I spent New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak National Observatory as a snow storm blew over the mountaintop. Operations are scheduled at the observatory every night of the year except for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, we have staff on the mountain during the holiday to service the instruments and keep an eye on the site. My job requires that I be at the telescope even during inclement weather. That’s partly because the weather is capricious and we need to be available in case the weather unexpectedly clears. I also need to service the instruments and I’m also the guy who calls the Arizona Department of Transportation to let them know how much snow they can expect at the top of Highway 386, which is the highway that leads to the top of the mountain.
Partly because I was working and partly because Kitt Peak is located on the land of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, no alcohol is allowed on the site. So, I toasted the new year with a strong cup of coffee. Because it was a stormy night, I had a good book. I was working with an observer in Wisconsin, logged into the telescope remotely from his home. He got to see the new year come in an hour before I did. When the new year came in, I received celebratory emails from my family in New Mexico and Missouri.
For us, stormy nights are an exercise in watching the weather. As I say, we want to be ready to take advantage of any clearing. Also, even if it doesn’t clear, I need to report the conditions to the highway department and fellow staff who will drive up the mountain the next day. I’m also on standby to respond to any weather-related emergencies at night. I’ve had nights at the observatory where the wind has knocked out power but the generators haven’t turned on. In that case, I need to investigate. We need the generators so we can stay in touch with remote observers and clear skies don’t care whether or not we have utility power. Also, though it’s not the most exciting aspect of my job, I’m also the guy who compiles usage statistics for the mountain during a night, which are then reported to our funding agencies.
At the end of the night, I shoveled the snow from around the door to the telescope where I was working, drove down to the main parking lot, then tromped through about four inches of snow to my dorm room. I woke up later on New Year’s afternoon to find that the road to the summit had been plowed and to see our supervisor of mountain operations using a front end loader to clear the roads on the mountain’s summit.
If we had been observing, we would have been taking images of Comet 46P/Wirtanen as it made its closest approach to the Earth. Essentially comets are dirty snowballs that provide a window into the conditions and materials available in the early solar system. Instead of watching a dirty snowball in space, we got to watch snow fall right here on Earth.
Stormy nights like the one we experienced on New Year’s Eve were part of the inspiration for the storms in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, one of my jobs is to keep the bad things that happen in that novel from happening at Kitt Peak. You can learn more about the novel and watch a short trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.