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In the Arizona Desert, The Sky's the Prize

By Bill Florence
Sunday, June 28, 1998; Page E04


Sure, you can travel to Benson, Ariz., for hummingbird watching or boating on the San Pedro River, but most folks who stay at Skywatcher's Inn there, 47 miles southeast of Tucson, are more interested in the celestial scenery. That's because the inn comes with its own astronomical observatory. The Vega-Bray Observatory, owned by Eduardo Vega and his wife, Patricia, opened in 1990; their three-room Skywatcher's Inn came along five years later, largely to accommodate night-watchers who needed a place to sleep. The two are located side by side on a hilltop on the Vegas' 55-acre ranch.

The night sky is a real draw in this part of Arizona, where light pollution is minimal, the weather is mild and the clouds stay away for about 300 nights each year. More professional observatories exist in the mountains surrounding Tucson than anywhere else in the world. But the small Vega-Bray facility beats all the others in one very important respect: Visitors can actually look through telescopes at planets and stars.

"Today's professional astronomers sit at a console in a warm room, tell their telescopes where to move and what to do, and then take the information into the office to study it for a few weeks," Vega said. "Seldom do they look at the night sky directly through the eyepiece of a telescope."

A self-taught amateur astronomer who still hangs on to his day job as a pathologist at a Tucson hospital (his wife is a nurse there), Vega created the observatory with the help of Max Bray, a retired optician who makes telescopes as a hobby. The sliding-roof observatory contains half a dozen telescopes of varying types and powers. Some are best for viewing planets; others for viewing more distant objects such as Albireo, a binary star. Highlights include a 14 1/2-inch Newtonian telescope and a 20-inch Maksutov, considered the Cadillac of telescopes, which is contained in a separate room with a 14-foot electronically controlled dome.

Most of Skywatcher's overnight guests come from the United States, but visitors have journeyed here from all over the world. Basic understanding of the cosmos varies widely among guests, who range from total neophytes to professional astronomers.

It's a good idea to book in advance for celestial mega-events. "We were turning people back during Hale-Bopp," Vega noted, referring to the dramatic forked-tail comet that decorated the night sky over North America in March 1997. "Mr. Bopp himself came out here, and he was just awed."

Skywatcher's Inn (1311 S. Astronomers Dr., Benson, Ariz. 85602, 520-745-2390, observatory.html) and the Vega-Bray Observatory are open by appointment only. Lodging costs $85 per night, double occupancy, with full breakfast. A basic astronomy session is another $75 (per group) to $95 (includes session with astronomer and use of the 20-inch Maksutov telescope). All telescope use is with assistance. Experienced amateur astronomers can rent the telescopes for their own use (except the 20-inch) for $35 a night.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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