The Telescopes of Mt. Graham – Part 1

I have been fascinated with astronomy since I was a kid growing up in Detroit. There are now many powerful telescopes on the planet, and an increasing number of telescopes in orbit. I still try to keep up with the ever-increasing discoveries being made in the field, but for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I became specifically fascinated by the telescope known as the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) located on Mt. Graham in Arizona.

The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT)

I am not exactly sure when I first became aware of the LBT, but I remember that it was from the internet. Once I learned what it was, and what it did, I knew that I must visit this magnificent window to the stars in person, so I decided to travel to Arizona and get up close and personal with it. Was it the telescope, or was it the mission that most interested me? It turns out that it was both, but getting there was not as easy for me as it should have been.

Normally, it should have been a simple journey up Mt. Graham in Arizona, but for me is was not. In 2017 I prepared to go, but thanks to “mother nature,” my first two attempts to visit the LBT were unsuccessful. I was delayed by two years. The first attempt was thwarted by a forest fire on the mountain. It was only after I took the tour that I learned just how grave a threat the fire posed to the telescopes and the mountain top community that supports the three observatories there.

My second attempt was thwarted not by fire, but by water. the heavy Arizona. monsoon rains washed out parts of the road to the top of Mt. Graham. Because the trees and other vegetation were destroyed in the fire they were of little value in mitigating the effects of the cascading rain water. The resulting damage to the road closed the mountain to the public, and I was forced to wait yet another year for my visit. Finally, in September of 2019 I made it to the top of Mt. Graham. My quest to visit the three telescopes and to stand in the same room as the LBT—the giant window into time and space was complete. For me it was the experience that I imagined it would be. I also saw first hand the clear danger the fire presented to the telescopes, and how close they came to sustaining serious damage.

Over time I visited other telescopes like the big telescope on Mt. Palomar, which for years was the biggest telescope on the planet. I also visited the Keck observatory telescopes on Mauna Kea Hawaii. At the time of my visit they where the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.

The Hawaiian experience was unique because of the rapid dramatic temperature change from sea level to 13,000. in just over an hour I went from a humid 90 degrees with the air conditioner on high in my rent-a-car, to soon having snow swirling around the car, and the heater on high. That experience alone was special for me, but my visit to the LBT was very special in a different way.

Fire and water did present a challenge getting up the mountain, but our guide, John Ratje, mentioned that the real challenge occurs in the winter when five or more feet of snow and ice cover the road. I live in the tropics, so it is extremely unlikely that I will ever experience that situation. However it is good to know.

When there is no snow, no fire, and no floods, getting to the top Mt. Graham is actually easy. The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus is the agency that provides the public tours, and a nice picnic lunch. They operate a clean van that takes the tour participants right up to the telescopes. However, before one can climb aboard, a short video briefing is given to describe what we will experience on the tour.

In addition to the video, everyone is required to read, and sign two documents. The first one is a standard release form to hold harmless The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus in case of an accident, or alien abduction while roaming around the mountain top compound. Each participant must affirm that they are not suffering from any of the health problems listed in the document.

The observatories are located 10,000 feet above sea level, so there is a legitimate concern that some folks might be negativity affected by the altitude. Apparently it happens. If one were coming from a sea level community, then I can understand the reason for concern. I am on the far side of 70-years-old, but for the past 25 years, I have lived at or near 5,000-feet, so I knew that I was somewhat acclimated to the 10,000-foot altitude, and I had no problems during my visit. I was also sure none of the other items on the list applied to me as well, especially the one about being pregnant.

The second document was to make us aware of the endangered Red Squirrel population that inhabits the area. The squirrels are an endangered species that are protected by a federal law of the same name. Their habitat is clearly marked by yellow tape similar to that used by the police to mark the boundaries of a crime scene. Each tour participant had to warrant that they would not disturb, harass, or otherwise interact with the little critters, because to do so is a federal offense.

It seemed strange to focus on red squirrels, but the legal ramifications of disrespecting their habitat is quite serious. We needed to know that there were legal consequences to anyone transgressing their area. To cross the yellow tape that marks the boundary to their habitat would invite problems, and their piece of paradise was the first thing we were shown upon our arrival at the telescope community.

Before I leave this topic, I feel compelled to say that, at no point did I ever see a red squirrel. I came to see telescopes, not interact with the cute Red Squirrel population, but I make wild life videos in Central America and I appreciate all wild animals. As an aside, you might enjoy the following information about the Red Squirrel. CLICK HERE

The trip to the telescopes takes about an hour and a half. It starts on a smooth paved road from the Discovery Park Campus in Safford, Arizona and eventually turns into a road up the mountain. The many switch-backs and curves present marvelous views, and dramatic photo opportunities of the valley below, but the last eight miles of the trip is an adventure, It is on a dirt and gravel road that seems best suited as a vehicle shock absorber test track. Along the way the acres of burned trees from the forest fire give the area a foreboding look, not unlike the dark forest in the Wizard of Oz.

On the way up we stop at a nice campground to eat the lunch which is included as part of the tour. The food was welcomed, but the break from the bumpy road was also appreciated. During my time on the mountain I was hoping to see a bear, but that never happened. I did however get some video of a beautiful deer.

After lunch, the trip to the top was quick. The final mile or so is on a single lane road that requires coordination with the top of Mt. Graham to insure that there is no downhill traffic. It would not work well for two vehicles to confront one another on the narrow road. Our driver used his two-way radio to call someone known as “Moon Base.” Where is it we’re going? After three attempted contacts there was no response to our driver. We had to move on, so he announced our intentions over the radio and we headed up the hill.

On the last leg of the trip we passed more burned trees, then suddenly we came around a curve, and there it was. I was looking at the building that houses the LBT. After two failed attempts, I had finally made it!

Click Here to read about my experience with the three telescopes on Mt. Graham.

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