Kitt Peak National Observatory Celebrates 40 Years:


Kitt Peak was selected in 1958 as the site for a national observatory from a survey that included more than 150 mountain ranges across the United States. Located on lands of the Tohono O'Odham Nation in the Sonoran Desert southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak today is home to the world's largest collection of optical telescopes under desert skies that continue to be some of the finest in the world for astronomical observations. To commemorate Kitt Peak National Observatory's 40th birthday, this collection of images featuring the facilities and science of Kitt Peak has been assembled. For more information about the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, which include Kitt Peak National Observatory, the National Solar Observatory, Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory, and the U.S. Gemini Program/SCience OPErations, visit the web pages at or contact

Horsehead Nebula

The Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion is a cloud of opaque dust that absorbs light from the stars beyond it to create this unusual formation. The dense dust cloud is seen projected in front of ionized gas, resulting in the pink glow seen in this image taken with the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) 0.9-meter telescope.

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31, is the most easily visible and nearest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way at a distance of 2.4 million light years. (One light year is how far light travels in a year at a speed of 300,000 km/sec.) Over 300 billion stars make up this galaxy, which is so large, it would take 110,000 years to travel from edge to edge at the speed of light. This image was taken with the Case Western Reserve University Burrell Schmidt Telescope on Kitt Peak.

Lightning over Kitt Peak

The summer monsoon season of 1972 brought a spectacular electrical storm as captured by photographer (and former Kitt Peak National Observatory employee) Gary Ladd. This dramatic one-minute time exposure taken from the 2.1-meter visitor gallery captures multiple lightning bolts illuminating the mountaintop. This image is a portion of a larger, copyrighted image: Kitt Peak Electrical Storm, Copyright 1972, Gary Ladd.

Sun's magnetic field

Variations in the Sun's Magnetic Field are shown in this image taken with the Kitt Peak Vacuum Telescope (KPVT). No other telescope in the world can match the spatial resolution, sensitivity, continuity, duration, and field-of-view of data from the KPVT synoptic program which has provided a daily image of the Sun's magnetic field for more than a complete 22-year activity cycle.

Mayall 4-meter

The Mayall 4-meter Telescope celebrates its 25th birthday in 1998 and dominates the Kitt Peak skyline with its 18-story dome. The moving weight of the telescope is 375 tons yet it is so precisely balanced that accurate tracking of celestial objects is achieved with only a one-half horsepower motor. Due to its large aperture, high quality optics, excellent location, and continuing upgrades to instrumentation, the Mayall 4-meter remains one of the finest telescopes in the world, making forefront discoveries that continue to push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.

Spiral sunspot

This rare Spiral Sunspot was imaged on February 19, 1992, with the Vacuum Telescope on Kitt Peak. Sunspots are dark, relatively cooler areas of the Sun's surface that vary in size, grouping, persistence, and number and can cover an area a couple of times larger than the size of the Earth. Sunspots occur in cycles, with the number of sunspots reaching a maximum every 11 years. The next solar maximum will occur in the spring of 2000.

Whirlpool Galaxy

The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51, is an extremely bright galaxy some 27 million light years away. The outlying arm of M51, which reaches to a small companion galaxy, is the site of star formation stimulated by the redistribution and compression of interstellar matter as the two galaxies collided. This image was taken with the KPNO 0.9-meter telescope.

WIYN telescope

The WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope, dedicated in 1994, represents a new era of technology and collaboration in astronomical telescopes. Consortium members the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, have all worked together to design, build, and operate the WIYN telescope. New technologies allow the WIYN dome to be a fraction of the size of the Mayall 4-meter and the lightweight, active primary mirror and accompayning optical system consistently deliver the sharpest images possible for a ground-based telescope.

McMath-Pierce telescope

The National Solar Observatory's McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope located on Kitt Peak is the world's largest solar telescope with its 1.6-meter diameter main mirror. Dedicated in 1962, the normally white building appears red due to high-altitude haze following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The three star trails spaced equally on the far right mark the Belt of Orion.

Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula, also known as M20, in the constellation of Sagittarius, consists of clouds of hydrogen and helium gas glowing from radiation of stars embedded in the nebula. Radiation pressure and stellar winds from stars in the central area create a shock wave, pushing the gases outward. Dark lanes are seen as opaque regions of dust and gas in the nebula and indicate areas of probable star formation. The Trifid Nebula, relatively nearby at a distance of about 3000 light years, was imaged with the Kitt Peak National Observatory 0.9-meter telescope.

Milky Way Galaxy

The center of our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, is located in the constallation of Sagittarius. Due to very heavy obscuration of the light by dust, the Galactic Center is not visible in optical light. But the infrared radiation seen in this image passes through the dust easily, revealing a large population of stars packed very densely together. Dark patches and thread-like structures visible in the picture are regions where the dust is too dense even for the infrared. This image of the Galactic Center in Infrared light was taken at the KPNO 1.3-meter telescope in 1991.

Tohono O'odham baskets

Baskets handcrafted by members of the Tohono O'Odham Nation are made by sewing coils of horsehair, beargrass, yucca or cattail together. The Man in the Maze pattern, seen here in the central basket, representing a person's journey through life, is particularly significant to the Tohono O'Odham people. This picture of Tohono O'Odham Baskets was provided by Elaine Halbedel.

Kitt Peak 40th
National Optical Astronomy Observatories, 950 North Cherry Avenue, P.O. Box 26732, Tucson, Arizona 85726, Phone: (520) 318-8000, Fax: (520) 318-8360
Last updated: 30Jul1998
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