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Kitt Peak National Observatory
July 8, 2006
by Lyndon Tiu
Debbie, Lyndon, Rudy, Terry, Emie, Russ

The day started early. The weather in the early summer morning was nice and cool. No storms in the forecasts although you can feel the monsoonal humidity in the air. We all met promptly at the designated meeting spot at 6:15 AM, saddled up and drove to the Tucson area. Driving time to Tucson was about 90 minutes. The website for Kitt Peak mentioned a driving time of 90 minutes from Tucson to Kitt Peak. We found this inaccurate as it only took us about 50 minutes to drive from Tucson to the top of Kitt Peak. Hence we all arrived a bit early.

Some of us stopped by a lookout on the side of the road on the way up the peak to enjoy the scenery. It rained hard the past few days so the air was very clear and you could see clearly for miles. We were planning to arrive around 9:45AM to make it to the first telescope tour at 10:00AM but we ended up arriving at around 9:00AM. Not too bad as we enjoyed the extra 45 minutes of time by a picnic table in the parking lot.

view view
There, we had some snacks and fed the fairly aggressive Mexican Blue Jays that were not shy of people. These birds are aggressive enough to snatch food items off someone’s hands.

The weather was very pleasant and cool, not bad for a summer day. A light cool breeze would occasionally blow by. The sky was all blue with hardly any cloud cover. This would change later in the day as ominous monsoon clouds started to form in the horizon.

The 360 degree views of the surrounding area was excellent as the air was very clear due to the heavy rains of the past few days.

The tour of the telescopes started promptly at 10:00AM. Each guided tour costs $2 per person. We all made the mistake of putting in our $2 in the donation box in-front of the entrance to the visitor center. We found out later that payment for the tour is separately handled at the cashier. The cashier was kind enough to give us the tour for free since we already put in our $2 in the donation box.

We all learned a lot from the tours. We learned that Kitt Peak was picked as the location of the national observatory from among many hundreds of possible locations in the country. It was picked because it had the most clear and calm days. It was far enough from major urban areas (away from light pollution) but close enough to an urban area with an airport and an institution of higher learning to provide the necessary talent pool.

The solar telescope at Kitt Peak is a long tunnel dug deep into the side of the mountain. It had specialized mirrors that reflect sunlight into spectrometers that analyze the sun’s light spectra.

The second tour of the 2.1 meter telescope showed us how an optical telescope works and how advanced technology has made an astronomer’s life easier.

Debbie, Rudy, Terry, Emie, Doug, Russ

We also learned how telescope building techniques have changed through the years. In the past, telescope mirrors and lenses were ground from solid pieces of glass. Today, these are made by pouring molten glass into a rotating pan. A concave/convex mirror/lens is formed from the resulting solidified glass. Older telescopes tend to be heavier than newer ones.

We also learned that modern technology has managed to reduce the weight of many telescope parts. We had lunch by a picnic table right after the 2nd tour and decided to do the 3rd tour of the 4 meter telescope ourselves (self-guided). The 4 meter telescope was built in the 1970s and is big and heavy. The 4 meter telescope’s dome alone weighs in at 500 tons. Compare this to the 40 ton dome of the "WINDY" telescope built in the 1990s. WINDY stands for Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale and this is the newest telescope on the peak built by the three Universities whose acronyms form the name of the telescope. The building that housed the 4 meter telescope had a 360 degree lookout where you could see Tucson.

It is sad to know that the Kitt Peak Observatory has a finite life-span dictated by how much light pollution is produced by surrounding towns and cities. As nearby towns and cities grow, they produce more and more light pollution that interferes with telescope operation. The estimate is that Kitt Peak has about 50 more years of useful time left before light pollution from Tucson and even Phoenix overcomes the darkness of night that the Kitt Peak observatory needs.

We ended the trip by heading towards a restaurant downhill from Kitt Peak for some refreshments.

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updated July 8, 2006