Kitt Peak

This post is about Kitt Peak Observatory. Or Observatories, if you want to be correct about it.This is the last post about places visited while on my 2009 driving trip, I promise. A little late, I admit, but still extraordinary. I wanted to get the facts and my personal observations just right.

Kitt Peak is over a half century old and can be found near Tucson, Arizona. It is an incredible place, for a variety of reasons.

Kitt Peak's 50th Anniversary Logo

First, when founded, it was the only place in the world that someone could request observing time on a large, professional telescope, without being affiliated with a university or institution. At the time, this helped stop a downward slide of serious students of astronomy from discontinuing their studies. It helped draw people into the field, as there was some chance of being able to use one’s learning, even if one didn’t get a position at a university or agency, the constant problem with academia, too many grads and too few positions.

Second, it is there by the grace of the local Native Americans, the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose land it is built on. An agreement was reached, as their elders looked and saw that astronomical observation for the furtherance of education was not in conflict with their beliefs, even if the requested mountain top was the second most sacred spot in their own belief system. I find this so incredibly generous and astounding a gift to give to the world, that I knew I would have to write about it. There were stipulations to the agreement, of course, but completely reasonable. It is not a lease, but a permanent installation involving annual rent money for the land’s use, and use of the mountaintop is for perpetuity as long as it is never used for military purposes, and nothing commercial is ever created there. The third stipulation had to do with all jobs created have to be offered to the local tribe first, and if they can not fulfill  them, then the positions can then be filled by others. All completely reasonable accomodations.

Think about it. You own some land. You aren’t using it presently, but it is yours to do with what you want. In fact, you like to go wander about on it, it is part of your meditations and helps keep you connected to the world. And someone comes and asks to use that land, permanently, because it’s the perfect location in the entire world for what they want to do. In fact, the best. You have no interest in doing what they want to do with it, but you don’t object. Would you be willing to let a whole bunch of strangers come and traipse about your beautiful bit of land and build permanent buildings? I think most people would say no. But, those most people, myself included, would be coming from Western Civilization’s private ownership mindset, equivalent to a two year old saying “mine, mine, mine!” while grabbing all the toys in sight so no one else can play with them.

Thank God, the creator, Allah, the universal force or whomever else you would like to praise, that this is not the mindset of all people.

Thus Kitt Peak exists.

Kitt Peak is about 56 miles Southwest of Tucson, past a small range of mountains that blocks the majority of Tucson’s light, and is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. This puts it above the average temperature inversions and other atmospheric conditions that make your normal backyard telescope observations less than optimum. It also made it possible on the day I visited for me to observe a thunderstorm going on below me. I watched the thunder clouds sweep across the desert, and lightning strikes originate a little below the level of my feet. There were even benches scattered generously around the edges of the mountain, just for such observation (and to catch my breath walking up the hills, not being used to such an elevation.)

Thunderstorm Sweeps the Sonoran Desert Below

Thunderstorm Sweeps the Sonoran Desert Below

The Solar Telescope

The Solar Telescope

Our tourguide took us to the solar telescope, which was the first telescope built on the premises. 2/3 of it is actually buried underground, and at the time was state of the art, and remains unsurpassed to this day.

I found out that each tour of the day went to a different telescope. So if you want to see all the available telescopes (there are three open to the public), and get the inside scoop, you might as well just plan on making a day of it. The three are open to all, but there is no one to explain what you are looking at, just signs to read, so having a tour guide is a great thing. Though if all you want to see is the view, and linger at the sights, then no tour guide is necessary.

As far as the land being sacred to its owners, our guide mentioned that he sees some of the members of the tribe sitting near the solar telescope, quietly observing. A certain peak visible from that side of the mountain is said to be home of their creator, while the mountain top that Kitt Peak is, is the creator’s rambling garden, his vacation home as it were, thus the second most sacred spot to them.

According to Wikipedia, it was in 1982 that the National Optical Astronomy Observatory formed to administer the Kitt Peak site, another in New Mexico and a third in Chile. Our guide explained that to administer merely meant they schedule the useage of the telescope’s time. Projects are submitted, no assessment as to its contribution to the field are made, and time is found to perform the requested observations. Of the 23 telescopes on Kitt Peak, some are available for general public use, while the majority are not. The majority are funded and manned by specific universities or combinations of institutions. There are dorms on the mountain top, and as the NOAO does not manage the other telescopes, no one ever knows exactly how many astronomers are on the mountain top on any given day, as some of the astronomers just sleep in their respective observatories. Other telescopes are maintained strictly by computers at their distant home universities, with only occasional in-person maintenance needed.

The day I visited started out a beautiful sunny day, and by the time I left, it was overcast and raining. In the visitor center, I heard the staff person calling people to tell them a group observation program that night was cancelled, due to the weather. Picnickers, mainly families, had already fled the parking lot when I left. (Why go to a mountain top with beautiful views, and lunch in the parking lot only?)

Because of course, weather is still a problem with observation time. Even if granted time on a telescope, if the weather does not cooperate, it has to be re-scheduled. Fortunately, that only happens a little less than 1/3 of the year.

I highly recommend visiting Kitt Peak if you are ever in the Tucson area. It is a beautiful monument to man’s aspirations for knowledge, and our civilizations old fascination with the skies above. To say nothing of cross-cultural cooperation and generousity. And the views are spectacular, and the telescopes impressive.

Land of Impressive Observatories

Land of Impressive Observatories

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