Awesome day – BIG telescopes, Snow and Desert Rain

This was my highlight day (Tuesday 24th February) as we visited the Kitt Peak National Observatory site.  I had to keep pinching myself to remind myself it was real.  As the strap line says ‘The Kitt Peak Experience…Like No Other’

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I should warn readers at this point that there will be lots of superlatives in today’s blog.  It was an epic day!

The weather didn’t look good when we set off (cloudy, wet and windy) and we did wonder whether we would be able to see anything.  The optimistic amongst us suggested that the telescopes might be above the clouds and so it would be OK.

We arrived at the Kitt Peak car park in wind and snow!  Boy was it cold (my thermals rapidly made it from my rucsac to my body).

We were met by the lovely Katy Garmany and John Glaspey who were to be our guides for the day, and our company for dinner too.  Their depth and breadth of knowledge of the history, development and current use of the site and its scopes was brilliant, and the easy way John talked us through everything made for an absolutely fascinating visit.  We got to hear about the astronomical, technical, practical,  and human challenges.

Kitt Peak1 Mayall 1

We visited the two large telescopes first – the Mayall 4m telescope and then the WIYN 3.5m. Both can be used for either imaging or spectroscopy.  Although of relatively similar mirror sizes the two scopes proved to be very different in build, mount and practicality of use.

Mayall 4m scope

Mayall 4m scope

The cockpit Mayall

The steps down into the cockpit of Mayall

Inside the cockpit Mayall

Inside the cockpit of Mayall



The Mayall was built first and so is of an older design with heavier mirrors, designed for film not ccd, and requiring a much heavier duty mount.  The whole telescope/mount configuration was HUGE!








It was amazing to be able to climb into the secondary cage to see where instruments would be placed.


I got to sit in the control seat.  A few more controls than in my observatory, but I’m sure the principles are the same.

Control seat

The temperature changes between the scope room which needs ideally to be ambient temperature, and the control room and living space was noticeable (and welcome by this point).  One of the areas of development over time has been ways of minimising cool down time for the scopes eg we were told how different venting arrangements had been introduced.

WIYN diagramFrom the Mayall scope we walked across to see the WIYN 3.5m scope.

WIYN 1This was of a very different design, and more compact than the Mayall (which allowed a smaller enclosure too).

John and Wyn

The most interesting element was to see the 66 actuators on the back of the mirror which adjusted for any changes in mirror shape caused by the variable gravitational affects on the mirror depending on its position.  We were told that measurements since these were fitted suggests that 33 would have been sufficient – hindsight is wonderful…

Given the size of the mirrors we saw, and the mountain-top location, it makes sense to have mirror recoating facilities on site.  John talked us through both the practicalities of disassembling and transporting the mirrors, and then the actual coating process.  The actual coating process takes a very short time, but the dismantling and reassembly takes much longer.  The process is carried out every 3 years to maintain the mirrors’ effectiveness.

Given my interest in solar observation I was slightly disappointed to find the McMath-Pierce Solar scope was out of action.  We did however still get to go and see the scope, which is unusual in that the light path travels underground.

Helen under a very big solar scope

Helen under a very big solar scope

McMath-Pierce Solar scope diagram

McMath-Pierce Solar scope diagram

In the afternoon we met with Jim Scotti from the SpaceWatch Programme who talked us through his adventures as an asteroid and comet hunter.  It was interesting to hear how the facility, which has two scopes, was established and how the techniques for detection, both manual and computerised were developed.  The team have identified over 100,000 asteroids and Jim thinks he has personally been involved in around 30-40,000 of them!  Jim Scotti and scope 1

Asteroid hunters

Asteroid hunters


The team also collaborate closely with other astronomers to confirm observations (although we were also told that this field can get quite competitive!).



An example was Jim working with Caroline Shoemaker and David Levy.  He said they had detected something one night but were clouded out the following night and so couldn’t follow up the observations.  It was clear at Kitt Peak so Jim turned the camera (using a strip survey technique) to the location given to him.  What appeared as the image was downloaded section by section astounded him – a comet in many pieces.  A remarkable find, which became even more remarkable when the comet pieces later smashed into Jupiter.



While it was great to see all the scopes, there was a worrying element to the visit.  It appears that more and more scopes are being decommisssioned or mothballed because of lack of funds, and open access is also being restricted.  This includes the solar scope.  It seems almost criminal that the capital investment in scopes is now being wasted due to a lack of funding for revenue costs (which in the great scheme of things are relatively modest – in the $100k not millions).  Could crowd sourcing come to the rescue?  I think I would pay an annual subscription to keep such fantastic research facilities open….

The day concluded with a lovely Tohono O’odham meal at the Desert Rain Cafe in the Reservation, and a little bit of retail therapy in the Native American shop on site.

An awesome day!



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