Our National Telescopes

Do you know we all own a small piece of several great telescopes? Until the later half of this century, astronomers had to purchase time on large telescopes. A night's viewing runs as much as $10,000. A young astronomer with a brilliant idea might not be able to get access to a telescope, while established astronomers with routine work and large purses could dominate telescope time. This changed with the creation of Kitt Peak National Observatory. A very large telescope (then second only to the Palomar telescope), was set aside for use by anyone FOR FREE based on the importance of his or her research. Today, the top of Kitt Peak is covered with telescopes of almost every kind. In addition to optical telescopes, Kitt Peak has the world's largest solar telescope, a radio telescope teamed with sites around the world to form a composite radio telescope with a diameter almost as big as the Earth. A variety of telescopes designed for specialized work like spectroscopy complete the complement. The public owned telescopes have been joined by privately owned university telescopes forming an amazing facility.

Kitt Peak is located entirely within the Tonoho O'odham Reservation. In the beliefs of the Tonoho O'odham people, Kitt Peak is the place the Creator rested when he had completed creating the world. Negotiations allowed the construction of the National Observatory within a very limited area at the crest excluding certain sacred areas. Among the sacred areas are those containing petroglyphs and the very top of the peak. This is why the largest telescope is mounted in a tall tower. It can look past the top of the peak, without intruding on the sacred lands.

In addition to facilities for science, Kitt Peak has a fine visitor center, a gift shop, picnic grounds, and of course wonderful vistas of the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Visiting astronomers are housed in comfortable adobe style quarters. They eat in cafeterias which run at odd hours that allow the astronomers to sleep by day and work by night. In addition to relatively normal facilities, Kitt Peak provides it own fire department and generate its own power. Most unusual of all is Kitt Peak's water source, its road system! Every road is designed to collect all the rain or snow that falls into cisterns for later purification and forest fire protection. There is no other source of water available.

I was privileged to be invited earlier this year to attend an evening session at Kitt Peak. I arrived a just a bit early (about fourteen hours), but by midday El Nino closed the mountain that evening with a forecast of snow. (This was in the desert when the temperatures had been in the eighties the prior day!) The steep twisting twelve mile access road is far too dangerous for travel in icy weather. In spite of missing my evening session I spent a wonderful day looking at the telescopes up close and personal. The next time I am in Arizona, I hope my luck will be better, but I left with fond memories. You might wish to look into a side trip if you are in the Tucson area. During the day or especially at night, Kitt Peak is a wonderful place.

From the middle of June through the middle of July, the Sun rises and sets at very nearly the same time each day. The Sun will set within three minutes of 9:17 PM. Sunrise is around 6:19 AM although it waits until 6:30 AM by the middle of July. The sky is dark enough for viewing about an hour after sunset until about an hour before sunrise, something like 10:15 PM until 5:20 AM.

Mars is too close to the Sun for good viewing, although you may catch a glimpse of it just before dawn. Pluto is at an altitude of 30-35° above the horizon in the SSE (at an azimuth of 165°) by the time the sky is dark enough for viewing. As always, Pluto will be a difficult object to find because its is very faint. Mercury is well placed near the end of June and the first weeks of July for viewing in the evening twilight. While Mercury is quite bright, it proximity to the Sun makes it hard to see in the evening twilight. Look for Mercury backward along the path of the setting Sun.

For the remaining planets, the times are when the planet has risen to 15° above the horizon (just high enough for good viewing). Look for:

Neptune in the SE (135°) at 20 minutes past midnight.
Uranus in the SE (135°) at 1 AM.
Jupiter in the ESE at (108°) at 2:40 AM.
Saturn in the East (90°) at 4:10 AM.
Venus in the ENE (75°) at 5:40 AM.

Don't forget the to look for the Milky Way. It will be on the Eastern horizon at dusk and will climb throughout the evening. If you have a telescope, why not try for the lovely double star Albireo? Albireo is the second brightest star in Cygnus (The Swan, also called the Northern Cross). It is at the very tip of the swan's beak (or the base of the Cross) as the swan flies down the Milky Way. This star appears white to the naked eye, but in a telescope, one of the two stars is a topaz color and the other a clear sapphire blue.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Jun 1, 1998
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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