Beginning in the Visitor Center at 10:00 am, the first tour each day takes you to the world's largest solar telescope. This telescope is used by astronomers primarily during daylight hours to study the nearest star, the Sun.
This unusually designed telescope was the brain child of Dr. Robert McMath, one of the founders of the Kitt Peak National Observatory. The McMath-Pierce is the largest solar telescope in the world. Primarily involved in spectroscopic studies of the Sun, this telescope can see farther into the infrared than any other solar telescope.
But it is not just used during the day. Its very long focal length allows it to bring high magnification to the study of bright solar system objects like the Moon, Venus, and Mercury. In recent years it has even been used to study exo-planets.
Starting in the Visitor Center at 11:30 am, you will visit one of the early workhorses of Kitt Peak.
Seeing first light in 1964, the 2.1-meter (84 inch) telescope was the largest on Kitt Peak for almost a decade. It had an unusually short focal length and a mirror made of a brand-new material called "Pyrex" whose weight was lessoned by empty cavities inside the glass. In many ways this telescope design was ahead of its time.
Numerous important discoveries were made at the 2.1-meter. It first detected very distant clouds of hydrogen gas between galaxies, known as the Lyman-alpha forest. It observed the first example of gravitational lensing (as predicted by Einstein) and the first pulsating white dwarf star. Research into the rotation rate of spiral galaxies that began at the 2.1-meter eventually led to our current understanding of the existence of dark matter in the Universe.
This tour begins at 1:30 pm in the Visitor Center and proceeds up the hill to the telescope. Weighing in at nearly 300 tons, the 4-m is the largest optical telescope on Kitt Peak and is one of the most scientifically productive telescopes in the world.
Seeing first light in 1973, the Mayall 4-Meter Telescope was the 2nd largest in the world at that time. It remains the largest telescope on Kitt Peak. The 180 feet story telescope is easily visible from Tucson, 55 miles to the northeast.
For over 40 years the Mayall has been involved in cutting-edge astronomical research, most notably in understanding the size and large-scale structure of the visible universe. Currently much of its time is spent in research on exoplanets (planets that orbit stars other than the Sun). Future plans for the telescope involve a multi-year dedicated research project that hopes to unlock some of the secrets of dark energy.
Mounted on the roof of the Visitor Center is a tracking mirror that relays a live visible-light image of the Sun. During peak periods of solar activity numerous sunspots may be seen. The Sun's activity level changes day to day and on a longer 11 year cycle. Viewing occurs inside the Visitor Center auditorium/exhibit gallery when weather and staffing permit.
To the unaided eye, the Sun presents an image of stability and a uniform yellow-white surface. Viewed through our two special telescopes, the Sun reveals itself to be dynamic, intricately detailed, and ever changing. A filtered visible-light telescope reveals the presence of sunspots. The second telescope views the solar atmosphere in a very narrow range of red light ("Hydrogen-Alpha") to show colossal prominences, filaments, loops, and more. Viewing occurs when weather and docent staffing permit. These telescopes are located in a small observatory dome not far from the giant McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.
Before the age of telescopes and clocks, telling the time of day was difficult. The ancient astronomers discovered the regularity of the motion of the Sun. They also discovered the seasons, so important to agriculture. By sticking a vertical pole in the ground they noticed the daily changing of the length and position of the pole's shadow. This eventually resulted in sundials, which became clocks for telling the time of day.
But the Sun's position varies approximately 4 minutes each day. Many devices were invented to compensate for this seasonal changing, and here before you is one such device. Essentially it is a time machine. See if you can understand its workings.
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