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PEEK AT KIT PEAK NATIONAL OBSERVATORY

ALL PERSONAL PICTURES AND TEXT ARE COPYRIGHTED BY DON AND SARA SCHULTZ.

Due to the restrictive nature of photographing at night on a visit to Kitt Peak National Observatory and that many of the points of interest off limits to the public, some of the pictures in this account are taken from various websites. (credit is given to the source below each picture used)




A PEEK AT KITT PEAK NATIONAL OBSERVATORY

The recent government bailout of the banking and auto industries has strained everyone’s sense of scale and proportion. Most people can visualize a hundred of something and some folks, a thousand. A million is surely more difficult and few of us can comprehend a billion of something. I am reminded of the elementary school teacher that wanted to give her students a visual sense of a million so the class started collecting pop tops from aluminum cans. After a school year, filling several large garbage cans, they gave up at 400,000. By the way, laid end to end, 400,000 pop tops would reach over 7 miles and weigh about 500 lbs. After reviewing this example is it any wonder that words like billion and trillion truly lose all sense of meaning. The national debt as of April 24, 2009 was $11,198,126,715,887.20 or over 11 trillion dollars, a mere $36,587.90 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Other units can be equally astonishing. If all the words in the Bible represented the official age of the earth, 4.6 billion years, the time man has walked on the earth would be represented by the last 5 words.

While these examples may give one a fleeing appreciation of the scale and proportion of a lot of something in our physical world, a trip to the USA National Optical Astronomy Observatory on the top of Kitt Peak will surely send ones brain back to the bewildering backdrop of the obtuse. For example, just try and wrap your brain around a light year. More about that later.

Our visit to the Kitt Peak Observatory, 50 miles west of Tucson, AZ almost never happened. You have to sign up for a particular night and the Observatory can be booked for months in advance. The staff takes only 40 visitors per session. The day program is less popular, but who wants to go to an astronomical observatory during the day? We wanted to look through the telescope at heavenly bodies. High winds and clouds will cancel a session and it happened to us twice. After the second disappointment, we were told that all future sessions for the next several weeks were booked.

We put up a bit a fuss as we had booked an RV park for a week longer than we intended to stay just to attend a night session. With a bit of arm twisting an exception was made and we were allowed to attend the next night. We jumped at it.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) is located 50 miles west of Tucson via the West Ajo Highway. A visitor does not have to worry about missing the landmark as it is visible the moment you leave the Tucson city limits. High atop the highest peak in the Quinlan Mountains, on a 200 acre site within the 3 million acre Tohono O’odham Native American homeland, sits the white dome of the eighteen story Mayall 4 meter telescope. The dome at 500 tons gleams in the setting sunlight against an egg shell blue sky 6875 ft above the desert floor.

Turning off the highway one still has 11 miles of twisting switch backs to reach the grounds of the observatory. As we reached the half way point, we pulled to the side of the road and put up the convertible top. As promised, it was cold and getting a lot colder as we reached the parking lot. There are actually 26 telescopes in all at Kitt Peak and you drive past many of them during the last two miles. We parked and headed for the public restrooms noticing that all the windows were blackened out and the building’s furnace was churning out heat, glorious heat. We weren’t sure we wanted to leave but after two cancelled programs and paying $46 per person, we were determined to attend the famous NOP (Nightly Observing Program) at our National Observatory and we headed for the Visitor’s Headquarters.

The program began with a presentation by one of the staff members that was punctuated with humor and vital formation about the history of the facility, the types of telescopes on the mountain, basic facts about astronomy and some of the astronomers’ most recent discoveries. We were given a star chart to find various constellations later, a pair of binoculars designed for star gazing and even a special red penlight so as not to disturb the scientists working at Kitt Peak that evening. We got to keep the pen light.

The information was presented over a box lunch of turkey Swiss sandwiches, fruit and snacks. All around us were displays showing models of the different telescopes, principles of astronomy and various instruments. By far the most popular item among the 40 participants was the infra red camera attached to a video screen that showed cold parts of the body as black and warm as white. As the temperature outside dropped, most folks loved to rush in front of the camera after being outside for a few minutes to see their black noses and fingertips and white coffee cups.

During the presentation, it was explained that there are several enemies that can spoil stellar stargazing. There are clouds, wind, air pollution, light pollution changes in air temperature or “turbulent air”.

In fact the very location of the Kitt Peak National Observatory was determined in 1958 by the National Science Foundation after surveying over 100 different sites in California, Arizona and New Mexico in an attempt to minimize these problems. The most important factor is the number of days of clear weather per year. You cannot look through clouds. Kitt Peak has a lot of clear days and more important, nights. In particular Kitt Peak is most often clear in the spring which is prime time for viewing the universe outside our galaxy.

The relative humidity is very low to avoid “fogging” of the mirrors; at an elevation of 6875 ft the air pollution is minimal because the observatory is above most of the particulate matter in the air; the light pollution from Tucson over 50 miles away is, while more than when the facility was built the 60’s, still small due to tough lighting ordinances and the use of high pressure sodium lights. Even all the street lights in Tucson are aimed down to reduce the pollution at Kitt Peak. In fact, we were told that light pollution from Phoenix, over 150 miles to north, is more of a problem than that from Tucson.

The Kitt Peak site overcomes the problem of variations in temperature or “turbulent air” by being cold, very cold up on top. In fact the biggest mistake most visitors to the observatory make is not dressing warm. If you attend the night program, you’d had better bundle up or your teeth will be chattering. And don’t forget a warm hat or you will be wearing a sweater wrapped around your ears like I did. Just as changes in temperature cause heat waves to distort vision on desert highways, the telescopes are so sensitive that the heat from ones body can ruin the view. Most of the 26 telescopes on Kitt Peak “open their doors” hours before dark so that all of the equipment is exposed to the cold wind and at the same temperature by show time. The scientists are usually isolated in control rooms’ far way from where the actual telescope is located. Many of the scopes are controlled remotely from computers located at universities thousands of miles away. There are no “warm bodies” anywhere near the telescope.

Finally, it was explained that Kitt Peak was chosen for the National Observatory because the University of Arizona at Tucson has one of the best astronomy programs in the nation, which provides top notch astronomers, mechanical and electrical engineers, opticians and most importantly “cheap slave labor” in the form of countless undergraduate and graduate students jumping at a chance to work at the facility. Also it doesn’t hurt that one of the few astronomical telescope mirror manufacturing facilities is located under the football stadium at UA. They actually spin tons of molten quartzite and other material, thousands of degrees F, in a giant centrifuge-like thing. Then these mirror makers let the whole thing slowly cool to form the base of the mirror. The mirrors can weigh thousands of pounds and must be spherically perfect. The top surface of the mirror is ground and polished to specifications measured in microns and coated with a silver reflective coating so thin that almost anything coming in contact with it will scratch it. Before the mirror can be installed in the telescope, a round hole must be drilled through the center to allow the collected light to be directed to the eyepiece.

One might think that the Native Americans, the Tohono O’odham Nation, would probably not be interested in having a “white man’s observatory” built on any mountain top on their ancestral homeland, let alone their most sacred chosen mountain. The Tohono elders were invited to other facilities in the USA, and were assured that the astronomers and tribe had many common goals before the lease agreements were signed. Preventing commercial development, protection of the mountains geology, flora and fauna, and reduction of light pollution were indeed common goals. Special consideration is given to the tribe by purchasing all power from the O’odham, giving them priority for all jobs at the facility and allowing the tribe to have a gift shop at the public facilities at the observatory. The relationship between the astronomers and native people has for over 50 years been a positive one. The reverence that the O’odham have for the heavenly bodies is surely equaled by the enthusiasm of the astronomers at the National Observatory.

The “granddaddy” of the Peak is the Mayall 4 meter Telescope finished in 1970. The Mayall Telescope mirror at 4 meters, over 12 feet across and the largest on the mountain, weighs over 15 tons. The entire surface of the mirror is coated and polished to one millionth of an inch and has a reflective aluminum coating one thousandth the thickness of a human hair. The mirror is so sensitive to temperature changes that the energy created by one human heart beat (100 watts) is enough to distort the image. A blue "horseshoe" equatorial mounting moves the entire 92 foot long telescope. The telescope is mounted on a cement pier that is completely separate from both the building and the dome (50 tons), with the telescope and dome moving in unison. By the way, think your digital camera has a lot of megapixals at 10 or 15? The Mayall Telescope is equipped with a wide field image camera, the CCD Mosaic, with 8192 x 8192 pixels, capable of producing color pictures of astronomical objects. Unbelievable!!!!

Then there is the 3.5 meter WIYN scope. WIYN stand for Universities of Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale and National Optical Astronomy Observatories or (NOAO), the four entities that put up the big bucks to build one of the best imaging telescopes in the world. The Mc Math Pierce Solar Telescope rounds out the “big three” of the mountain top and is the largest solar instrument in the world. It contains the world’s largest unobstructed aperture optical telescope with a diameter of 1.6 meters. It is used mostly to observe the sun and many important discoveries about sunspots and the nature of the how the sun works. For example, it was at Mc Math Pierce that it was discovered that the sun contains water and isotopic helium. Mc Math Pierce looks more like a giant rocket launch pad or big white coal chute at a mine than a telescope. Much of the “business” part of the telescope is buried deep with in the mountain. It is so sensitive that it can, unlike most other solar telescopes, observe other stars at night.

After our box lunch, all the visitors bundled up and faced the cold (49 F) and a wind chill that could pull you eye lids back. We headed to the western edge of the grounds to watch the sunset. And what a sunset it was!!!! We could see all the air pollution below us, and as the sun dropped behind the distant mountain peaks, an LA skyline came to mind. But the important thing is that pollution was BELOW us and we, and the telescopes, were surrounded by clear, gloriously clear and very cold air. Remember our visit to Kitt Peak had been cancelled due to poor weather. At the exact moment the sun disappeared, it was explained that the light reaching our eyes was so distorted that the sun had actually disappeared about one sun diameter earlier. Also the sun seemed to “flatten out” due to the refraction or bending of the light.

Before we left the edge of the mountain, we were ushered into the building containing the tiny .9 meter SARA Telescope. Kitt Peak is awash in acronyms and this one stood for Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy but Sara considered it hers. She was actually enjoying this visit except for the cold, the wind, the box lunch and all the mind numbing scientific explanations. Keep in mind that Sara, an English major, once mistook an empty post hole for an animal den during the mandatory and I mean mandatory, Conservation class field trip in college. But what was really filling center of her brain, fear center no doubt, was the much anticipated 11 mile drive off the mountain in THE DARK. More about that later.

After returning to the warmth of the main visitor center and another stroll past the infra red camera to watch our frozen finger tips turn from black back to white, we were divided into two groups. One group went outside with sky charts and binoculars. The other group headed to a small telescope attached to the building to do what we had all come to Kitt for, to see heavenly bodies through a real telescope. Before we left for either experience, we were given tiny blue pens that emitted an eerie red light. It was explained that any white light, even that emitted from a small flashlight, would ruin the research data of scientists that sometimes had waited several years for their chance to use the huge telescopes that surrounded us. All turns at the telescopes have to be approved by a review committee at Kitt Peak and I looked at the doors of the visitor center thinking that an crazed astronomer was about to burst into the room at any minute and start screaming at us for ruining his long anticipated session with a telescope at Kitt.

We were in the Sky Chart Group and we headed out, penlights in hand trying not to trip over each other in the shadowy dim red light. A sky chart is two round cardboard discs that are attached to each other. By rotating the discs to the correct time and date, you can find most of the important constellations in the night sky. Well, first you need to find the Big Dipper and the North Star. Sky charts were available for sale in the gift shop at the visitor center along with countless other souvenirs and Native American items of very high quality and price.

Finally, our turn at the telescope came. We were ushered up a set of stairs and entered the room enclosing the visitor telescope. There we were, eighteen shivering amateur astronomers sitting in a circle in a round room about twenty feet in diameter around the scope. The roof clattered open exposing the night sky through a slit in the top of the dome. A computer is used to position the telescope to view a predetermined object. Then because the object may be moving and the earth is moving, the computer automatically moves to keep the object in the field of view. One at a time each of us first saw Algieba, a binary, (that is two) star in the mane of Leo, the Lion constellation. It appeared as two tiny specks, one larger than the other about 126 light-years away. The small body was 10 times larger than our sun.

Then we viewed the M3. This was a cluster of a half a million stars in the Milky Way and is approaching at 100 miles per second. It looked like a dot of fuzzy dust. Next was M5, the Whirlpool Galaxy. It had bright and prominent spiral arms that weren’t very bright or prominent to me. But you have to understand that it is 38 million light years away. What that means is that if light travels at 183,000 miles per second, and it does, and there are 31,556,926 seconds in a year, then M3 is 183,000 miles X 31,556,926 X 38,000,000 total miles away or about 21557428756789872335678903466778834567667823 miles. Get the idea???? What the heck does that mean? Nothing to you, me or even trained astronomers!!!! So you have to look at distances differently. Put another way, M3, the Whirlpool Galaxy sent the light from the Galaxy to Kit Peak outside of Tucson, AZ 38 million years ago and it is just arriving at the telescope and hitting the back of our eyeballs. And keep in mind that is at 183,000 miles per second. And 183,000 miles is about 7.5 times around the earth at the equator.

So from the time the light started and when it reached Kitt Peak, 38 million years have gone by. Do you know what was happening on earth 38 million years ago? Well, that would be the Eocene Epoch when Australia, Antarctica and South America were still joined together as one land mass and things we now call monkeys and apes were just arriving on the scene. It also means that if the M3 Whirlpool Galaxy were for some strange reason to disappear tomorrow; it would take 38 million years for us to realize it was gone. Put another way, M3 galaxy is one hell of a long ways away.

Before we left the observatory, we took a quick look at Saturn the second largest planet with its famous rings. You could actually see it without the telescope or pair binoculars. Just with your unaided eye. But then Saturn is practically sitting on top of us at a mere 746 million miles away. You could drive from Los Angles to New York over 250,000 times and not cover that distance.
At the end of the evening as the cars of the participants for the Night Program at the Kitt National Observatory started to wind their way down the mountain top following the car of program leader WITH ALL OFF OUR LIGHTS OFF INCLUDING THE LEAD CAR so as not to ruin the important work of the hundreds of astronomers, silently researching above us, remotely from places all over the world, two thoughts came to mind. How well does this guy know his way down the mountain with its winding series of switchbacks and thousand foot drop offs? And, the drive back to Tucson isn’t really that far.

If you ever get a chance for a peek at Kitt Peak National Observatory, take it. You will not regret it.


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THIS WAS OUR GROUP READY TO WATCH THE SUN GO DOWN UNDER THE SHADOW OF THE SARA TELESCOPE
THIS WAS OUR GROUP READY TO WATCH THE SUN GO DOWN UNDER THE SHADOW OF THE SARA TELESCOPE
IT WAS VERY, VERY COLD AND WINDY UNDER THE WEATHER STATION
IT WAS VERY, VERY COLD AND WINDY UNDER THE WEATHER STATION
EARLY SUNSET LOOKING TO THE WEST
EARLY SUNSET LOOKING TO THE WEST
AS THE SUN DECLINED THE SKY BEGAN TO GLOW
AS THE SUN DECLINED THE SKY BEGAN TO GLOW
AT THIS STAGE THE SUN IS ACTUALLY BELOW THE HORIZON BUT DUE TO THE BENDING OF THE LIGHT YOU CAN STILL SEE IT
AT THIS STAGE THE SUN IS ACTUALLY BELOW THE HORIZON BUT DUE TO THE BENDING OF THE LIGHT YOU CAN STILL SEE IT
THE SARA TELESCOPE WITH ITS DOME DOOR DOWN, COOLED AND WAITING FOR OUR VISIT
THE SARA TELESCOPE WITH ITS DOME DOOR DOWN, COOLED AND WAITING FOR OUR VISIT
SARA ABSOLUTELY LOVED HAVING A TELESCOPE AT KITT PEAK NAMED AFTER HER
SARA ABSOLUTELY LOVED HAVING A TELESCOPE AT KITT PEAK NAMED AFTER HER
A PAST VISITOR FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN LEFT ONE OF THOSE FAMOUS FLAMINGOS AT THE SARA TELESCOPE
A PAST VISITOR FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN LEFT ONE OF THOSE FAMOUS FLAMINGOS AT THE SARA TELESCOPE
THIS PICTURE WAS TAKEN FROM JUST BELOW THE SARA TELESCOPE AS IT PEERED OUT THE SLIT IN THE DOME
THIS PICTURE WAS TAKEN FROM JUST BELOW THE SARA TELESCOPE AS IT PEERED OUT THE SLIT IN THE DOME
THE FLAPS AT THE END OF THE SARA TELESCOPE CLOSE TO KEEP  DEBRIS (LIKE BIRD POOP)  OUT OF THE TELESCOPE WHEN NOT IN USE
THE FLAPS AT THE END OF THE SARA TELESCOPE CLOSE TO KEEP DEBRIS (LIKE BIRD POOP) OUT OF THE TELESCOPE WHEN NOT IN USE
THE SARA TELESCOPE IS A REMOTE CONTROLLED FACILITY-NOTICE THE ROMOTE CAMERAS ON THE DOME WALLS
THE SARA TELESCOPE IS A REMOTE CONTROLLED FACILITY-NOTICE THE ROMOTE CAMERAS ON THE DOME WALLS
THE HUGE ARM SUPPORTS THE TELESCOPE AND IS COUNTER BALANCED BY A HUGE WEIGHT
THE HUGE ARM SUPPORTS THE TELESCOPE AND IS COUNTER BALANCED BY A HUGE WEIGHT
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