Tohono O’odham Nation, Arizona
By Bill Buckingham, Kitt Peak Observatory Visitor Center manager
Situated upon a nearly 7,000 feet peak in Arizona’s Quinlan Mountains is the world’s largest collection of optical and radio telescopes in the world. Astronomers from across the U.S. and around the world utilize the telescopes to push the boundaries of knowledge of the cosmos. Located 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, Kitt Peak National Observatory welcomes visitors, as well as astronomers.
As visitors ascend Arizona State Route 386 toward the summit of Kitt Peak, they move from the sights, sounds, and scents of the Sonoran Desert through progressively more alpine ecozones. Dramatic vistas of the desert and surrounding mountain ranges await the visitor at the multiple roadside pull outs located along the 12-mile well-kept state highway. The air takes on the scent of Pinon pine and the wildlife, flowers, and other plants are quite different than those of the Sonoran Desert below.
Arriving at the 12 mile highway marker, travelers arrive at the observatory campus. Large, white hemispherical structures safeguarding large telescopes and other unusual structures dot the mountaintop. A few hundred yards further and the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center is the first stop for all visitors to the observatory. Ample, free, designated bus parking is very near to the Visitor Center. Containing an auditorium, exhibits, and a gift shop, the Visitor Center is the starting point for the three guided tours offered daily as well as special private group programs. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., except certain major holidays.
Guests are presented with multiple options on how to spend their time on Kitt Peak. When volunteer staffing and weather permit, safely viewing the Sun through two telescopes is also an available experience about which visitors frequently rave. The daily guided tours explore the three largest structures on the mountain. The 200-feet-tall McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope is the first tour of the day, commencing at 10 a.m. Currently the world’s largest telescope solely dedicated to observing the nearest star, its striking structure is a true Kitt Peak icon.
Starting in the Visitor Center at 11:30 a.m., a guided tour of the 2.1-meter telescope gets underway. A real workhorse of astronomical research, this telescope was instrumental in many advances and discoveries. Most recently, Caltech assumed operation of this telescope and has installed the first and only robotic adaptive optics camera on this renowned telescope. Utilizing an ultraviolet laser installed alongside the telescope, this device removes nearly all the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere, sharpening images and revealing detail not possible in many other Earth-based telescopes
The final guided tour of the day takes visitors to soaring heights as an elevator delivers them to a viewing gallery in the towering four-meter Mayall telescope. The structure towers 18 stories over the mountaintop and a 360 degree viewing gallery located 140 feet up provides tour participants with stunning views and photo opportunities of the entire observatory campus. The Mayall telescope is the largest optical telescope operated at Kitt Peak. It is has played critical roles in the advancement of humanity’s understanding of stars, galaxies, and other objects of interest. The tour climbs a flight of steps to a glass walled visitor gallery where the telescope may be viewed and photographed.
Separate group tours at flexible times are available, as are group discounts. Comp tickets for drivers can be arranged in advance. Pick up and drop off is located very near to the Visitor Center. Information is located at noao.edu/kpvc. The staff contact for daytime and evening private group programs is Martino@noao.edu
Of frequent interest to guests is the opportunity to enjoy the observatory after sunset. The Visitor Center offers night programs to satisfy nearly all interest levels for stargazers. All programs require advanced registration. The Nightly Observing Program provides up to 50 visitors, aged eight or older, with no experience an opportunity to learn some of the constellations, explore the sky with binoculars, and view through one of the Visitor Center’s three telescopes. A light dinner and dramatic sunset viewing kicks off the evening.
The new Dark Sky Discovery program offers guests 14 years and older with some knowledge of astronomy and stargazing experience to view in a very small group setting multiple faint objects—star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. The small group size provides a more personalized experience with the opportunity to interact with the telescope guide and ask more questions
Both the Nightly Observing Program and the Dark Sky Discovery program begin before sunset and last approximately three hours. Guests depart the mountain in a caravan, leaving at the same time under controlled conditions that preserve the dark working environment for the research astronomers who are observing in the large domes.
The range of options for daytime touring and nighttime viewing experiences meets most interest levels and abilities. However, since the observatory operates on a rugged Arizona mountaintop, all tour operators should thoughtfully plan in advance their trip with Visitor Center staff. Information about directions, weather, dress, fees, accessibility, reservation policies, food, and more is available 24/7 at noao.edu/kpvc. For those without Internet access, the Visitor Center can be reached at (520) 318-8726 from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more than half a century, Kitt Peak National Observatory has helped the United States maintain world leadership in the field of astronomical research. The dark starry skies of Arizona have beckoned professional astronomers and casual stargazers for over a century. Visitors to southern Arizona who would like to start their own astronomical journey should add Kitt Peak to their “must see” list.
–Bill Buckingham, Kitt Peak Observatory Visitor Center Manager