The Quinlan Mountains are located in southern Arizona, about 55 miles southwest of Tucson. The tallest point in the range is Kitt Peak which stands 6,883 ft (2,098 m) above sea level. In 1958, Kitt Peak was selected by the National Science Foundation for a new observatory. The facility was dedicated on March 16, 1960.
Since then, the site has grown to encompass a wide array of scientific research including a solar observatory and numerous optical and radio telescopes.
For some reason, my dad became interested in the idea of participating in Kitt Peak’s Advanced Observing Program. This is a program where members of the public can pay a fee to stay overnight at the facility and enjoy a full night of observing using various telescopes and imaging equipment provided by the observatory.
Note: the program is now called the Overnight Telescope Observing Program (OTOP), but at the time of our visit in 2014 it was the Advanced Observing Program (AOP).
My dad and I are not scientists. He was working as a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office, and I was working as a copywriter for a small online retailer. While I have an appreciation for astronomy, I know little about it beyond what I learned in school. I agreed to go along on the trip, figuring it would be an interesting experience.
Our overnight stay was scheduled for Monday, April 28 through Tuesday, April 29, 2014. We drove down from Phoenix and arrived at the Kitt Peak Visitor Center at approximately 1:30 PM. The Visitor Center and its exhibits gave a thorough history of the facility and its equipment. I learned that Kitt Peak is home to the largest solar telescope in the world.
Kitt Peak was designed as a scientific institution, first and foremost. Participants of the Advanced Observing Program stay in the same dorms and eat in the same dining hall as the researchers and facility staff. The accommodations are clean and functional, but not exactly luxurious.
Participants can reserve a single room or double room. The rooms are very basic with one or two beds, a desk, a bathroom, and a window. There is no television, no Wi-Fi, and cell phones must be in airplane mode. This is necessary to avoid radio frequency (RF) interference to the observatory’s sensitive equipment.
The room rate includes three meals: dinner, a midnight snack, and breakfast. The meals are chosen in advance, and they are prepared and waiting for you in the dining hall refrigerator when you arrive. The meals are labeled with your name. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but there was some kind of communication error where we ended up with extra meals for both of us.
The Advanced Observing Program pairs your group up with a guide for your observations. Our guide was a Mr. George Hatfield, a wonderful man who was very friendly and knowledgeable.
George began by giving us a tour of the different buildings around the facility. We saw the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which is the largest solar telescope in the world. Part of the telescope is above ground, while the observing room and control room are underground, inside of the mountain. It looks like the hideout for a supervillain in a James Bond movie – especially the control room with its red lighting.
The McMath-Pierce Telescope also has a signed letter from President Kennedy and a log book with signatures from astronauts Buzz Aldrin, David Scott, Roger Chaffee, Charles Bassett, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, and several others who visited the facility in April and May of 1964.
Next, we George took us to a small building where we observed the sun during the daytime using a special telescope fitted with a filter to make it safe for viewing. It was neat to see the surface of the sun with such detail!
After that, we proceeded to the Mayall 4-meter telescope. We got to see inside the facility, and then went outside to watch the sunset. The small parking area provides a panoramic view of the rest of the facility. At 7:15 PM we watched the sunset with George, who instructed us to watch for a “green flash” – a phenomenon that occurs as the sun disappears below the horizon. Sadly, I did not see it.
We began our first observations right after sunset at the Roll Off Roof (ROR) observatory. This facility has a RCOS 16-inch telescope on a Paramount ME mount. George guided us through a number of observations which included several galaxies, nebulas, and globular clusters. The remote location of Kitt Peak far away from city lights, combined with the dry desert air, provides an ideal environment for viewing distant celestial objects that would otherwise not be visible.
We observed the M44 “Beehive Cluster,” M81, M82, M96, M105, M65, M66, and M104 galaxies. We also saw the M97 “Owl Nebula,” M16 “Eagle Nebula,” M17 “Omega Nebula,” M11 “Wild Duck Cluster,” and the M3, M5, M13, and M57 globular clusters. Below are the actual images from our observations.
George also handled all of the imaging, capturing our observations with a Canon 6D 20.2-megapixel CMOS Digital SLR camera. We were given copies of the images and a list of observations following our visit.
Bear in mind that Kitt Peak is at almost 7,000 ft elevation, and the temperature drops after sunset. We did observations at the ROR for approximately two hours before moving to the next facility.
As the temperature dropped, we moved over to the Visitor Center Observatory which as the name implies, is adjacent to the Kitt Peak Visitor Center. This observatory is equipped with an RCOS 20-inch telescope on a Paramount MEII mount.
From here, George assisted us with some planetary observations. We saw Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with incredible clarity! George recorded some short video clips of the observations using the Canon 6D camera.
The wind picked up and it began to get uncomfortably cold. Dad and I were not properly dressed for the temperature, and George directed us to a coat rack with some jackets that are used by the staff. I layered on three or four jackets to stay warm! We made sure to return the jackets when we were done.
Our final observations were of some stars and star clusters, including: Epsilon LYR, Albireo, 61 CYG, Trapezium, and Castor.
We had a midnight snack around 1:20 AM and then headed to bed.
After staying up so late, we slept in the following morning. We had our breakfast in the dining hall before packing up and driving back to Phoenix.
As we were driving along Arizona State Route 86 heading towards Tucson, I observed a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter landing at Ryan Airfield, a small public airport approximately 12 miles west of downtown Tucson. That was kind of cool to see.
Our guide George did an outstanding job of giving us a tour of the night sky. He operated all of the equipment, answered our questions, and gave us a detailed report of our observations.
If you are interested in a one-of-a-kind astronomy observing experience, I would recommend that you look into Kitt Peak’s nightly observing or overnight programs.
At the time of writing, Kitt Peak National Observatory is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. For the latest information and updates, please visit the Kitt Peak website at: https://visitkittpeak.org/