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Kitt Peak National Observatory: Discoveries & Programs

Kitt Peak National Observatory, 1993
This 1993 aerial photograph of the Kitt Peak mountain, some 50 miles WSW of Tucson, Arizona, shows the then current state of the large collection of telescopes maintained and operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

The Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to 24 telescopes, the "most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth," the facility's website boasts. Sitting on a mountaintop in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, the site appeals to astronomers because of its clear weather, steady atmosphere and low humidity.

Some of Kitt Peak's more notable achievements include gaining insights into the structure of the universe, measuring cosmic distances by studying supernovae, and probing the universe's early history by examining "high-redshift" galaxies that are far away from Earth.

Searching for national facilities

The observatory sits 6,875 feet (2,095 meters) above sea level and about 50 miles (80 kilometers) outside of Tucson. Established in 1958, Kitt Peak was built because astronomers needed access to facilities independent of their home institutions, according to the Kitt Peak Virtual Tour website.

"Prior to the 1950s, research astronomers only had access to the scientific facilities available through the particular institution with which they were affiliated," the website states. "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."

The National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) administers Kitt Peak, which also receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). That organization leases space for universities and other groups to operate telescopes on the mountain. Twenty-two optical telescopes and two radio telescopes currently operate at Kitt Peak, according to the NOAO's Kitt Peak website.

Major discoveries

According to the Kitt Peak Virtual Tour website, astronomers have made many notable discoveries at the observatory in the past 60 years, including:

Dark matter: Astronomers found evidence of this mysterious substance after looking at the rotations of galaxies. Scientists think that dark matter, which is still poorly understood,  makes up most of the universe (along with dark energy) and explains the acceleration of the cosmos' expansion.

Charting cosmic distances: Examining Type 1a supernovae (sometimes called "standard candles" because of their predictable luminosity) allow astronomers to calculate the distance of certain objects, such as galaxies, based on the supernovae apparent brightness. Planetary nebulae are another cosmic measuring stick.

Far-away galaxies: By studying "high-redshift" galaxies — those that are speeding away the fastest, because they were present when the Big Bang was just starting — astronomers have learned more about how galaxies were formed, and how often it happens.

Boötes void: Looking at a void in the northern constellation Boötes gave astronomers a hint of how the universe at large is structured. "Later research programs established that very large-scale structures in the universe are probably not in equilibrium, causing major revisions in cosmological models," Kitt Peak stated.

Educational and research programs

In addition to its research efforts, Kitt Peak hosts numerous programs for the public, the NOAO website states.

The visitor center hosts a night observing program that serves as an introduction to astronomy, and also an advanced observing program "to give participants an authentic sample of the atmosphere of professional astronomy." [Astronomy Tourism: Photos from Arizona's Kitt Peak Observatory]

Research assistant positions are available to undergraduates every year, particularly targeting those university students who are thinking about careers in science and astrophysics.

The observatory also occasionally offers astronomy camps, and has hosted thousands of campers since the program began in 1988.

"This 'science camp' is available internationally to both teenagers and adults," NOAO's website states. "Our camps emphasize a hands-on learning approach, and activities are driven by student involvement and interest. A prior background in astronomy is not required; neither is a connection with the University of Arizona." 

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