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Overview of Kitt Peak National Observatory

Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is home to the most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth for nighttime optical and infrared astronomy and daytime study of our sun. With 26 telescopes on the premises and partnerships with world-leading institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and Yale University just to name a few, it is a prime location for night sky viewing and study of our galaxy and beyond! What’s better is that it is open to the public for a variety of tours and night sky viewing programs! Professionals and amateur astronomers come from all over the world to visit Kitt Peak. However, you don’t have to be an astrophysicist to enjoy and appreciate this destination; add Kitt Peak to your Arizona bucket list and check it off!

Please see the bottom of this post for a sampling of images taken on the premises of Kitt Peak and some of the objects I captured with my digital camera through one of their telescopes on an overnight observation program.

Logistics

Located 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak resides within the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation. The best time to visit in terms of visibility and weather conditions is late spring through early Summer. Night skies are largely obstructed in the later months of summer due to the monsoons and the winter months are cold, with ice and/or snow likely present (Kitt Peak is at 6,875 feet above sea level). If you are interested more in seeing galaxies, head to Kitt Peak in the spring months. If nebulas are of greater interest, go in the summer months before the monsoons. What you see won’t be exclusive to those periods and classifications, but those seasons are considered ‘peak’ viewing for each object. Of course, if you want a preview of what you will be seeing before you plan your visit, check out the Starmap Pro or Sky View mobile applications and plug in the date and time you are thinking of going. Regardless to which objects you are aiming to see, I would recommend going as close to a new moon as possible so the sky is as dark as possible (check out www.timeanddate.com for the lunar phase calendar). Just so there aren’t any surprises, please be aware that the facilities at Kitt Peak were largely constructed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. There have been a number of upgrades and replacements of telescopes, but don’t go expecting everything to be brand new!

There are a number of ways to visit Kitt Peak National Observatory, but below is a sampling of their basic offerings available to the public. If you are looking for an overnight experience or want to rent an entire observatory for a group, contact them and make it happen!

  • Basic Tours: Tours during the day are offered for a minimal fee of the below telescopes.
    • 10:00 a.m. – McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. This is the iconic triangle structured telescope, of which 2/3 of the full length of the diagonal portion of the telescope is actually buried in the mountain. There is an access door at ground level that has an observation deck that lets you peer into the depths of this telescope!
    • 11:30 a.m. – 2.1 Meter Telescope. This is one of the early workhorses that helped establish Kitt Peak. It was built in 1964 and is still being used almost every night by researchers from around the globe!
    • 1:30 p.m. – Mayall 4 Meter Telescope. If not for the telescope itself, this is worth seeing because there is a great view deck near the top that gives you expansive views of Kitt Peak and its many observatories. Bonus: you can take an elevator from ground level to the observation deck! When I used the elevator, I felt like I was stepping back in time…I’m convinced the elevator is original to 1973 when the observatory was constructed!
  • Night Observer Program: For this program you will arrive at Kitt Peak late in the afternoon for a brief orientation and then go with your astronomer guide and group to observe the night skies for a few hours following sunset! Rates vary by a variety of individual categories, but this program is on the scale of $50 per person. There are three telescopes available for this program, so your ‘scope time’ will vary based on how many people are present each night. To maximize the experience, go on the evening of a full moon so even if you are not looking through the telescope, there is plenty of night sky to observe with the naked eye or binoculars! Be sure to make reservations for this program at least 2-4 weeks in advance. If there is a weather-related cancellation, Kitt Peak’s current policy is to fully refund your money.

Please note there is ZERO cell phone reception at Kitt Peak. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones that gets a bar or two, you will be asked to shut your cell phone off or put it into airplane mode. Wireless communications, including cell phones, can cause disruption to some of the telescopes and related technologies.

Gear & Gadgets

There is not much you need to bring along with you for a basic visit to Kitt Peak. That said, if you are not a United States citizen be sure to bring proper identification documentation along with you as there is a Homeland Security Checkpoint along the road from Tucson to Kitt Peak.

Depending on which format you pursue on your visit to Kitt Peak, some of the below items might be helpful.

  • Warm Gear & Blankets: Be sure to bring clothing and accessories appropriate for the weather. Since all observatories are open air, you may have some shelter from wind, but you will essentially be outdoors for the entirety of your viewing experience. There are conditioned spaces nearby that you can warm up if needed or purchase warm drinks, but all observation time will be spent exposed to the outdoor weather.
  • Astronomy Binoculars: If you would like a bit of additional viewing flexibility while others in your group are using the telescope, it can be useful to have a set of astronomy binoculars. This can be particularly helpful if you are looking to entertain young ones while they wait their turn for the telescope! 🙂
  • Digital Camera: Most of the telescopes available to the general public allow you to essentially use the telescope as a ginormous lens for your camera (WAY COOL!). The standard night observing programs that run early in the evening at Kitt Peak will not allow you to hook your camera up, but if you are pursuing one of the longer programs or an overnight program, be sure to bring your Digital SLR Camera and a T-ring adapter appropriate for your camera. The various elements in the night sky will appear much clearer and vibrant when capturing them on a 30-90 second exposure on your camera because more light can be collected than what your eye collects in an instant.
  • Music: Some of the observatories have sound systems available. Bring your favorite tunes along on your device of choice and connect it via an auxiliary cord. When we went, we enjoyed jamming to Lindsey Stirling’s Shatter Me album, Elijah Bossenbroek’s Carpe Lumen album, and Bethel Music’s Wonder single.

Further Reading

Full List of Public Program Offerings

NOAO’s Guide for Visitors

Clear Sky Chart and Viewing Forecast

Kitt Peak Observing at Roll Off Roof Observatory

Night Observing at the Roll Off Roof Observatory

Kitt Peak Observatory Arizona Whirlpool Galaxy

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy

Kitt Peak M20 Triffid Nebula Arizona

M20 Triffid Nebula

 

Kitt Peak M16 Eagle Nebula

M16 Eagle Nebula

Kitt Peak M81 Bode's Galaxy and M82 Cigar Galaxy

M81 Bode’s Galaxy and M82 Cigar Galaxy

Kitt Peak Arizona M13 Globular Star Cluster

M13 Globular Star Cluster

About The Author

Jeremy Meek is a native Arizonan with a passion for adventure and discovery of unique experiences. Whether exploring Arizona or setting out on an adventure abroad, Jeremy is constantly scouting truly great adventures and experiences.

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