A visit to Kitt Peak National Observatory

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona, February 12, 2014. // photo by David J. Eicher
On Wednesday, February 12, 2014, I had the great pleasure of spending the day at one of the most spectacular astronomical institutions of the world, Kitt Peak National Observatory, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Tucson. I owe a great debt of thanks to my hosts, Operations Manager Bob Martino and Education Specialist Sheri Loftin, who spent the day with me and guided me around the mountain to all of the major facilities. It was the first time I had been to Kitt Peak in some 15 years, and it was quite an experience to see the same places and also new additions I had never seen before. I spent some time talking with the observatory’s director, Lori Allen, and we have some interesting ideas for a story that will be coming up in Astronomy magazine, addressing the changing tides of science funding at Kitt Peak, in the United States in general, and how this affects how astronomy will be done.

The drive to Kitt Peak is smooth and interesting, filled with slowly arcing roads that eventually lead you past a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, a sharp left turn, and a gradual climb up the mountain, nearly all the while seeing the dome of the 4-meter Mayall Telescope, the largest instrument on the mountain, and occasionally others. And of course Kitt Peak visits begin with the Mayall Telescope, which was finished in 1970 and named for the observatory’s former director, Nicholas U. Mayall, and crowns the mountain just below its summit at 6,875 feet (2,095 meters) elevation. The 4-meter telescope has for 40 years been one of the workhorse instruments of the Northern Hemisphere, contributing to countless studies of all facets of the cosmos and now faces plans to become a dedicated telescope for the study of dark energy.

From the 4-meter, we trekked over to an instrument I had never seen before, the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope. The acronym comes from a consortium of the institutions that have funded and administer the scope, Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO, the first of its kind as a public-private venture. This high-tech telescope was completed in 1994, making it the youngest telescope on the mountain, and uses active optics to deform the thin mirror to remove atmospheric turbulence in the images. This can be seen on the underside of the primary as a dazzling array of 66 actuator mechanisms protrude from the primary’s backside. The compact boxy dome is possible because of the telescope’s alt-azimuth mount, and active ventilation is built into the dome to cool it efficiently. This instrument has produced a vast amount of data in many directions over its 20-year career.

Our group also explored one of the mountain’s greatest treasures, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope — the greatest solar telescope in the world. The world’s largest unobstructed optical telescope, this mighty instrument, instantly recognizable from its wedge-shaped above-ground building, was dedicated in 1962. The telescope’s tower stands nearly 100 feet (30m) high and connects to an angled shaft that protrudes into the ground, where the image is formed. A three-mirror heliostat system collects light and aims it down the tunnel. Spectrographs and spectrometers can then be used to study the Sun’s behavior. By coincidence, when we toured the scope, an old acquaintance, the famous solar astronomer Bill Livingston, was working away on sunspot observations, and it was a great joy to join him for a few minutes and catch up with him on his research.

Our group toured other facilities on the mountain, too, including the famous 2.1-meter telescope that has contributed work on so many projects, and the 2.3-meter Bok Telescope, administered by the University of Arizona and named for an old friend and hero of mine, Bart Bok.

There will be much more to come on the Kitt Peak and MMT/Whipple Observatory visits in the pages of Astronomy magazine.

For now, I’ll say that some nice projects are in the works from these visits, and I look forward to returning to more coverage of meteorites at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show next.

And to see more images of my Tucson trip, visit the Reader Photo Gallery.

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