The National Solar Observatory operates several telescopes at Kitt Peak, just sixty miles west of Tucson, Arizona. The McMath-Pierce solar facility is located atop the 7000-foot summit. The facility is home to three solar telescopes, over 20 optical telescopes, and three radio telescopes. Each of the three reflecting solar telescopes uses relatively similar technology for solar viewing.
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The sun’s image is reflected through 3 separate mirrors, the 2nd of which is underground, before reaching the observing room. The primary heliostat mirrors turn throughout the day as the earth moves around the sun. The telescopes differ in size and in the relative distance of the three reflective mirrors. The Main Telescope is the largest and is able to transmit images to three separate ports in the facility, to be used with different instruments that measure the images. Instruments used include the Main Spectrograph, which can be used photographically or photoelectrically with several different filters. A Solar-Stellar Spectrograph also is used with the Main Telescope, and has been in use since 1987. A North port exit allows scientists to set up their own instruments for use with the Main Telescope. The East Auxiliary Telescope is next smallest in size and is used more often for atmospheric experiments and for nighttime viewing. An optical box for planetary viewing is outfitted with this telescope. The West Auxiliary Telescope is the smallest of the three and said to have the best image quality. No working instruments are set up to be used with the West Telescope, but it is used most often for producing images of sun spots as well as the production of images for tourists who visit the Observing Room gallery. A Visitors Center at Kitt Peak offers interactive exhibits and informational panels, which educate guests about the telescopes and what is seen with them. A Heliostat exhibit allows guests to see and learn about sun spots. A mirrors exhibit demonstrates how the mirrors are used on Kitt Peak to capture images of distant cosmic objects. A Plasma Display introduces physics and shows visitors how plasma is connected to star formation. Outdoor exhibits are scattered throughout the campus and demonstrate how the sun was first used to tell time, as well as the history of solar understanding throughout the world’s cultures.
History: The McMath-Pierce Solar Facility is the flagship facility of the National Solar Observatory. The facility was dedicated in 1962, and today, houses three of the world’s largest solar viewing telescopes. Scientists come from all over the world to use these instruments to study the sun. The site is currently administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Kitt Peak is famous as the home of the first telescope specifically designed to search for near-earth asteroids and to calculate the probability of an asteroid colliding with earth.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Daytime activities at the Visitors Center include docent-led tours and live sun viewing. Day guests may hike through the campus and enjoy the 100-mile panoramic views from the 7,000-foot summit. Nighttime activities showcase the dark, frequently clear skies above the observatory. The four-hour introductory Nightly Observing Program is best for those new to stargazing and astronomy. The evening includes a light dinner, sunset viewing and constellation viewing through the telescopes. The Dark Sky Discovery program is appropriate for those with some knowledge of astronomy. On evenings with little moonlight, the small group program offers a more in-depth exploration and use of the telescopes with knowledgeable guides. The Overnight Telescope Viewing program is the most in-depth program offered. Participants are treated to three meals and a customized viewing program based on their interests and goals. Overnight stays take place in the dormitories atop the mountain. Overnight programs and day tours are also available for school groups. Additional programs at the observatory include Binocular Stargazing Workshops, in which participants are taught to use binoculars for their own stargazing. Basic and Intermediate Astrophotography workshops teach participants how to best photograph the night sky.
Past and Future Exhibits: Special events are frequently scheduled around rare or important celestial events. Meteor Mania is a special nighttime viewing event scheduled to coincide with meteor showers. Viewing takes place from 10pm to 3am. Past viewings have included July’s Delta Aquarid showers. Future viewings include the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December. Preparation classes for the 2017 “Great American Solar Eclipse” were offered which educated guests on best practices for solar eclipse viewing. The observatory was not open to the public on the actual day of the eclipse.
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