I: Kitt Peak National Observatory


My home page shares that I had the great experience of working on Kitt Peak during my undergraduate years. This mountain is home to twenty-six optical and radio telescopes that observe everything from our Sun to distant galaxies. Some of these were the first public telescopes in the country, meaning anyone could apply for observing time regardless of whether or not they worked at a university. Kitt Peak mountain holds a special place in my heart for many reasons.

It was here that I renewed my childhood hobby of photography. As a kid, the only way to get me to behave during long hikes on family vacations was to put a camera in my hand. I didn’t know what I was doing, and the photos weren’t particularly interesting, but I do remember being very concerned with getting different angles and viewpoints. (I also remember being very excited about capturing a mountain reflection in a lake.) When I started working on Kitt Peak and saw all of the amazing astrophotography my coworkers were doing, I immediately wanted a nicer camera than my point-and-shoot, one that could take longer exposures of the night sky. One of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen is the full moon rising over Tucson, a sight to behold in a nice pair of binoculars. Two years after I started working, I finally got the opportunity to compose that shot, and you’ll see it further down.

The other thing I’m particularly thankful to Kitt Peak for is the soothing environment it provided me with during times of high stress in school. Exams, homeworks and projects are impossible to stress about when you’re walking around after a program has just ended, in the brisk chill of the mountain air with starlight being the only thing to guide your path. I’ve spent quite a lot of time on this mountain in the past three years, so my pictures will only be the best of the best. However, you too can participate in a nighttime adventure on Kitt Peak: Kitt Peak Nightly Observing Program. My photos in this post will take you through a typical evening, starting once you drive about an hour out into the desert onto the Tohono O’odham Nation, where Kitt Peak is located.

About an hour and a half outside of Tucson lies Kitt Peak, the largest collection of optical telescopes anywhere in the world.

About an hour and a half outside of Tucson lies Kitt Peak, the largest collection of optical telescopes anywhere in the world.

The arrival time for Nightly Observing Programs changes throughout the year based on the sunset time. As you begin driving up the mountain, there are several great views just hiding around corners, which makes the twelve-mile ascent both scary if you have a fear of heights, and inherently interesting.

Baboquivari Peak, meaning "skinny in the middle" is thought to have once been taller and narrow where the current peak is now. It is the most sacred mountain on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Baboquivari Peak, meaning “skinny in the middle” is thought to have once been taller and narrow where the current peak is now. It is the most sacred mountain on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Shortly after passing Baboquivari, you will be welcomed to Kitt Peak with your first view of several of the large powerhouse telescopes on the mountain.

Shortly after passing Baboquivari, you will be welcomed to Kitt Peak with your first view of several of the large powerhouse telescopes on the mountain, including the Mayall 4-meter telescope (far left) and WIYN 3.5-meter (silver dome in the right middle).

If you arrive to the summit early enough, you can visit the Mayall 4-meter and take the elevator up to the observation deck, just below the 18-story high telescope. This again overlooks several of the most famous telescopes on the mountain, including the WIYN 3.5-meter again, and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the largest solar telescope in the world (the solar telescope is not in my picture).

Overlooking Kitt Peak National Observatory from the Mayall 4-meter observation deck.

Overlooking Kitt Peak National Observatory from the Mayall 4-meter observation deck.

After eating a simple boxed dinner and receiving an introduction to the mountain, the first thing guests do is go up to a mountain overlook to view sunset. Everywhere you look during sunset provides spectacular views (don’t forget to take the time to turn around as well)!

Interesting cloud patterns following the sun as it sinks below the horizon.

Interesting cloud patterns following the sun as it sinks below the horizon.

Looking down the hill from sunset, toward the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which looks like a sideways seven.

Looking down the hill from sunset, toward the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which looks like a sideways seven.

Looking south from sunset, toward the 2.1-meter and the WIYN 0.9-meter.

Looking south from sunset, toward the 2.1-meter and the WIYN 0.9-meter.

As I stated previously, one of my favorite sights to behold on Kitt Peak is the full moon rising over the city of Tucson. It’s pretty rare, but sometimes we’re able to show guests this sight. It has to be just a day or two after the full moon to catch it. On the night of the full moon, it rises right just as the sun sets, when it is still bright outside. The next two nights, the moon rises later and later in the dark, but still looks almost completely full. We don’t view moon rises past about 9:00 because we’re already at the telescope by then and guests start the drive home shortly after. With about twelve full moons per year, there are really only about 24 days that guests could view an almost full moon rise in the dark. The rising location also changes throughout the year, not always over the city lights. So there are probably less than 12 nights per year that guests can catch this sight.

Although astronomers and us guides hate full moon nights (they wash out faint objects and brighten the sky), sights like this make it worth it.

Although astronomers and us guides hate full moon nights (they wash out faint objects and brighten the sky), sights like this make it worth it.

Once the Sun has set and it has gotten sufficiently dark outside, guests are shown how to orient themselves in the night sky with a planisphere (star chart), and how to locate some deep sky objects with binoculars.

Guests frequently have the opportunity to view passing satellites and iridium flares during the planisphere and binocular sessions.

Guests frequently have the opportunity to view passing satellites and iridium flares during the planisphere and binocular sessions.

The moon is great for viewing whether it be by the naked eye, with binoculars or through a telescope. Personally, I find this crescent phase most pleasing.

The moon is great for viewing whether it be by the naked eye, with binoculars or through a telescope. Personally, I find this crescent phase most pleasing.

Although this Milky Way scene is enhanced by the camera's long exposure, you can get fantastic views of the Milky Way during the late summer months and fall (provided there is no full moon)!

Although this Milky Way scene is enhanced by the camera’s long exposure, you can get fantastic views of the Milky Way during the late summer months and fall (provided there is no full moon)!

The final part of the night, and most guests favorite part, is about an hour to an hour and a half of telescope viewing time, on one of the three public 16-20″ telescopes. Each telescope has an advantage – the 16″ Little Dome is intimate and includes a ride in the “moon van” across the observatory grounds at dark; the 20″ Visitor Center telescope is the largest offered, and right by the warm visitors’ center and bathrooms; and the 16″ Roll of Roof observatory can be extremely frigid in the middle of winter and windy during any time of year, but you can have phenomenal views of the night sky while waiting for your turn at the telescope.

As a previous employee, I personally liked to show guests at least six objects of different classes: a binary system (double star), an open cluster, a globular cluster, some type of nebula, a galaxy, and a planet and/or moon (I group the planet and the moon in the same class as they are both within our solar system). Some of my favorite images through the telescope are shown below, in the order I would present them:

M8, more commonly known as the Lagoon Nebula, is a star-forming region.

M8, more commonly known as the Lagoon Nebula, is a star-forming region.

M31, more commonly referred to as the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest similarly-sized neighbor to the Milky Way.

M31, more commonly referred to as the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest similarly-sized neighbor to the Milky Way. The width of M31 when viewed with the naked eye is about the size of four full moons placed next to each other. This recent APOD shows the relation.

Saturn, a common favorite among guests.

Saturn, a common favorite among guests.

The night wraps up shortly after the telescope viewing ends, and the last adventure you will encounter is the drive down the mountain. You have to see it to believe it. Don’t let the astronomy fun end there though; I frequently see amazing meteors and moon rises on the horizon when driving home at the end of the night. Although I’m clearly biased, I truly hope you are able to visit Kitt Peak one night if you are ever in Tucson.

3 thoughts on “I: Kitt Peak National Observatory

  1. Thank you so much for creating your blog with this great information about Kit Peak. I was wondering about the best time of year to view the full moon rising over Tucson. Is there a better season to view it? Approximately, what are those “12 best nights in the year” to view it?

    • Hi Margaret!

      Thanks for your comments. Here is a link to the 2016 Kitt Peak astronomical calendar: https://www.noao.edu/kpno/skycal/cal2016.html

      I should note that seeing the full moon rise over Tucson is not guaranteed in the programs; it’s more of an added bonus if the guide happens to think of it or there is time in the evening. As you can see from that calendar, the moon rises at 9:54pm and 10:54pm on November 18-19. During the winter months the sun sets earlier so the program will likely be wrapping up by 10:00 in the evening. However, the moon rise photo on the blog was taken during November, so I believe it should be in a similar positioning this year to rise over Tucson. If you could plan your visit just a few days earlier (11/14-11/15), you would most likely have the opportunity to see the same view. I suggest the two days after full moon because it will still essentially be 100% illuminated then, but the skies will be darker when it rises. Your best bet would be to plan for one of those nights and mention it to your guide when checking in. Hope that helps, feel free to shoot any more questions my way!

  2. Would the second or third night of a waning gibbous (Nov. 18 or 19) have a chance of viewing an almost full moon rising over Tuscon? Thank you.

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