Kitt Peak

Here are some of the 27 telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Part of the Tucson based National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO), Kitt Peak gets most of its funding from university systems. Astronomers submit proposals to get approval for time on the scopes. Typically they spend several days in Kitt’s housing facilities, and busy nights of work, with breaks at the dining hall. Their time here may be a total washout if the skies are cloudy.

January 30, 2017.

I think I’ve decided what to be when I grow up — a docent at Kitt Peak in Arizona. I may have to go back to school for a while, but it would be worth it. We’ve done many tours, with enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides, but each time I thought that, given a little time, I could absorb and repeat what they were sharing. Not here, though.

These folks have backgrounds in engineering and astronomy. Not only are they able to explain the history of this facility, they are up on current projects and how Kitt Peak figures into them. More importantly, they can help you and I understand where we fit into our universe.

The Kitt Peak Observatory is about 7K feet above sea level. We can put scopes higher, but if we do the people making observations get less lucid. Heck, we can even put them into space, like the Hubble. But there is still a need for scopes here on Earth.

One of the more impressive arrays just points at our own sun. Boring, you say. But these three lenses are used non-stop each day to study our nearest stellar neighbor, the source of all our energy.

The lenses are coated with a micron of aluminum. This is done under the football stadium at the University of Arizona in nearby Tucson. The aluminum is vaporized under exacting conditions. Lenses from all over the world are brought here for the process.

Has anything really important been discovered here? Well, some upstart chick astronomer accepted a routine assignment to measure the rotation pattern of our nearest inter-galactic neighbor, Andromeda. She observed, unexpectedly, that the stars’ revolutions seemed governed by some unseen force. Her male colleagues scoffed at her findings.

Later it was confirmed that the galaxy was revolving around some invisible gravitational force — “dark matter”. Further study confirmed that there is “dark energy” in our universe. It seems now that over 90% of what we experience is composed of dark matter and energy we cannot observe or measure.

Just before publishing this post we ran into van-dweller and astronomer Arthur Eigenbrot. He said he had studied a galaxy at Kitt Peak using the 3.5 meter telescope. He’s working on releasing sections of his thesis for publication. The galaxy he studied was 30 million light years away. Here is a link to his blog

Here are some more of the telescopes. We are told that ‘size matters’ in astronomy. The bigger the lense, the more light it will capture.

Here is the above-ground portion of the McMath-Pierce solar telescope, the first one we toured.

This model shows the structure of the McMath-Pierce solar telescope. The above ground part of the shaft is two hundred feet long. The length of the below ground part of the shaft is 300 feet. Generally, the shafts of telescopes are pointed toward the north star. This simplifies programming the lense direction by taking the Earth’s rotation out of the coordinates needed. Lenses are at the top. Mirrors at the bottom and center reflect the images captured. The Sun’s images are sent to the control room just below ground level.

Looking up the shaft of the solar telescope at the three lenses, which follow the sun each day.

Here are three adjustable mirrors in the center of the solar telescope’s shaft.

Here is the inside the control room of the solar telescope.

In the control room the sun’s images are shown on three separate tables. Here is one of them. No one really watches the images, though. They are captured electronically for further study.

Docent (in hat) explains to the group that the sun’s gravity is so strong it may take light a thousand years of bouncing around inside before it escapes into space.

We also toured the Mayall 4 meter telescope at the top of the hill.

Here is the Mayall’s 4 meter lens assembly.

This 2.1 meter scope is not the biggest, but it still gets constant use. This tool was used by Vera Ruben, helping her discover the existence of dark matter.

When a telescope is initially brought online a heavy concrete spacer like this is used instead of an actual lense, until the assembly can be fine tuned. After the process is complete the spacer is no longer needed. This one has been turned into art. It shows the night sky above the Tohono O’odham people in the Sonoran Desert. The T.O. have agreed to allow the observatory to be put on this mountain, which is inside their reservation.

The high peak in the distance is Baboquivari Peak. According to Tohono O’odham legend I’itoi the creator lives in a cave deep under the mountain. Their people arose from the center of the earth through this navel of the world.

High up on Kitt Peak you can easily see the basin/range landscape of the southwest. To visualize how the separation of tectonic plates formed these mountain ranges and basins imagine your old encyclopedia wedged between two heavy marble bookends. The books are a cross-section of the earth’s crust. The bookends are the edges of the tectonic plates. Slide them out a few inches. Now tip volume A to the right causing all the volumes topple over within the bookends. The higher top edge of each book is a mountain range and the lower top edge is a valley. Over the millenia material erodes from the ranges, filling the valleys and creating flat basins between the ranges.

**** All pics are click to enlarge.

One thought on “Kitt Peak

  1. Kathleen "Kate" Murphy said:

    I never fail to be enthralled with your posts — so keep on enthralling! We love it!

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