The Kitt Peak Virtual Tour




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Pictures From The Early Days of Kitt Peak

"Our First View of Kitt Peak" written by Helmut Abt

The book "Realm of the Long Eyes" by James E. Kloeppel, 1996, offers a brief history of KPNO

To honor the Fortieth Anniversary of Kitt Peak National Observatory, the AURA Board of Directors, in conjunction with its August meeting in Tucson, hosted a reception on the NOAO office building patio on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1998.




During the Cold War, public support of the Space Race resulted in the first moon walk on July 20, 1969. Astronomy research similarly relies upon a supportive public attitude as expressed through the Congress.


As astronomy gets more and more specialized, it will be harder to gain public support for projects?

The public has an important role to play in ongoing research.


What was the reason for founding a National Observatory in the United States?

Prior to the 1950s, research astronomers only had access to the scientific facilities available through the particular institution with which they were affiliated. Therefore, a faculty member teaching at a major university might be able work with a more powerful, better equipped telescope than a colleague at a smaller school. There was no equal access to the best research facilities.

Following World War II, the United States entered the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The successful launching of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, by the Soviets, was a major catalyst for the formation of a national space program, and its obvious partner, astronomy research.

At that time, numerous astronomers petitioned the federal government for funds to build a research center available to the entire astronomy community, a National Observatory.

With the granting of federal funds, a search for the best site within the continental United States began.

Over 100 mountains in the western portion of the nation were surveyed. From the narrowed list of eleven sites in California, Arizona and New Mexico, Kitt Peak was determined to have the greatest number of positive attributes.

There were five primary categories that led to the final decision:

  1. Kitt Peak has a high fraction of clear weather. In particular it tends to be clearer, in the early spring, than the observatories on the California coast, allowing better access to the distant universe outside our galaxy.
  2. Kitt Peak has a remarkably steady atmosphere overhead, providing excellent "seeing." This term describes the effect of turbulent atmospheric motion on the quality of the image of an astronomical object.
  3. At an altitude of 6875 ft and located in the middle of the Sonora Desert, Kitt Peak generally has low levels of relative humidity. Just as eye glasses fog up when the humidity is high, so do telescope mirrors, restricting the use of the telescope during otherwise clear viewing time.
  4. The University of Arizona had an excellent astronomy program capable of supplying the trained personnel required to staff an observatory. In addition to astronomers, such a facility requires opticians, mechanical and electrical engineers, electronics experts and a host of others having specialized skills.
  5. Tucson was a small city with a minimum amount of extraneous light in the fifties, so there was little light pollution. Tucson's light pollution has increased slightly, however, tough lighting ordinances and the use of high pressure sodium lamps has alleviated much of the damage.

On May 5, 1958, the National Science Foundation secured a lease from the Tohono O'odham Nation to use the chosen mountain on their ancestral homeland for the sole purpose of astronomy research.

By the early 1960s, the building of roads and such early telescopes as the 0.9-meter (36-inch) and 2.1-meter (84-inch). had began across Kitt Peak, as well as the current Tucson-based headquarters of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories.

Construction and equipment upgrades continue on Kitt Peak to this day.


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NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc. under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The Kitt Peak Virtual Tour is developed and maintained by the NOAO Educational Outreach Office.

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