March 28, 2017

Your own Personal Astronomer: Tucson’s Flandrau Observatory.


Cell Phone Astrophotography: The Moon & the 16-inch. (Photo by Author).

Looking for an affordable, innovative date? One of the kept secrets in the deep Arizona desert is absolutely free; I give you a night of star gazing and cosmic conundrums at the Flandrau Observatory, adjoining with the Science Center of the same name. Located on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Arizona, the dome boasts a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector and a knowledgeable telescope operator to go with it.  How do I know this? Because I myself was one such operator during the heady days of 2006, and could easily state that the experience was one of the most rewarding of my life. It was right up there with DJ-ing college radio in High School. (WUPI, in Presque Isle Maine; “Your only sound alternative!”) And much like that job, I took lots of requests! If it was above the horizon, I would find it; if it wasn’t, or was cloudy, we had two big screen computer monitors to “virtually” locate things. I never got totally clouded out, even during monsoons, although I did occasionally have to keep one eye on the weather radar, to make sure to close up the dome before the rain hit!

Flandreau-Google Earth.

Can you find the Astronomer? (Credit: Google Earth).

The unit also boasts an 8-inch scope piggybacked on the main tube that serves as a camera to “see” what you’re pointed at. This black and white monitor is excellent to placate the crowds as they line up one by one for the eyepiece (The observatory can get cramped!) and also serves as a decent wide field finder for the user to make sense of what they’re aimed at.  Views of the Orion Nebula are stunning through this camera. Also, keep your eye out for elusive geosynchronous satellites that may “nod” through the field of view; I’d never spied these until Demo Galanos pointed these out during training! Speaking of satellites, if the Shuttle or ISS was overhead, we would always step outside the dome to watch a pass. It always amazes me that so many folks don’t realize these are naked eye objects! My customer flow would vary from two or three a night to maybe 100+, and although we were supposed to shut down at 10PM, my motto was “if they keep coming, the observatory stays open!” One night, we were there ‘til well past midnight; I think we managed to hit every major planet, starting with Mercury at dusk, just barely peeping above the wall of the observatory at greatest elongation, to Pluto, which still stands as the only time I’ve seen it. (It still was a planet in those days!) During the interim, we discussed all manner of things cosmological. Kids always present the best questions; I definitely had to sharpen my knowledge of “How big-how far-how do we know” for this gig! And I was amazed at how many children and adults alike were dismayed by Pluto’s demotion from planet-hood! Does the IAU care about the children?


Saturn through the 16-inch (Credit: the Flandrau Science Center).

But that’s not all the happenings that are available at the Flandrau Science Center; check out the science museum and planetarium for cool shows as well. Special activities are also often planned whenever something exceptional is happening; I remember participating in the 2006 transit of Mercury with a homemade filter I had assembled the night before.


The Author’s Station during the Mercury Transit of ’06 (Photo by Author).

The observatory opens its doors from 7 PM to 10 PM Wednesday through Saturday, year round. The observatory can also be rented for use by private parties on Monday and Tuesday nights. Check them out, especially if you’ve never had a chance to look through a serious astronomical instrument before. Many visitors to Tucson are dismayed when they take the tour at Kitt Peak that they don’t get to look through the telescopes. (Never mind that the actual astronomers using the scopes don’t get to do this anymore, either!) The Flandrau provides this service, for free. And with the universities’ Planetary Sciences and Mirror lab in walking distance, you just might run in to a real life Carl Sagan- type, as they like sneak off during breaks to take a real time look at what they’ve spent their lives studying!

Transit Vid in Cal-K!

Finally, do you live in the Tucson area and are interested in volunteering as a scope operator? Drop me a line and I’ll get you in touch with the Flandrau Science Centers’ director, Mike Terenzoni. I was recruited during the monthly Tucson Amateur Astronomers’ Association meeting (I used to sneak down to the dome myself between talks). After a couple of through training sessions with Demo, I was off and running. And best of all, we got to utilize the dome on off nights, a perk I took advantage of several times. My favorite technical procedure; un-jamming the dome with a broom stick! The crowd always seemed to get a kick out of that one…

Anyhow, if you are passing through Tucson, check the Flandrau out. Venus is still riding high in the west, and Saturn, always a crowd pleaser, is returning to the evening sky. Check out the Flandrau’s own Observatory News  or Sky watchers Guide to see what’s up in the night sky. Or better yet, arm yourself with knowledge with our own “Astro event of the Week!” Tell em’ Astroguyz sent you!


Clear Skies, Anyone?


  1. [...] simply acts as a “heads-up display” for your telescope. I first used one while working at the Flandrau observatory in Tucson, Arizona. We had one mounted on either side of the telescope for quick [...]

  2. [...] there is easy and the observatory follows our own mantra from our days of outreach at the Flandrau observatory in Tucson, staying open on public nights “as long as stargazers linger.” The [...]

  3. [...] there is easy and a look-out follows a possess mantra from a days of overdo during a Flandrau observatory in Tucson, staying open on open nights “as prolonged as stargazers linger.” The [...]

  4. [...] most likely need a scope 10” or larger to spot it. We’ve managed to catch Pluto from the Flandrau observatory situated in downtown Tucson using its venerable 14” reflector. Remove this [...]

  5. [...] most likely need a scope 10” or larger to spot it. We’ve managed to catch Pluto from the Flandrau observatory situated in downtown Tucson using its venerable 14” reflector. The path of Pluto June [...]

  6. [...] to say, I jumped at the chance to do one last public event at the Flandrau Observatory on the University of Arizona campus. Heck, I even made a Baader solar filer mask for a loner [...]

  7. [...] You often see Pluto quoted as visible in a telescope aperture of ‘six inches or larger,’ but for the coming decade, we feel this should be amended to 8 inches and up. We once nabbed Pluto during public viewing using the 14” reflector at the Flandrau observatory. [...]

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