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Monday, February 17, 2014

Tucson: Kitt Peak with Kids Review

There are 26 telescopes at Kitt Peak, but this one, the Mayall, is the best known. You can see Mexico from the observation windows! They study supernovas (when massive stars die) with this scope.

While in Tucson over the winter break, we visited Kitt Peak with the kids. This national observatory was started by the National Science Foundation in 1958 to allow astronomers to do research. Before this, you had to be affiliated with a telescope/institution to get time. With the national observatory, anyone can apply to do research on a telescope, though only 30% who apply get time granted.

You can see one of the observatories at the very tip of the mountain, though it's hard to see since it's so far away.

While you can visit during the day, of course you'll want to see the stars, right? That's what the observatory is for! They have nighttime programs, one of which we attended. You should sign up ahead of time (fee applies) because it often sells out. It starts with a drive up there. From Tucson the drive was 90 minutes, depending on where you're coming from. There are a lot of lonely roads and cacti on the way - gas up ahead of time.

The observatory is actually on Native American land, and a sacred peak at that. Initially the government was denied permission by locals to build there. The tribe leaders were invited to the University of Arizona to see telescopes in action, and the elders changed their minds and allowed the observatories to be built. They have a huge respect for the night sky, and seeing the stars up close changed their minds.

Beautiful mountain ranges you can see during the drive up.
The drive up can be a little scary for those who don't like twisty narrow roads. I didn't think they were as bad as many we've been on, but you do need to pay attention.

We're reaching the top.
You check in for the evening program about an hour before sunset. You can see that snow has fallen at this high elevation in winter. It's cold at night (7,000 feet and 15-20 degrees cooler than Tucson) and we were warned to bundle up, bringing hats and gloves in addition to winter jackets. They're serious about this, and I agree. It was COLD - at least in winter. In summer it's supposed to be lovely up there at night.

snow at the top of Kitt Peak - you're at 7,000 feet
After checking in, we got dinner. They provided turkey sandwiches (see below), snack foods, apples and water. It felt a little early for dinner (around 5:00), though we did stash some of the extra food in our bags for later. You can leave your bags in the warm room and can eat in there, but not in the other buildings. While eating, they gave us information about the observatory.

dinner at Kitt Peak
When looking for a spot for a national observatory, Tucson and other areas in Arizona were considered. Kitt Peak is dry, with few clouds. They needed a place without weather events. Climate concerns ruled out sites but those in the southwest, which has a good view into the night sky and the southern hemisphere, in addition to dryness. 

A model of Kitt Peak National Observatory. You can see all the different scopes on site!
The largest scope at the time was at Mt. Palomar in southern California, which was near cities. Light pollution was an issue. Here the elevation helped because of atmosphere, which causes trouble when looking through it. They surveyed the major ranges in the western U.S. and narrowed it down to here and Halapai Mountain near Kingman. The latter one is higher, but is in the middle of nowhere. Here, they were close to Tucson, which had a hospital, airport and slave labor (i.e. University of Arizona students). 

Now is a good time to mention our guides for the evening, Geronimo, David and I think Lisa. Lisa is an undergraduate at U of A studying astronomy and had an impressive knowledge. The other two guides have day jobs, and do this part time because they love astronomy. 
This is a concrete model of the mirror used in the Mayall telescope. They used this for the stand-in when constructing it. It's now painted and stands in the parking lot.

Kitt Peak is the largest observatory in the world, meaning they have the most telescopes (26), though not the largest scope. The largest here is the Mayall scope, at 4 meters. When it was built, it was the second largest. Now it's around the 26th largest. 

They're building more observatories closer to the equator, including one in Chile.

Sunset at Kitt Peak

We were told the rules for visiting the observatory. We're not allowed to interfere with what they're doing (not that we saw anyone using a telescope anyway - we were kept away from those actually working, aside from the guides). We're not allowed to use white light. We can't drive down with headlights (more on that later). You need to drive down together, as a group.

I think this is the Cerra scope, which is operated remotely via home computer.

When it got close to sunset, we headed outside and got some AMAZING sunset shots. The coloring is the red rays of the sun going through the atmosphere. The observatory above moved its opening a few times, making a loud garage door sound. We got used to that, as we heard others throughout the evening (including the one we sat in), rotate to allow the scope to look at a different part of the sky. We learned about a handful of other scopes there, though this information was not so interesting to the kids.

We learned about the green flash phenomenon, which the guide said is real. That's when the sun just sets and you see a green flash on the horizon. I missed it, but others in our group saw it. Long explanation, but it has something to do with the atmosphere on the light from sunset. 

Fun facts: the sun is a variable star, which changes its output over time. We have 4.5 billion years until the sun (a star) burns up. It will sterilize the earth with radiation in one billion years. It takes 8.4 minutes for sun light to reach earth.

After sun set, we looked at the eastern horizon, which had purple coloring higher up, called the Belt of Venus. The sun sets there 5-10 minutes later. The blue light below that is the night sky rising, the shadow of earth.
This is the world's largest solar telescope. There's a model of it in the visitor's center.
After the sunset tour, we headed back inside, dividing up into groups to do different observations. One group went outside to look at stars with a pointer. One group went into the visitor's center telescope area. In between we had some lectures inside, a welcome treat because it was truly cold and the kids weren't doing well outside. You could buy a cup of hot chocolate or coffee for $1, with unlimited refills. That was helpful for the cold kids!

While outside, the stars were so bright. Our guide used a green laser pointer that can go eight miles up! It's dangerous to the eyes, so we were warned never to look into one. We got little flashlights with a red light, which doesn't cause light pollution, and is super fun for the kids to play with. Turns out also that when your eyes are exposed to white light, they take 10 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Pirates would cover one eye with a patch not because they lost their eye, but because when they went below deck, they could switch the patch and see just fine in the dark below deck!

Inside we learned how to use a star chart, and then we took the chart outside to practice. Now astronomers use computers (and there's a night sky app for that too!), however using a star chart comes in handy - just like a map! Our guide pointed out different stars, formations and even the Andromeda Galaxy, the only other galaxy we can see with the naked eye. Sirius was an amazing star - it actually sparkled in different colors. We also learned the proper way to use binoculars, and experimented with those. 

Twice our group went into the observatory to view a white dwarf (center of supernova exploding), star cluster, Jupiter with four of its moons (it had orange stripes, and 67 moons total), Orion's sword nebula, and the Andromeda galaxy up close.

Good for the kids?
If your kids love stars, this is a dream come true. The ages of kids with us: 12, 10, 9 and 6. The 12 year old LOVED it and was interested the entire time. The 10 year old complained a lot of being cold and bored. The 9 year old wasn't too happy, and the 6 year old was doing okay. It was very cold outside and in the observatory, especially when they moved the roof and the wind kicked in. Even with them cuddled up against us, they were too cold to stay outside and went inside, skipping their turns looking through the telescope. Know your children when deciding whether to take them.

You're not supposed to leave early, because you're supposed to drive down the hill as a group with your parking lights on. They made a special exception for two of our cars. The observatory was a difficult experience with the kids. Plus the program went for around four hours, so they were bored. I would recommend this for older kids. My husband and I loved it - it was fascinating and the stars were beautiful.

Driving down at night
We were all a little fearful of driving down that long, steep narrow hill in the dark. Turns out it wasn't as big a deal as we expected (and I say this as the driver). You need to use only your parking lights (yellow ones) and they will check this before you head down. If you don't have those, they will cover your headlights with a manila folder (which they collect, after you pull over one mile down). You only drive down like this for one mile, then you turn your headlights on. 

You need to look out for animals along the road down, and on the flat stretch back to Tucson, since there may be cows on that flat stretch. And if you hit a cow, you have to pay the rancher for the cow!

Details: They recommend you reserve your spot 2-4 weeks in advance. They sometimes have last minute spots, if you call after 2:30 the day you want to go. Details here. Costs are $49/adult, $45/student. They offer group rates.

You'll pass through border patrol on the way out, so bring your passport if you're not a U.S. citizen.

They're closed mid-July to the end of August, for monsoon season. 

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