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Starry-Eyed In Arizona Observe The Heavens


There may be no better town in America for observing the heavens than Tucson, Arizona. It has low humidity, high elevation and a darkened desert. That part of the state has attracted quite a few astronomers, both professional and amateur. We sent NPR's Peter Breslow to Tucson to seek out this community of stargazers.

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: Our story starts not with a darkened constellation-pocked sky, but under a blazing sun on June 5th. It's one of the rarest of celestial events, the transit of Venus across the sun. The temperature is creeping towards triple digits as the planet continues her slow creep across the flaring star. But the heat hasn't wilted the enthusiasm of the hundreds of people gathered at the University of Arizona to view this likely once in a lifetime event.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go, straight into the eyepiece.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You see the black dot?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Have you seen it? Absolutely positively love it. This one is the one you got to look at.

BRESLOW: More than 20 telescopes are arrayed in a grassy plaza and by excitable scientists. They're guiding the curious who peer through protective eyepieces at Venus, silhouetted against a giant fireball.

DEBORAH LAZAAR PEARL: So this is a hydrogen alpha telescope. This has got a white light filter here. You can...

BRESLOW: Amateur astronomer Deborah Lazaar Pearl will be standing out here in the heat for a good three or four hours today. She says she moved to Tucson from Chicago about eight years ago. One dark night, early on, she and her family headed to nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory where they caught their first view of Saturn.

PEARL: My daughter and I went home and she said, mom, can we get a telescope? And so we did. So we got another telescope and here we are.


BRESLOW: Of course, not everyone's an amateur in this town.

DEAN KETELSEN: I was the first one here because I got four scopes to set up. And you always wonder if anyone's going to show or you're going to be here by yourself so...

BRESLOW: That's astronomer Dean Ketelsen - burly, bearded, broad-brimmed hat. An astronomy cheerleader if there ever was one. He came here from an Iowa farm long ago to do research. And after retiring from the University of Arizona, he didn't go far. He now works part time at Kitt Peak, organizes star parties at the Grand Canyon, and is helping to construct one of the biggest telescopes in the world, the Giant Magellan Telescope.


BRESLOW: We are under the towering east stands of the football stadium where the University of Arizona Wildcats play. This cavernous space was the best spot to house the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. Here giant telescope mirrors, three feet thick and almost 28 feet in diameter, are being cut to perfection by a mechanical polisher that works around the clock across the face of the glass like an automated Zamboni. The process, honing to within a millionth of a millimeter, takes forever.

How do you know when you're done?

KETELSEN: This one we just started polishing so we're still almost - we're supposed to finish it this year. But I think end of the year, first part of next.

BRESLOW: And the other one?

KETELSEN: The other one might be finished.

BRESLOW: But making that call isn't easy says polishing technician Tabor Tollefson.

TABOR TOLLEFSON: We know that if we do everything right we can improve that mirror. I mean, it's darn near perfect, but we can make it better. But one miscalculation, one little error, and you know the closer you get to perfect the easier it is to screw it up.

BRESLOW: Two years ago, they went just past perfect, poked a hole in the glass and lost six months fixing it. In eight years, when this batch of mirrors is complete, it'll be shipped to the northern Chile where the Giant Magellan Telescope will reside 8,500 feet up in the Atacama Desert. Now, back to some more user-friendly scopes with star gazers who like to party.


BRESLOW: The solar powered Sky Bar in downtown Tucson is featuring fire dancers tonight. Performers flip flaming batons while in a nearby parking lot patrons sipping beer take a glimpse of the stars through the bar's 14-inch telescope. Pointing people in the right direction is Sky Bar's resident pro Rob Tackett.

ROB TACKETT: I take care and run the telescopes here at Sky Bar. And I run a small observatory outside of town at a bed and breakfast and I do parties. I bring telescopes to parties.

BRESLOW: I didn't know you could have a job doing that.

TACKETT: Yeah, neither did I until a couple of years ago.

BRESLOW: Tackett's job is made easier by Tucson's stringent light pollution laws, limiting bright billboards and beacons that shine upwards.

WENDY CRAFT: My favorite star binary star is Albireo, and it's really awesome. And then you can also see the globular clusters really clearly as the night progresses, because as they get higher up in the sky there's less atmosphere to get in the way of things. So you can see them really clearly. So, you stick around.

BRESLOW: That's self-described telescope girl Wendy Craft, a pixie-sized blonde who flutters like Tinker Bell around Sky Bar's scopes. Tonight, she's helping viewers zero in on Saturn and its rings, which appear so huge and perfect they seem like a prop left over from a 1950's sci-fi film.

CRAFT: Saturn, we're on Saturn right now.

KEIRAN BROOMICUM: Can I have a look?

CRAFT: Of course.

BRESLOW: Keiran Broomicum is visiting from Exeter, England. He says he's come to the desert southwest for the nighttime sky.

BROOMICUM: So that's kind of cool.

CRAFT: Yeah. Kind of?

BROOMICUM: I like that.

CRAFT: Yeah.

BROOMICUM: That looks so good it almost looks fake.

BRESLOW: And with that, Wendy Craft flits off to help other people lined up at the telescopes, drinks in hand, waiting to get their peek at the heavens.

CRAFT: Albireo's one of my favorites because you can really see the color. There's one blue and one yellow star.

BRESLOW: Peter Breslow, NPR News.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Two-time Peabody Award-winner Peter Breslow is a senior producer for NPR's newsmagazine Weekend Edition. He has been with the program since 1992. Prior to that, he was a producer for NPR's All Things Considered.