The University of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon Sky Center has the largest telescope dedicated to visitors in the Southwest, and it sits atop Mt. Lemmon at more than 9,000 feet. “This is as good as it gets,” Adam Block tells a group of visitors as he instructs them on how to look through the telescope. “When I show you guys a planet, a nebula, another galaxy—most of humanity have never seen things as well as you have the chance to do tonight.”
The 32-inch Schulman telescope was donated by the Joseph Schulman Foundation three years ago for the express purpose of giving visitors a chance to be inspired—maybe “awestruck” is a better word—by the wonders above their heads. Block a UA graduate and head of the Sky Center’s astronomy observing programs, uses it for another purpose as well: using a CCD camera, he takes breathtaking photographs of stars, nebulae, colliding galaxies, comets and more.
Block’s photographs have been chosen more than 50 times as NASA’s “ Astronomy Picture of the Day,” and they have appeared in the world’s most prestigious astronomy magazines, books and journals. Some of his photographs are of objects in the sky that have never been photographed in detail before.
“Although some researchers have used my photographs for their work, I don’t take them for scientific purposes,” Block explains. “I take them because I want to inspire others, generate curiosity and appreciation for what’s out there in space.”
When Block came to the UA in the 1990s from Georgia, he didn’t know his mission would turn out to be public outreach and astrophotography. But he did know he had an abiding passion for astronomy, and the UA was the natural choice.
“In the astronomy magazines I subscribed to as a boy, the University of Arizona was always prominent in the articles and especially in the picture captions. So growing up I thought this must be the place to go to study astronomy.”
When he got here, Block was astonished to discover that many of his classmates had no interest in looking through a telescope. While they were interested in research and solving problems, Block realized what he loved best was igniting in others the same passion he feels for the wonders of the night sky. After graduation, he worked at the National Observatory for nine years and later returned to the UA department of Astronomy to run the nightly star gazing programs at the Sky Center. During the five-hour program, he shows visitors far-off nebula, spiral galaxies and even the prominences around our sun.
“What I like best is hearing people say ‘Wow!’ as they look through the telescope,” he says. “That’s what I do this for—to give people that same sense of wonder and excitement that I feel every time I look up at those tiny dots above us.”
Visitors to the Sky Center can also sign up for an all-night Astronomer Night program and work with Block to create one of his photographs. It takes hours of time at the telescope, and then hours more at the computer, but visitors can learn the process of how he takes his stunning photographs.
“Each time I look at the night sky and I see those shiny little dots over my head, it makes me happy,” says Block. “It does make you feel small. But we have this opportunity to appreciate these wonders. It’s that opportunity that I’m trying to take advantage of while I’m here.”