The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory recently announced a new pilot tour allowing visitors to see and learn about gamma ray telescopes every Tuesday, until March 2020.
The new tour takes visitors up close to the Very Energetic Radio Imaging Telescope Array System.
“Traditionally, these are very protected telescopes even though they are out in the elements,” said Amy Oliver, Public Affairs Officer and Visitor and Science Center Manager. “The public is not walking up to these telescopes. But in this experience, you are doing that. Visitors are watching the building and testing of a telescope that will become the future of gamma ray astronomy.”
Operations manager Michael Daniel, and information technology specialist Gareth Hughes, both gamma ray research scientists, oversee the VERITAS telescope program. Gamma rays represent a range of the electromagnetic spectrum, and can contain very high energy. “Observing gamma rays opens up another window on the universe, enabling one to study things that would be otherwise invisible to the naked eye,” said Daniel, in an email. “Observing in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum allows us to see different things. For instance, very cold objects are brightest when viewed in the radio, warm objects such as similar temperatures as planets are brightest when viewed in the infrared, hot objects like stars are brightest when viewed in the optical.”
Oliver said Arizona’s landscape provides an advantage to telescopes because Santa Cruz and Pima Counties provided zoning protection to the observatory to control light pollution for optimal visibility.
“VERITAS relies very heavily on dark clear skies because light pollution gathers light which interferes with our ability to see gamma rays interacting with the atmosphere,” she said. “A gamma ray is a split second.”
The one-hour tour allows guests to see VERITAS telescopes located in areas previously prohibited to public access. The walking tour starts at 11 a.m. Maximum capacity for each tour is 15 people, but there are no age requirements. Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory’s other tour, where visitors travel on a bus will continue, however it begins annually, in March.
The gamma ray telescope tour is free, but tourists must be able to walk for 600 yards without mobility aides on uneven terrain. The route also has stairs.
“This location is in the middle of the Santa Rita Mountains,” Oliver said. “We take great care not to disrupt the environment. We have not flattened out the area. The ground is paved and we do have asphalt, but we didn’t get rid of the hill.”
Oliver advises visitors to bring a jacket and comfortable shoes. She said the tour is only on Tuesdays because the scientists need to balance public education with thorough research. She hopes the pilot tour will interest people who are unfamiliar with electromagnetic observation methods.
“A lot of people drive into our parking lot and bypass them because you expect a telescope to be inside of a dome and they are not,” she said. “People don’t necessarily realize they are telescopes for scientific research.”
Although he won’t be present at every tour, Hughes is ready to expose visitors to new equipment and surprise them with gamma ray observation methods.
“We measure particles in the atmosphere,” Hughes said. “It is a novel technique that is cool to show the public. It is not just a camera and how people normally think of astronomy.”
The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory is located at 670 Mount Hopkins Road, Amado, Arizona, 85645.