Arizona. Through a teen astronomy program run by the University of Arizona, I was to stay on Mt. Lemmon for a week observing, analyzing, and capturing pictures of the night sky. The summit of Mt. Lemmon peaking at 9,157 feet is home to more than 9 telescopes. Included are the 12 inch Cassegrain, 20, 24, 28, 32, 39, 40, 60 and 61 inch Ritchey–Chrétien style scopes… I got to use almost all of them.

I didn’t have to wait very long for the magic to begin. The very first night we drove down winding dirt-covered roads to the biggest scope on the mountain. The sun was still setting so upon arrival we were rewarded with a completely unobstructed view of the dome itself. It was silent; there was no sound of grinding motors nor whirring gears, instead only our padding footsteps were audible. Accompanied by the knowledgeable info provided by Dr. Don McCarthy, we entered to climb up just one flight of stairs. The scope stood grand in the center, supported by a spider-like mount that embraced the whole room. It’s paint may have been tarnished and imperfect since when it was built, but nothing could take away its sheer magnitude. The air inside was brisk; crisp in both quality and taste. A mechanical smell pervaded the room, that I later learned was provided by liquid nitrogen. The telescope was fitted with an eyepiece that stood hovering approximately 6 feet in the air. As the sky began to darken the dome opened to reveal faint stars peeking through. We did not, however, have to wait long before the perfectly balanced optics began to slew from its parked position. Jupiter’s light was almost blinding as I held my squinting eye up to the lens. I could make out bands of light and color each distinguished with clarity that I had never before witnessed.  As the night progressed despite the fact thousands of pounds of hardened steel were moving above me, the only sounds were whispered voices of excited campers.

Throughout the whole week, I proposed, discussed and completed a project on gravitational lensing. Gravitational Lensing is the phenomena discovered by Einstein that portrays how a massive object such as a galaxy can bend the light of a quasar, or other point light source. The result is either a ring surrounding it or duplicate false images of the quasar in question. The goal of my project was to capture an image of a gravitation lens, Einstein’s cross, and calculate the mass of the lensing galaxy. The Data was collected in just an hour on the 61-inch telescope. Mounted on the telescope was the liquid nitrogen cooled Mont4k CCD camera valued at two hundred thousand dollars. When our object, Einstein cross finally rose at 2 am we took three-minute unguided exposures with UV, IR, R, V, B filters. Upon looking at the data I realized that we did not have a high enough resolution to make out the 4 duplicate quasars, instead, they only appeared as one. Nevertheless, by calculating the radius in pixels from the center of the light source to an outside point I was able to find a rough estimate in arcseconds (distance) of quasars to the center.  Then using the formula θE = √(4GM/c2)(DLS/DsDL), I was able to calculate the mass of the lensing galaxy’s mass as 1 x 10^41  kg which turned out to be accurate to the order of magnitude.

The greatest experience of my life happened at Mt. Graham on June 23rd. With only 4 hours of sleep from the previous night, we left at 10 am to drive 5 hours to the Large Binocular Telescope. Minus the legroom or lack thereof, the drive itself was uneventful until we started the climb. The road was unpaved and spewed with gravel, orange dirt and crushed twigs. The road was riddled with sharp turns, crevices and over thousand-foot drop-offs. I kept wondering how two 17 ton mirrors made the climb up the mountain. Later I learned that it took 2 ½ days with a modified semi and guards watching them during the night to take the mirrors up to the summit.

The LBT stood at the peak of Mt. Graham. Standing at over 11 stories it was unmistakable next to towering pine trees. For me it was love at first sight, the telescope was a feat of engineering. Each and every part was manufactured to peak efficiency. The 8.4-meter mirrors moved effortlessly as the telescope began to swing. Tons of metal balanced perfectly, I could have pushed it if I wanted. The 20-foot doors began to slide open and the golden sun rays reflected off its parabolic mirrors. Then the entire building began to rotate, spinning as a turntable with me looking out at the landscape that seemed to go forever into the distance.

The entire week was no doubt the greatest experience I have ever had. It didn’t matter that the most sleep I got was 4 hours, being around people who love space and astronomy as much or more than I do was already incredible, add using professional research-grade equipment, and seeing the largest binocular telescope in the word… I will never forget the 7 most extraordinary days of my life.

Link to presentation on gravitational lensing


Gear used Fuji xt2 , 16mm f 1.4  panoramas stitched with lightroom  20sec exposure, iso 6400