Back for More Arizona - Winter 2014 travel blog

cluster of scopes

Kitt Peak Observatory

Mayall telescope inside

view from the peak

shape mimicry





open star cluster


One of the tourist items on our check list remaining from last year was a visit to the national observatory at Kitt Peak. Most European countries have had national observatories since the 1700's; we didn't get around to building this one until after World War II. This location on Tohono O'Odham Indian and was the second most sacred mountain in their territory. This tribe has lived here forever, rather than being moved here to be on a reservation and they had learned their lesson to be suspicious of the white man from their brethren. Finally, astronomers took the chief and the elders to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and let them look at the stars and planets for themselves. That made all the difference. Today the observatory has a perpetual lease for the top of the mountain and has some rules to follow. They may not sell food or drink and must give hiring preference to any qualified Tohono. The visitor center must have a gift shop that sells Tohono wares. (They've snuck in some scientific stuff and T-shirts as well.)

The Tucson coupon book had a buy-one-get one-coupon for the daytime visit, but we opted for the evening tour as well. The observatory is a forty mile drive from Tucson, so we wanted to see it all. One of the observatory's claims to fame is that it has more telescopes on site than any other facility. These days there are never enough funds for this sort of endeavor and many of the telescopes are funded by consortiums of universities that share the bills and the viewing time. The group from Florida rarely visits their scope personally. So much is done electronically these days, that they can download the information and send to their campus without buying a plane ticket. Scientists who want to use the publicly funded scopes can do so for free if their proposals are accepted. About 25% are. If the weather is cloudy during the time slot they are awarded, they are out of luck. Viewing time is booked up to the max. But the observatory is located here, because it is hardly ever cloudy. And at almost 7,000 feet it is out of range of the light pollution and smog generated from Tucson. The technology for making ever bigger mirrors and supporting them in a stable way has challenged the construction of the observatories here. We toured the four meter Mayall telescope. This telescope has been a landmark in since 1973, and is easily visible from many points in Tucson. The 4-m is the largest optical telescope on Kitt Peak, and receives 4 times more requests for use than there are clear nights each year. One of the scopes is devoted to asteroids, trying to identify who's coming our way so we can figure out what to do about it.

I have a hard time dealing with astronomy. Outer space is just too big. I can't wrap my mind around it. When I look for the constellations I find many more that could be just as possible. Why are those stars in Orion's belt when they could just as easily for the tail of a dog I think I see? I understand the challenge of trying to figure out what'w what and why but knowing that all the stars and solar systems are speeding ever farther away from each other, means that there will never be a way for man as a space tourist to get anywhere. Infinity is just too infinite.

In the evening we peered through a scope that is no longer used by the real astronomers. The docent dialed in the coordinates of a star or planet on the computer and the scope aimed itself. No challenge at all for them, but a thrill so see Jupiter with its little moons with our own eyes. The docents put photos of some of what we saw on their website for us to see again. We also used sky charts to help us identify constellations and peered at some through binoculars. The view of the sky from this dark fountain top was amazing no matter how you looked at it. Leaving after the tour was a challenge. The twelve mile drive down the mountain was twisty and winding and we were not allowed to turn on our car lights until we were half way down, lest they disturb the serious viewing going on above. We followed the tail lights of the docent's van part way, and followed the glow of the roadside barrier until we were near the bottom. But it wasn't any worse that driving through a blizzard, which is probably what we would have been doing if we were at home.

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