I have always been fascinated with astronomy. The shear sizes and forces present in the universe is mind-boggling, to say the least. I remember as a kid sitting in the planetarium at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History imagining what it would be like to see these phenomenon up close and personal. Well, I am much older now. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be placing any bets on the opportunity occurring within the remainder of my lifetime.
A few years ago, my wife and I did some research on amateur astronomy programs offered by observatories that were open to the general public. We were fortunate to find just such a program right in my own backyard.
The Kitt Peak National Observatory is located about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, AZ, in the Schuk Toak District on the Tohono O’odham Nation. After browsing through their spectacular collection of images, we found a program that we thought would meet our needs to view the cosmos through a professional telescope. The Kitt Peak Visitor Center has a group of public programs tailored to your specific desires.
The Kitt Peak Visitor Center offers an Advanced Observing Program (AOP) geared towards anyone with an interest in observing the night sky using a high quality telescope or using our state-of-the-art instruments. No previous experience in astronomy is necessary. You can observe at the world’s largest optical observatory under some of North America’s finest skies.
We both thought this is the program for us. A chance to visit a world-renowned observatory, have the opportunity to talk with astronomers from other countries, and to have exclusive access to a telescope/imaging system. Little did we know what we were in for.
We booked our reservations after a few e-mails back and forth. This is a high-demand program and requires some planning to obtain a desirable viewing date. Often the better viewing dates, dates when there is no moon visible, the objects viewable at certain times of the year, etc., are booked far in advance. I recommend that you start now if you plan to participate in this program in the near future.
My wife and I arrived mid-day and were greeted by the very gracious staff at the visitors center. We were escorted to our living quarters (We had our own room in the astronomers dorm) and then given a tour of the numerous and large facilities. Our program was not scheduled to start until later that evening, so we had free run of the place for the rest of the afternoon. During which, we met our own personal astronomer, Adam Block.
Adam showed us as many different facilities as we could before our program started. One in particular stood out among the others. The National Solar Observatory shares the mountaintop site, and is home to the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. This telescope is currently the largest unobstructed-aperture optical telescope in the world, with a diameter of 1.5 meters. The solar images from this telescope are truly remarkable. This telescope alone is reason to visit Kitt Peak.
Part of our program included dining in the cafeteria. You may think, “Great. Cafeteria food. Blech!” You would be wrong. Kitt Peak is an exceptionally run facility, with a highly competent staff, including their chefs. Kitt Peak is host to astronomers from around the world, and consequently, is capable of satisfying many of their unique requirements.
Adam guided us to the cafeteria where we selected our dinner from the buffet of entrees. We sat with an astronomer whose name I cannot recall (It’s that old-timers thing). This astronomer was working on disproving the procedure of discovering other planets by monitoring and measuring the oscillation present from an orbiting body(-ies) around a central star. Our dinner conversation was not the norm.
After dinner, Adam left us to walk around the facilities ourselves as he had to prepare for that night’s Nightly Observing Program (NOP) viewing. My wife and I headed back to our room to rest before starting our night viewing. It was a very cool night with clear skies and very, very little atmospheric disturbance. The moon was not due to arrive until about 5:00 AM. It doesn’t get much better than that and we couldn’t wait to get started.
We arrived at the observatory ahead of the NOP group, and got a tour from Adam around the observatory. He was very informative about the equipment, computers, and telescope. He also told us that we would reconfigure the telescope for our program after the NOP completed.
he Nightly Observing Program consisted of three presentations. First, everyone was escorted to the edge of the mountaintop where we all watched the Sun set in the Arizona western sky. During the setting, Adam informed everyone about watching for the Green arc just above the Sun as it passes beyond the horizon. Note that this photograph is from Andrew Young at sdsu.edu and was not taken during this program. I include it here simply for illustrative purposes.
After the Sun set, Adam instructed us to turn toward the east. He pointed out from higher elevations, you can actually see the shadow of the Earth on the atmosphere. It appears as a gray arc on the light-pink post setting sky.
The second part of the program consisted of a night sky viewing to point out various constellations, stars, and other phenomenon. This is something that everyone could take home with them, and, given a dark night, be able to share these sightings with others. This narration continued until the Sun had sufficiently set to allow for clear viewing through the telescope. During this time, you could also see the other telescopes whirring into life as astronomers, both on-site and remote, were gearing up for their nightly runs. Kitt Peak really comes to life after dark.
The third and final presentation of the Nightly Observing Program had everyone gather around the telescope in the visitor center observatory. Adam explained what we were going to be viewing, and answered everyone’s questions with the confident knowledge that only comes from education and a passion for their work. Adam proceeded to have everyone in-turn look through the telescope at stars, galaxies, and nebula for the rest of the program.
At the conclusion of the Nightly Observing Program, the visitor center staff escorted everyone back to their vehicles, and covered the headlights so as not to disturb viewings taking place in the twenty other observatories at Kitt Peak.
By this time the night air at the top of the mountain was getting chilly. When they recommend that you bring a coat, even in the summer months, I would head their instructions. After living in Arizona for better than twenty years our thin blood wasn’t helping keep us warm.
Adam and I set up the telescope for our viewing. We re-calibrated the optics, attached the CCD camera, and started up the controller computer before moving to the warmth of Adam’s office.
My wife and I discussed with Adam what we wanted to view and image for the night. The Cat’s Eye Nebula and Veil Nebula were in prime viewing position, so we began with the Cat’s Eye. The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is a planetary nebula in the constellation of Draco.This image was taken over the course of three hours. Adam explained the LRGB photographic process as we watched the images slowly paint the monitor. It takes quite some time to take very good pictures. We started over twice because we weren’t happy with the result.
The second imaging session was targeted at the Veil Nebula. Specifically, NGC 6995. This is the shrimp looking section at the left in the larger image.
I don’t think my wife and I could have been more disappointed when morning came. Adam was an excellent host, as well as the rest of the staff at the observatory. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I would have to say that our trip to Kitt Peak was one of the most memorable and exciting trips we’ve ever taken. If you are interested in astronomy, you should check out similar programs available in your area. This program is definitely worth taking part in for each star, galaxy, and nebula in the universe.