Adam Block knows what visitors are about to see in his telescope won't look like the pretty pictures he sells in the gift shop.
The brilliant pink and blue hues of galaxy NGC 7331 are reduced to a smudge of gray light in Mount Lemmon SkyCenter's 32-inch Schulman Telescope, the largest in the Southwest for dedicated public viewing.
The galaxy, 40 million light-years away, is far too dim for human eyes to see in color. That hardly makes it less exciting for the 11 people in the observatory awaiting their turn at the eyepiece.
"Galaxies get their 'wow' not from their visual appeal," says Block, who coordinates Skynights, the astronomy outreach program he conceived. "Instead, it's from the intellectual idea that you're looking at something this far away."
On most clear evenings, Block or one of his colleagues gives participants a crash course in astronomy, a chance to watch the sun set from the mountain's 9,157-foot summit and a guided tour of the night sky through binoculars and the telescope.
The group on this evening is diverse. There are two business partners from Gainesville, Fla., visiting Tucson for a sewing-machine-dealer convention. Elizabeth Hallett is attending as an 86th birthday present from her daughter, Anna Lamb. Lamb brought along her boyfriend's two children, giving the experience an all-ages feel.
When Block isn't hosting Skynights, he's often laboring throughout the night on the same telescope, using a special camera to capture colorful, jaw-dropping photographs of the universe.
"The benefit of cameras is that you can expose longer, and they're more efficient than our eyeballs," he explains.
Even after adapting to darkness, human eyes process only about 10 percent of the photons streaming in. Block's camera captures about 60 percent. Additionally, our eyes can't hold an image to gather more light before sending it to our brain for processing, unlike a camera with an open shutter. As a result, "when the light is too dim, we're unable to distinguish different colors," Block says.
His pictures reach far beyond the SkyCenter, frequently appearing on NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" website. Four showed up in the October issue of Astronomy, which features the magazine's 100 Greatest Pictures of the Universe.
Recently, Block received the prestigious Hubble Award from the Advanced Imaging Conference, sort of a lifetime achievement recognition for contributors to the field of astrophotography.
Alan Strauss, the SkyCenter's director, says Block is among the world's top five astrophotographers.
"While there is an artistic side to it, and an aesthetic beauty that many people appreciate, there is a larger purpose."
That purpose includes providing pretty pictures to illustrate less-visually-appealing astronomical concepts. It also involves getting Arizona schoolchildren excited about science.
Strauss is piloting a youth program that takes participants on daylong expeditions to explore how the environment changes during the trip up Mount Lemmon. The experience culminates in telescopic viewing sessions at the SkyCenter.
Strauss's grand vision is to create a 'Sky School,' where area students attend immersive, multiday science sessions.
Back at the Schulman Telescope, Block is squinting at a small, aqua-colored orb as advancing clouds threaten to obscure the view. It's Neptune, the planet farthest from Earth. As a few "oohs" and "ahs" resonate around the small observatory, the astronomer seems content he was able to show his audience members another object they have never seen with their own eyes.
"Most of humanity has not had the opportunity to see things as well as what we can do tonight."
Backyard astrophotography for beginners
You don't need the SkyCenter's 32-inch telescope to try your hand at astrophotography. Here are a few tips to get started:
Start simple. You'll need a digital camera that allows you to manually control the shutter. Use a tripod, zoom out to get a wide shot and take a 30-second exposure.
Get in motion with the Earth. Long exposures will pick up star trails as the Earth rotates. If your goal is to see fainter objects, you'll want a motor that moves your camera at the same rate. You can buy equatorial mounts from telescope retailers, or try building your own "barn door" mount. A how-to guide is available at http://garyseronik.com/?q=node/52
Zoom in. Once you have a motorized setup, a longer lens can zoom in on specific objects in the night sky. A 300 mm DSLR lens can yield excellent results, or you can attach the camera to a telescope barrel, which functions as a long lens for the camera.
Go online for photos and more information
For more information about Skynights and to see Adam Block's photos, go online to http://skycenter.arizona.edu/
Jason Davis is a University of Arizona journalism student. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org