Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to the largest collection of radio and optical telescopes in the world. Travelers can tour three instruments on site, the Mayall 4m, the 2.1m and the McMath-Pierce solar telescope. Kitt Peak also provides exhibits, a Docent led tour (an enhanced tour experience), nighttime programs, a visitor center and a gift shop. My dad and I joined a Docent led tour of the Mayall 4m. The tour started in the visitor center and ended with the peak experience in the Mayall’s scenic viewing gallery.
The entry point for the observatory starts at the base of the Quinlan mountain range, 56 miles southwest of Tucson, AZ. Here, the 187 foot-tall building housing the Mayall 4m telescope (center) is a welcoming site for travelers. This structure is visible over 50 miles away, including many locations in Tucson.
Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is home to the largest collection of research telescopes in the world – twenty-five optical telescopes and two radio telescopes sit high above the Sonoran Desert offering spectacular views of the sky. This mini-model, located in the Visitor Center, is an accurate representation of the topography and layout of the observatory.
For over 50 years, the Kitt Peak Visitor Center has been the hub for public access. The mission of the Visitor Center is to educate and inform the public about astronomy, the scientific method and research themes using outreach programs that include exhibits and special events. Displays such as this model of one of the observatory’s telescopes provides information to further enhance one’s experience.
The beauty of science. I’m standing in front of an infrared camera. The Visitor Center offers many visuals to see, read and interact with to help further one’s understanding of basic science and astronomy. The Visitor Center does an admirable job of living by their mission of inspiring a sense of wonder and awe.
This “donut” was used in the first telescope to simulate a mirror so the astronomers could verify the balance and operation of the instrument. The artwork was done by a member of a local native tribe, a people who hold this land as hallowed. When the scientific community wanted to build on this land, negotiations were made and history and science formed an alliance.
Kitt Peak is spread over 200 acres and is located on the Tohono O’odham (meaning “Desert People” in the O’odham language) Reservation. The land is owned and considered sacred by the Tohono O’odham Nation. When first approached by members of the scientific community, the tribal council of the O’odham Nation rejected their proposal to use the land for an observatory.
The Tohono O’odham Nation has a relationship with the stars – the celestial bodies were significant in their religion and ancient stories. The astronomers knew the value of Kitt Peak for both parties. Sacred land to the natives and an opportunity for astronomical research for world scientists. An invitation by the astronomers to the tribal council to visit the Steward Observatory to view the sky impressed the council thus solidifying a mutual agreement for use of the land.
On March 5, 1958, the Schuk Toak district council met with members of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and signed a perpetual agreement – the land can be used and buildings remain as long as astronomy and science are being conducted. Today the land is leased by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the Tohono O’odham Nation receiving continued benefits from the original agreement.
Visitors have a choice to either take a self-guided tour or for a nominal fee go on a Docent-led tour of the three telescopes open to the public – the Mayall 4m, the 2.1m and the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope. The Docent-led tours start in the Visitor Center and provide more insight and information about the facility.
The Mayall 4m telescope is named after Nicholas U. Mayall, the former director of Kitt Peak. Under his 11 year leadership as director, he made KPNO a world-class observatory and was responsible for the construction of the 4m Optical Telescope. In 1973, two years after his retirement, the telescope was dedicated in his honor. It first saw light on February 27, 1973.
Wear comfortable walking shoes. Visitors can walk up to one-quarter of a mile to get from one area of the observatory to another. Our tour is heading around the corner to visit the 4m. As I was walking along the base of the Mayall’s structure, the Docent said to cross to the other side due to ice falling off the top of the dome. The moment he said these words, I looked up and saw ice coming down right where I was previously standing.
The base of the building is at the highest elevation point of 6875 feet and is located on the northern end of the observatory. This iconic building is the largest optical telescope on site and receives four times more requests for viewing than there are clear nights. The dome weighs an impressive 500 tons and the hexahedron design allows the building to withstand hurricane force winds up to 120 m.p.h.
The Mayall is one of three telescopes operated by Kitt Peak with the remaining astronomical instruments on site run by universities and other research facilities. While inside the building, visitors are not allowed in the room with the telescope – an adjacent room allows for everyone to view the instrument through glass windows.
The Mayall 4m reflecting telescope’s mirror, fabricated from fused quartz, weighs 15 tons and is polished to one-millionth of an inch. To avoid potential shaking of this delicate scientific equipment resulting in bad or blurred images, the telescope is mounted on a cement pier that is completely separate from the building and the dome, yet moves in unison with the dome while in use.
One level below the telescope viewing gallery is the scenic viewing gallery. From here, visitors have access to an intoxicating 360-degree view of Kitt Peak and the Sonoran Desert. With a steady atmosphere overhead – a high number of clear days and nights – and low levels of relative humidity, Kitt Peak offers excellent viewing and observing during both the day for visitors and nighttime for astronomers.
One factor that plays an important role for maximizing viewing of the nighttime sky is little to no light pollution from the surrounding area. There is a ‘no construction’ buffer zone of 2000 acres in every direction. Tough ordinance laws are in place in Tucson as well to help mitigate any extraneous light pollution due to an increase in population over the years.
There are significant number of days and nights for optimal observation and viewing. Early spring is the peak time of year for the “clearest seeing.” Summer rains occur mainly from mid-July through the end of August. Everyone is encouraged to use their inside voice when walking the grounds during the day as this is sleep time for the astronomers.
On the southern end of the observatory sits the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope. Holding the prize as being the largest solar instrument in the world, this telescope is used to study sunspots. The McMath-Pierce has a viewing gallery where visitors can look inside the underground tunnel and look up the shaft to the sky. For me, the tour of this specific telescope is in my future.