Monday, April 3, 2017
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Fifty-six miles southwest of Tucson, and in the midst of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Kitt Peak National Observatory is nestled in 200-acres of rolling hills at an elevation of approximately 7000 feet. Part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), this facility supports the most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth for nighttime optical and infrared astronomy and daytime study of the Sun. The Observatory offers both daytime tours and nighttime observation programs, and our goal was to attend one of the nighttime observation programs during a new moon and non-cloudy night. It took a couple of tries, but finally we were able to schedule our tour for March 27, a clear night with no moon for optimum viewing.
Kitt Peak is home to 25 optical and 2 radio telescopes and offers professional and hobby astronomers some of the finest observing to be found in the world. Visitors can choose from three guided tours during the daylight hours, or take self-guided tours of the 4-meter, 2.1 meter, and McMath-Pierce Solare telescopes. There are also three separate Night Program options, including an overnight option for the more serious astronomy buffs. We arrived early in the day so we could tour the Visitor’s Center, explore the stationary exhibits, and get a feel for the surroundings. Afterwards we participated in the 4-hour nighttime program that started with a dramatic sunrise, followed with an introduction to using star charts, binoculars, and most dramatically, research-class telescopes to observe a variety of astronomical objects in the night sky.
Our guides were very knowledgeable and friendly, and treated us to a wonderful overview to stargazing. The most exciting part for me was our telescope viewing, where we were able to view a double star system in the Big Dipper; a dying star with fuzzy edges and a bright spot exploding in the middle; a star cluster aptly called Salt and Pepper; a distant cigar shaped galaxy called M-82 (I couldn’t believe I was looking at a galaxy nearly 12 million light years away!); and the grand finale, Jupiter - as sharp as a photograph with the bands clearly visible, and four of its moons shining like pinpoint stars. I was amazed, impressed, and humbled to have the opportunity to glimpse a wee speck of what exists in our glorious Universe.