Nestled on a craggy mountaintop about 4,000 feet above the dim lights of Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory is in a world of its own.
Since the late 1950s, researchers at Kitt Peak have contributed to some of the most groundbreaking astronomical discoveries of the 20th century, ranging from the discovery of water molecules on the surface of the sun to findings about the deepest regions of the universe.
For the first time in nearly 50 years, the observatory is offering a series of stargazing programs on the WIYN 0.9m (36 inch) research telescope.
The 0.9-meter telescope was one of the first research telescopes on Kitt Peak. Built in 1962, it is used primarily for research that demands a wide-field view of the sky. Many of the most famous poster-quality images from Kitt Peak have been taken with the 0.9-meter telescope.
Jeronimo Cruz, an amateur astronomer and public-program specialist at Kitt Peak, said this is a program that amateur astronomers won't want to miss.
"Anything you can imagine, we see through this type of telescope," said Cruz. "Its size, coupled with the ideal location of the observatory, make for some fantastic views."
The observatory was originally built on Kitt Peak in order to enhance the viewing capacity of telescopes like the 0.9-meter.
"When you look at Tucson from a distance, you can see an orange glow above the city," said Cruz. "If that orange glow is brighter than (the astronomical object) you want to look at, like a dim nebula or galaxy, it can actually prevent you from seeing it."
The largest telescope available for normal use by visitors to the observatory is a 20-inch optical telescope. Cruz said the larger aperture of the 36-inch telescope will allow visitors to see dimmer objects that are farther away.
"With a telescope this big, anyone in the public can basically walk up to the scope, look through the eye piece and see something that's really bright that normally would be dim through any other scopes we use for our regular program," said Cruz.
The 0.9m telescope is not only much, much bigger than any scope available at, say, a department store; it is also specially optimized for imaging. The 0.9m telescope has been used to photograph the Andromeda galaxy, various nebulae, material ejected from dying stars, and molecular clouds, all of which tend to be very ascetically pleasing, said Buell Jannuzi, director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
The telescope has the capability of viewing galaxies that are literally billions of light years away, he said. To put this enormous distance in perspective, it takes light roughly eight minutes to travel from the sun to the earth, and a few seconds to go from the Earth to the moon. It takes light from the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way, 2.5 million years to reach the eye of an observer on earth.
Public stargazers will start their journey at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) headquarters on the UA campus, where they will get on a shuttle to Kitt Peak. After a pleasant drive through the desert and up a meandering mountain road, they will arrive at the summit in time for a 5:30 p.m. dinner at the observatory cafeteria.
Participants will be given a guided tour of the 0.9m facility and a short lecture on the history of the telescope and Kitt Peak. Afterward, they will head to the observatory for a night of stargazing.
"Basically, we try to show you at least six different objects through a research telescope," said Cruz.
Cruz said Mars is currently near its closest point to the Earth, which means there is no better time than now to be behind the 0.9m scope's eyepiece. In addition to a spectacular view of Mars, Cruz said, Jupiter and Uranus will be in clear view during the program. Apart from shots of our own solar system, visitors will have the opportunity to view a wide range of celestial bodies.
"We will show our public stargazers a double star, or two stars that are trapped in a binary orbit; a globular cluster; a nebula; and a galaxy," said Cruz.
In addition, Cruz said, participants will be given instruction on using star maps to locate celestial objects and constellations.