Yesterday (Oct 21, 2012) I spent one of the more amazing days of my life: I visited the Large Binocular Telescope near Tucson, AZ to record a podcast about the instrument for omega tau.

Richard Green, the director of the LBT, picked me up at my hotel in Tucson at 11 in the morning and we started the three-hour drive up to Mt. Graham where the LBT is located. We started out on "real roads" (the interstate I10) until we arrived at the base camp of the observatory where I had to sign some form that prevented me from messing with the red squirrel, which seems to live on Mt. Graham. We then drove up for about 1.5 hours a really scenic mountain route which became narrower and narrower, turning into a gravel trail, until we reached the observatory at 3.200 meters. The building is much bigger than what you'd expect from afar!

Once at the telescope, we first had lunch. People (guests and personnel) have to bring their own food, there is a nice kitchen/living room where people can cook, eat and relax: working at the observatory does entail some spare time, for example, if the weather isn't good enough to observe.

Richard and I then spent about an hour talking (and recording, of course) about the basics of the observatory before we started our tour of the instrument itself. Once in the enclosure, the dimensions of the instrument became clear: two giant 8.4 m mirrors mounted next to each other on a common frame (with the two mirrors together, the telescope can reach the resolution a virtual 23 m mirror using interferometry). Everything is extremely rigid to avoid bending and vibrations as the telescope moves. Speaking of moving: when it moves, you hear nothing and you feel no rumbling. The telescope is mounted on oil films in both degrees of freedom (elevation, azimuth) and is so well balanced that it can be moved with 3hp electrical motors! On seeing the machine, a post-doc from  Italy who joined our little tour of the telescope and hadn't ever been in the enclosure before remarked: "This is the sistine chapel of our time"!

The weather was reason for concern. Nice (glider pilot perspective) cumulus clouds had developed during the afternoon, proving that there was moisture in the atmosphere. Moisture is bad because condensation may damage the mirrors, and so the enclosure cannot be opened (and no observing can take place) if the moisture is over a certain threshold. We were planning to stay until into the night to see the telescope "at work", and it was becoming increasingly unsure if that would work out. In the meantime I recorded conversations with the telescope operator and an observer (i.e. a visiting scientist using the telescope for actual research). 

Then came dinner, and the operator announced that he plans to open the enclosure at 17:45. That time came and went, because of the moisture. So Richard and I spent some time talking about the various instrumentes mounted on the telescope, and what they are used for. Right when we finished talking, Richard's radio transmitted the operator's announcement that the enclosure would be opened in a few minutes. We hurried into the enclosure to witness the opening from the inside.

At that time, the enclosure was completely dark (which is important for calibrating the telescope). We used small flashlights to find our way down to the base of the telescope and forward towards the big sliding doors. It was quite cold --- almost freezing. A slight rumble announced the beginning of the opening process. So we are standing in complete darkness, and you can see the sky opening, literally, through the big doors. Really impressive. Unfortunately there was a lot of moonshine, so the sky wasn't quite as impressive in terms of stars and the milky way as it could have been. However, it is damn impressive to look at the world and the sky from this perspective, the big telescope moving above/behind you with no sound. As the telescope and the enclosure rotates, the landscape is rotating beneath you (remember, we are on a 3.200 m high mountain top). And of course you can see the stars reflected in the big mirrors. This is quite an out-of-this-world experience!

I am extremely grateful to Richard Green and the other folks "on the mountain" for giving me the opportunity to visit. This really was impressive. I recorded 3 hours of audio --- most of it  will of course be in the omega tau episode. As of now, it is scheduled for publication on Jan 5, 2013. 
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