Searching the stars with Carson Fuls

By Griffin Riley/Arizona Sonora News

I’ve been shooting pictures for about eight years now, since my freshman year of high school, and have truly fallen in love with it. So much of what I’ve done since my passion blossomed has been in the name of furthering my craft: learning more about the techniques, the math behind it, the physics of it, the mechanics of it, the art.

In the years that I’ve been shooting, and especially in the years that I’ve been shooting more professionally, I’ve noticed how I’ve become a proverbial “nerd” in many ways. While most people find themselves window-shopping for something like clothes or new shoes, I frequently find myself going to the nearest electronic store and looking at and SD card’s data read and write speeds (my card is 300 megabytes per second, just for the record).

Nerdy as I’ve become, the question for me has always been: What’s next? What’s the better camera? What’s the fastest aperture lens? What’s the next, most challenging shoot I can go on?

Well, a fun fact about photography is that bigger is damn near always better in this field. If you have a camera with a bigger sensor, you’re more capable of countless types of imaging. And along with that massive sensor, you’d need an absolutely massive lens to go with it too.

Pair the idea of “bigger is better” with one of the most interesting, challenging, and specialized forms of photography and what do you get? Astronomy. A telescope. A massive CCD sensor. Processing power so immense and so hot that half of the lens’ structure alone is dedicated just to cooling it down.

And behind it all is one person who’s watching every click of the shutter, combing through all the thousands of photos, finding what’s interesting, finding what matters to us, what appeals to the human race. One of these people in Tucson is Carson Fuls, one of a senior research specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey.

Fuls and his team operate two telescopes on the summit of Mount Lemmon: a 60-inch and a 40-inch. Every night, one of the astronomers mans the 60-inch telescope and scans several blocked-out sectors of the Milky Way galaxy, trying to locate and track any near-earth objects that that may or may not be on a collision course with our planet.

On Oct. 6, 2019, I spent six hours with Fuls up on the mountain to see what a day in the life was like for someone like him. Through the course of the night, we studied the stars and discussed everything about the history of the mountain, his background in physics, how he got into the astronomy field, the logistics of living on a mountain away from family for days at a time, and how he met his wife through the Sky Survey work.

Also in our conversation, he mentioned how there’s an engineering component of his job for when he’s not on the mountain observing speeding bullets in the sky. On Oct. 29, Fuls and I met again, this time on the ground, to see how the Sky Survey’s offices are beneath the 9,000-foot rock megalith. While at the workspace in the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, I took photos of Fuls as he worked on a new microchip to regulate shutter actuations on a telescope that the Catalina Sky Survey team are modifying.

Mount Lemmon’s summit used to be home to a United States Air Force radar station. Pictured here is the common area of the barracks used by the air force soldiers.
Mount Lemmon’s summit used to be home to a United States Air Force radar station. Pictured here is the common area of the barracks used by the air force soldiers.
In addition to the common and living areas in the former military barracks, there was also a basketball court for soldiers to use in their downtime on the mountaintop. The station was operational from 1956 to 1969.
In addition to the common and living areas in the former military barracks, there was also a basketball court for soldiers to use in their downtime on the mountaintop. The station was operational from 1956 to 1969.
The Sky Center has a house for a year-round groundskeeper who takes care of the area through the seasons.
The Sky Center has a house for a year-round groundskeeper who upkeeps the area through the seasons.
Underneath the dome lies the 60-inch Catalina Sky Survey telescope. The goal of the Sky Survey is to scan the entire sky and trace any near earth objects (NEOs) and asteroids that pass by Earth.
Underneath the dome lies the 60-inch Catalina Sky Survey telescope. The goal of the Sky Survey is to scan the entire sky and trace any near earth objects and asteroids that pass by Earth.
The 60-inch Catalina Sky Survey telescope is operated by different astronomers who do 3-day shifts on the mountain tracing NEOs.
The 60-inch Catalina Sky Survey telescope is operated by different astronomers who do 3-day shifts on the mountain tracing NEOs.
The Sky Center is home to a total of seven telescopes, two of which are operated by the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute, such as this one here. The Korean telescopes are operated remotely, and their location on the other side of the globe allows the foreign astronomers to stare into space during the day. A lot of nations have telescope installations across the world for national security purposes, frequently using them to identify satellites used by foreign powers.
The Sky Center is home to a total of seven telescopes, two of which are operated by the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute, such as this one here. The Korean telescopes are operated remotely, and their location on the other side of the globe allows the foreign astronomers to stare into space during the day. A lot of nations have telescope installations like this across teh world for national security purposes, frequently using them to identify satellites used by foreign powers.
Astronomer Carson Fuls explains the technological set up in the telescope observing room that he uses for hours at a time each night. “I don’t think there are bad days. If the equipment’s not working, if somethings going on, that’s annoying, but I mean, you’re still here,” says Fuls.
Astronomer Carson Fuls explains the technological set up in the telescope observing room that he uses for hours at a time each night. “I don’t think there are bad days. If the equipment’s not working, if somethings going on, that’s annoying, but I mean you’re still here,” said Fuls.
Inside the telescope building, there’s a room for astronomers like Carson Fuls to sleep in on their three-day stints. “It’s kind of weird when you wake up and the first thing you see is your desk,” says Fuls.
Inside the telescope building, there’s a room for the astronomers like Carson Fuls to sleep in on their three day stints. “It’s kind of weird when you wake up and the first thing you see is your desk,” said Fuls.
Underneath the dome are a wide assortment of tools in case there’s a minor malfunction with the telescope. If there’s a particularly large problem with the telescope, the CSS shuts it down for the night and sends up specialists to work on it the next day.
Underneath the dome are a wide assortment of tools in case there’s a minor malfunction with the telescope. If there’s a particularly large problem with the telescope, the CSS shuts it down for the night and sends up specialists to work on it the next day.
Fuls poses for a photo in the telescope mirror on Oct. 6, 2019 at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center. “I always wanted to be a scientist, I always knew. The thing I like about astronomy is that it’s really accessible. Everyone gets astronomy inherently.”
Fuls poses for a photo in the telescope mirror on Oct. 6, 2019 at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center. “I always wanted to be a scientist, I always knew. The thing I like about astronomy is that it’s really accessible. Everyone gets astronomy inherently.”
Because of Mount Lemmon’s altitude, large groups of ladybugs tend to clump around different areas of the telescope domes. As for other guests found in different telescope domes, fellow astronomer Steve Larson once found a western spotted skunk in the adjacent dome.
Because of Mount Lemmon’s altitude, large groups of ladybugs tend to clump around different areas of the telescope domes. As for other guests found in different telescope domes, fellow astronomer Steve Larson once found a western spotted skunk in the adjacent dome.
After the dome is open, Fuls is locked in and observing the galaxy for up to 12 hours overnight while searching for near-Earth objects. Fuls’ primary goal when getting his masters degree was to make the telescopes more accessible to the public. “It bugged me that they weren’t getting used as much as they could,” says Fuls. “We’re funded by NASA, so you’re paying for it. You should definitely see what you get for your money.”
After the dome is open, Fuls is locked in and observing the galaxy for up to 12 hours overnight while searching for near-Earth objects. Fuls’ primary goal when getting his masters degree was to make the telescopes more accessible to the public. “It bugged me that they weren’t getting used as much as they could,” said Fuls. “We’re funded by NASA so you’re paying for it. you should definitely see what you get for your money.”
The view of Mount Lemmon’s summit and most of the other telescopes on the mountain as viewed from the Sky Survey’s 60-inch telescope.
The view of Mt. Lemmon’s summit and most of the other telescopes on the mountain as viewed from the Sky Survey’s 60-inch telescope.
“Being on the frontlines of discovery, it doesn’t get old. I don’t think it will,” says Fuls. He speaks with a researcher on the ground in Tucson about a potential near-Earth object to follow up on for the night’s survey.
“Being on the frontlines of discovery, it doesn’t get old. I don’t think it will.” Fuls speaks with a researcher on the ground in Tucson about a potential near-Earth object to follow up on for the night’s survey.
Fuls points out different sectors that he’ll be surveying through the night on Oct. 6, 2019.
Fuls points out different sectors that he’ll be surveying through the night on Oct. 6, 2019. Since their job takes place on top of a mountain at 9,000 feet, Fuls said that part of the application process included conversations about the altitude and the physical strains that can create.
Pictured here is the training station that new hires for the Sky Survey use to learn how all the machinery works on the mountain. Additionally, these stations can be used to remotely control the telescopes that are used on the summit.
Pictured here is the training station that new hires for the Sky Survey use to learn how all the machinery works on the mountain. Additionally, theses stations can be used to remotely control the telescopes that are used on the summit.
A room inside the Sky Survey’s offices is covered in movie posters and other art that picture a massive meteor destroying Earth.
There’s a room inside the Sky Survey’s offices that’s covered in movie posters and other art that pictures a massive meteor destroying Earth.
Fuls inspects a new mount that will be used for a telescope camera that he and another astronomer, Steve Larson, are renovating.
Fuls inspects a new mount that will be used for a telescope camera that he and another astronomer, Steve Larson, are renovating.
Fuls and fellow astronomer Steve Larson discuss the new telescope mount they’re building. Larson has been working in the astronomy field since the Space Age.
Fuls and fellow astronomer Steve Larson disucss the new telescope mount they’re building. Larson has been working in the astronomy field since the Space Age.
Fuls looks over a new microchip he’s building for the shutter control on a Sky Survey telescope.
Fuls looks over a new microchip he’s building for the shutter control on a Sky Survey telescope.
“It’s never going to get old discovering new things,” says Fuls.
“Its never gonna get old discovering new things,” says Fuls.
On top of Mount Lemmon there are community outreach programs meant to better educate the public on our galaxy and the universe. In this program, attendees spend the first half of the afternoon learning about the history of the mountain as well as the galaxy, while the second half sees attendees using the telescopes to stare into the sky.
Also on top of the mountain are community outreach programs like stargazing that astronomers lead to better educate the public on our galaxy and the universe. In this program, attendees spend the first half of the afternoon learning about the history of the mountain as well as the galaxy, while the second half sees attendees using the telescopes to stare into the sky.
In the basement of the Sky Survey’s office is a work station with tools used to measure operating conditions, such as this oscilloscope that measures different wavelengths in the air.
In the basement of the Sky Survey’s office is a work station, covered in tools used to help build other tools for their missions or to measure operating conditions, such as this oscilloscope that measures different wavelenghts in the air.

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