While in Tucson this February, I heard many RVers talking about the incredible experience they had at Kitt Observatory, which is located about an hour west of the city.
It’s home to the world’s largest collection of telescopes that are staffed by universities and foreign governments conducting a wide range of experiments. The 22 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes are deployed daily for monitoring solar activity, searching for near-Earth objects, and looking as far as astronomers can at pulsars, nebulas, galaxies and our own solar system.
Located on the Quinlan Mountains on land owned by the Tohono O’odham Nation, the observatory covers nearly 200 acres of land. The telescopes themselves are situated on a campus within easy walking distance of each other.
Kitt Peak was selected as the ideal location for international research for several reasons. First, there is virtually no light pollution on top of the mountain, although Tucson’s growth is readily visible in the night sky. Second, for most of the year, there is little rain or cloud cover to interfere with scientific observations. However, all nighttime programs are shut down between July 15 and Aug. 31 due to the frequent summer rain.
Getting there is half the fun as you wind your way up a mountain that affords exceptional views of the valleys below. You can easily see Mexico, which is just 30 miles south.
Reaching a height of 6,875 feet, it can get very windy and very cold, especially at night. Winter temperatures can dip into the teens, but I lucked out during my visit in that it didn’t get cooler that 45 degrees.
The observatory offers daytime and nighttime programs. Daytime visitors are taken through the telescope buildings where they can see the research stations from galleries. Observing from the telescopes isn’t possible during the day.
Here is the daily tour schedule:
- 10 a.m. — The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which is the world’s largest solar telescope, takes about 1 hour.
- 11:30 a.m. — Kitt Peak’s first large night-optical telescope, the 2.1 meter telescope also takes about 1 hour.
- 1:30 p.m. — Kitt Peak’s largest telescope, the 4-meter Mayall requires about 1.5 hours.
There is no cost to visit Kitt Peak Observatory itself, if you just want to enjoy the visitors center and the views from the mountain top, but donations are gladly accepted at a recommended rate of $2 per person.
Guided tours are $9.75 per person for people age 13 and older, and kids age 7 to 12 can enter for $3.25. That gets you entry into all three guided tours. Single tours are $7.75 for adults and $3 for children.
There is limited food items available for sale during the day, so it’s recommended to pack a lunch.
For more information on the daytime tours, click here.
What’s the point of visiting an observatory, if you can’t observe the stunning nighttime sky from that elevation? So, I opted for the Nightly Observatory Program that is designed for novice stargazers 8 years old and older.
The cost is $46.95 per person, if reserved online, or $52 if reserved by phone. The cost includes a turkey or vegetarian sandwich plus chips, cookie and water.
The program begins about an hour before sunset. and it’s recommended that people get through the gate at the bottom of the mountain by 4:30 p.m. The drive up is spectacular with plenty of photo opportunities, so it’s a good idea to arrive early.
Upon arrival, cars are marshaled into two lines in the parking lot so that red cloth can be placed over the headlights of each vehicle. When exiting, the bright lights from cars have been known to ruin experiments that have been running for hours.
At the end of the program, the group is guided slowly down the mountain for about 1.5 miles where the material is removed and people continue on their journey home.
If you arrive at the visitor center early, you’ll have plenty of time to look at exhibits depicting the history of the observatory and the types of experiments conducted there. There are even hands-on activities for kids to enjoy, like a plasma ball.
A gift shop offers a wide selection of astronomy-oriented books, posters and toys. You can even buy binoculars and telescopes.
The program begins with brief introduction as to the schedule of events, followed by the light dinner. Afterward people walk up the mountain to enjoy a spectacular sunset as the guide describes the layout of the campus and explains what each of the telescopes are designed to do.
As twilight evaporates, the group is escorted back into the visitors center where they are divided into two smaller groups. One group heads to the telescopes, and the other learns how to use a sky chart to find stars and constellations. About an hour later, the groups switch places.
Learning to use a sky chart is a fascinating process when you realize that for years that’s the only way mariners and others could orient themselves to the night sky.
Each person receives a cheap souvenir red light that is used to illuminate their steps and the sky chart in the near total darkness — at least until their eyes adjust to the night sky.
Using a laser pointer, the guide directs people’s attention to various interstellar formations so they can be sure they’re reading the sky charts correctly.
Then, the guests exchange a sky chart for real binoculars, which add a whole new dimension to nighttime sky viewing. Again, the guide draws attention to extraterrestrial phenomenon. For example, the second star in Orion’s sword is actually a group of stars easily visible with the binoculars.
Viewing the sky through binoculars was pretty spectacular, but if they were mounted to a tripod it would have been even better.
When it’s time to go to the observatories, the group is again split into two groups to better accommodate everyone and ensure each person gets a chance to actually look through the telescope at the various stars and planets.
Beware, it’s very cold in the observatories themselves because there are no heaters. Scientists found that heat produced waves of air that interfere with the ability to gaze deeply into the sky. I had a winter coat, ear muffs and gloves, and I was still cold. Smart people huddled under blankets as well.
In the observatory, the guide selects a object by computer and the telescope automatically maneuvers into position for precise viewing. After describing what is being displayed and it’s significance, each person gets the opportunity to view the object up close.
The knowledgeable guides were able to answer just about any question, except mine. I requested to see the planet where Luke Skywalker was hiding out.
On my tour, we observed:
- Almach — a blue and yellow double star formation
- The Andromeda galaxy — our closest galactic neighbor just 2.2 million light years away
- M37 — a 150 star cluster nearly 4,400 light years away
- The Great Orion Nebula — a star nursery with enough material to form 10,000 stars the size of Earth’s sun
- Jupiter’s red spot and four of its moons
- The moon’s craters, which were spectacular considering it was almost a full moon
During the tour, visitors are directed to a website they can view later to see pictures of the celestial mysteries they observed that night.
In addition to the Night Observation Program for beginners, Kitt Observatory offers two other nighttime programs as well:
- Dark Sky Discovery Program for people 14 and older at a cost of $74.95 per person. Taking place on moonless nights, it offers intensive telescope viewing of deep sky objects.
- Overnight Telescope Observing Program — a private overnight telescope observing program giving people exclusive use of one of the research-grade telescopes. People can capture their own images of night objects. Prices range from $650 to $785 per couple and $100 per extra person. It includes three full meals and a dormitory room on the mountain.
Observing the night sky from that elevation in near total darkness was certainly an awe-inspiring and memorable experience. And witnessing the nearly full moon rise was a special treat as well.
As big as the galaxy is in that it spans light years across (a light year is the distance light travels at 186,000 miles per second for one year, or about 6 trillion miles), my trip to Kitt Observatory reminded me just how small our world really is.
While enjoying dinner, a couple asked to join me at the outside table. In conversation, I learned that she attended high school with my aunt and uncles in tiny Mazomanie, Wis., which had a population at that time of 962.
For more information on Kitt Observatory, visit www.noao.edu/kpno.