It’s one thing to look at a galaxy 2.5 million light years away with your unaided eyes. It’s something else entirely to find out the light you see was created when the human species had just started to evolve.
One great location to see this nighttime spectacle, along with many others, is the Kitt Peak Observatory. An hour-and-45-minute drive west of Tucson takes visitors up a winding, steep two-lane road to the top of the mountain.
The Andromeda Galaxy, the closest galaxy to ours, looks like a pea-sized cloud in the night sky. On a recent Friday, Kitt Peak guide Kevin Bays pointed it out to a group of visitors with his green laser pointer. Within that cloud are numerous other stars that act like our sun, with planets circling around them. All of this is in a tiny portion of the sky.
“Have I made you feel small yet?” Bays jokingly asked. “It’s something we try to do here.”
In all seriousness, however, the Kitt Peak Nightly Observing Program aims to show people what has always been around them and to give guests a sense of their place in the universe.
Visitors like Wally Trial, Carla Cassidy and their son, Nathan Roberts, in Tucson on a vacation from Seattle, took the trek up Kitt Peak to see what the observatory had to offer.
“I think people who live in the city actually don’t understand and don’t actually realize how amazing it is to get to see the stars,” Trial said Jan. 30. “Living in Tucson and having Kitt Peak only an hour and half away is a pretty amazing thing for people to see.”
The observatory, home to 19 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes, is used by dozens of universities around the world. It offers astronomers and casual stargazers one of the few pristine star-viewing vantage points in the world.
The dry desert air, high altitude and a lack of city lights permits views unlike any other.
The facility is open to the public during the day for tours, but at night, access is limited to 46 people, who are taken to various telescopes to see first hand how spectacular the night skies around here really are.
People have been making the Kitt Peak trek for years.
Years ago, the observatory’s docents would bring their own equipment and telescopes up the mountain. The program really took off through their donations, which funded the observatory’s first telescope, a 20-inch device just outside the visitor’s center. From there, the program was able to fund two more facilities and offer impressive views for 46 guests per night.
“Everybody notices stars in the sky, but that’s about it,” guide Kathie Zelaya said. “There’s a lot more wonder to the universe, and we give them a good chance to see it for themselves. A lot of people have misconceptions up here, like what causes the shadow on the moon. A lot of people think it’s the earth’s shadow somehow. But we have activities up here to help clear up those misconceptions and give them also a sense of place in the universe.”
Guests are greeted and treated to a lunch of sandwiches, chips and fruit and then taken to watch the sunset.
As the sun appears to lower in the sky and the stars above slowly start to appear, the information starts flowing from the guides, like how one might tell nautical directions to why the sky is blue during the day and why it turns red and orange in the evening.
After a few trips up the telescope, visitors are given star charts and a pair of binoculars. After a few minutes of instructions on how to locate the North Star, visitors traveled outside under a blanket of twinkling lights.
The Earth is inside a spiral-shaped galaxy. When looking out from within, sightseers can view what we call the Milky Way. On Kitt Peak, the Milky Way stands out like salt on a piece of black paper — a thick streak of speckles filling the night sky.
Throughout the four hours of activities on the mountain Jan. 30, stargazers were treated to spectacular views of nebulas, galaxies, star clusters and planets.
All of the proceeds from the nightly observatory program are put back into the program.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Kitt Peak Nightly Observatory
WHERE: About 45 miles west of Tucson on Highway 86 (Ajo Way), then turn on Highway 386, then travel 12 miles up to the observatory
WHEN: Every night
COST: $46 for adults, $41 for students, seniors and military