The road leading to Kitt Peak is Arizona Highway 86 also known as the Tucson-Ajo Highway. It runs through the Tohono O'odham Nation. You drive down 86 until you come to Junction 386 the Kitt Peak turn-off. Kitt Peak is 12 miles up the road. Please note that this is a mountain road with steep grades and lots of sharp turns. There are no facilities on the road and only a snack bar at the site. If you need gas, food, or water you must get that in Sells or Three Points. The drive offers some beautiful views of the surrounding desert.
Kitt Peak Observatory is the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes. It is located on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in the Sonoran Desert a little over 50 miles Southwest of Tucson. Kitt Peakhas twenty-four optical and two radio telescopes representing eight astronomical research institutions. The Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center is open to the public daily from 9 AM. to 3:45 PM except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s day. Guided tours are offered daily at 10 AM, 11:30 AM, and 1:30 PM. They also have areas set aside where you can bring your own telescope and stargaze. They have a nice visitor's center. Admission to the guided tour is $4 for adults and $2.50 for kids 7 to 12. Kids 6 and under, Kitt's Peak members and members of the Tohono O'odham tribe get in free. Check it out!
The image of sun, after bouncing back and forth a few times inside the light path, is finally displayed on this light table. Because the image is so bright, the light table is set at a height above eye level to reduce damage to the researchers. The day I visited no one was working on the light table.
The best way to visit McMath-Pierce is to join the tours guided by docents (volunteers). These docents are mostly amatuer astronomers and are very knowledgable. The tours are free but a $2-dollar donation is welcome. The photo shows our docent giving us a quick talk before we entered McMath-Pierce.
The photo shows the 4-meter Mayall telescope. It's the biggest optical telescope in Kitt Peak (McMath-Pierce is a 2-meter but of a different design). As a local landmark, it sits on top of Kitt Peak easily visible from the city of Tucson.
Today the observatory is run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), an organization operated by universities and institutions that conduct astronomic research across the nation. The funding comes from National Science Fundation (NSF).
Inside Kitt Peak's visitor center there are many interesting exhibits and a theater. The photo shows an infrared image of me. The higher the temperature the brighter the image. Just coming from the outside, I seemed to have a cold nose (the dark spot on my face). Kitt Peak is about 5,000 feet higher than Tucson so it's usually much cooler. Bring a jacket.
The photo shows McMath-Pierce, the world's biggest solar telescope. It's named after the two designers. Built in 1958, McMath-Pierce is Kitt Peak's very first and the most important telescope. It has a very distinct structure -- a 500-foot light path inclined to parallel to the earth's axis. With 200 feet above ground (at the vertical height of 100 feet) and 300 feet into the mountains, it's worth a visit!!
The photo shows Baboquivari Peak. At 7,730 feet, it's the tallest in the area. Kitt Peak is the second at 6,875 feet; both are visible from the city of Tucson. Baboquivari is also the most sacret in the mind of Tonoho O'odham tribe. In their creation story, the reproductive powers of the universe give birth to the Papagueria and the world thanks to I'itoi, the god who lives in Waw kiwalik, or Baboquivari Peak.
In fact, the whole observatory is under the perpetual agreement with the Tohono O'odham Nation to use only the 200 acres on the top of Kitt Peak, as long as it's for scientific, not commercial purpose. Therefore, inside the observatory there's no cafeteria (considered commercial). There's only a small shop selling souvenirs and local handcrafts. Bring your own lunch if you think you'll get hungry.
Here's some "hands-on" experience in the observatory (or rather, "eyes-on"). We got the chance to use the little baby, the 0.9 meter Meade telescope, to observe the sun. The docent helped set up the telescope towards the edge of the sun. I saw the flames of the sun rising from the edge and also one sunspot. I tried to photograph it by attaching my digital camera onto the telescope's view finder but it didn't work.
Now we look up at the sky from inside the 500-foot light path parallel to the earth's axis. Notice there's no lenses, only mirrors on top and bottom of the path. All telescopes in Kitt Peak National Observatory are mirror telescopes. Inside the light path, the image of sun bounces back and forth a few times to be displayed on a "light table" for research.
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