Kitt Peak Nightly Observing Program
Splendors of the Universe on YOUR Night!
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The Big Dipper (also known as the Plough) is an asterism consisting of the seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major. Four define a “bowl” or “body” and three define a “handle” or “head”. It is recognized as a distinct grouping in many cultures. The North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star and the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper, can be located by extending an imaginary line from Big Dipper star Merak (β) through Dubhe (α). This makes it useful in celestial navigation.
The Engagement Ring: Through binoculars, the North Star (Polaris) seems to be the brightest on a small ring of stars. Not a constellation or cluster, this asterism looks like a diamond engagement ring on which Polaris shines brightly as the diamond.
Constellation Ursa Minor is colloquially known in the US as the Little Dipper, because its seven brightest stars seem to form the shape of a dipper (ladle or scoop). The star at the end of the dipper handle is Polaris, the North Star. Polaris can also be found by following a line through two stars in Ursa Major—Alpha and Beta Ursae Majoris—that form the end of the ‘bowl’ of the Big Dipper, for 30 degrees (three upright fists at arms’ length) across the night sky.
Auriga is located north of the celestial equator. Its name is the Latin word for “charioteer”, associating it with various mythological charioteers, including Erichthonius and Myrtilus. Auriga is most prominent in the northern Hemisphere winter sky, along with the five other constellations that have stars in the Winter Hexagon asterism. Auriga is half the size of the largest constellation, Hydra. Its brightest star, Capella, is an unusual multiple star system among the brightest stars in the night sky. Because of its position near the winter Milky Way, Auriga has many bright open clusters within its borders, including M36, M37, and M38. In addition, it has one prominent nebula, the Flaming Star Nebula, associated with the variable star AE Aurigae.
Boötes has a funny name. Pronounced boh-OH-deez, this constellation’s name means sheepherder, or herdsman. It looks kind of like a kite, or a shoe. Some remember that “Boötes look like a boot” to help pick it out in the sky.
Cancer is one of the zodiac constellations, which means the ecliptic—or plane of the Solar System, runs through it. The Sun, Moon, and planets move along the ecliptic, and therefore, you can sometimes find these Solar System objects in Cancer. Cancer is a medium-sized medium-brightness constellation, located between Gemini and Leo along the ecliptic. You can find the notable open star cluster Beehive cluster (also known as M44 or Praesepe) within Cancer. In greek mythology, cancer was a crab that, under the instruction of Hera, latched onto Hercules’s feet while he was battling Hydra. Hercules and Hydra are also constellations, and Hydra borders Cancer.
This little constellation with a name that means “little dog” has only 2 bright stars. One of them is Procyon—one of the brightest stars in the sky, and at only 11.5 light-years away, it’s one of our nearest neighbors in the galactic neighborhood. The name Procyon comes from Greek, and means “before the dog”, referring to the star Sirius, also known as The Dog Star in neighboring Canis Major, the “big dog”.
Corona Borealis, or “Northern Crown”, is a tiara-shaped, or C-shaped constellation. Its brightest star, called Alphecca, or Gemma, shines like the crown jewel centerpiece of a brilliant celestial tiara. It’s southern counterpart, Corona Australis, or “Southern Crown” lies just south of the ecliptic.
Draco the dragon lies close to the North polar point of the celestial sphere. Thus, it is best viewed from north of the equator. This celestial dragon has a long serpentine shape that winds around the constellation Ursa Minor (better known by the name Little Dipper), which is far fainter than it’s companion, Ursa Major. The tail of Draco separates these two constellations.
Gemini is a well known zodiac constellation. Zodiac constellations line up with the plane of the Solar System in our sky, an intersection known as the ecliptic. This means you will find planets passing through Gemini from time to time. Gemini is also grazed by the plane of the Milky Way, and therefore has a few deep sky objects within its boundaries. Gemini’s brightest stars get their names from twins Castor and Pollux of Greek mythology.
Leo is a fairly well known constellation, because the plane of the Solar System runs through it. Such constellations are called Zodiac Constellations. Leo has some notable, bright stars, in it to boot. The brightest of these, Regulus is at the bottom of a series of stars arrayed in the form of a sickle, or a backwards question mark. This constellation does look more or less like the side profile of a lion lying on the ground, with its head up.
Ursa Major, or, the Big Bear, is one of the best known and most well recognized constellations, but you might know it by a different name. Contained within the boundaries of the constellation Ursa Major is the Big Dipper, which is not a true constellation, but an asterism. The Big Dipper is useful for finding both the North Star and the bright star Arcturus. Follow the curve of the handle to “arc to Arcturus” and use to two stars in the dipper opposite the handle to point to the North Star.
Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, is much fainter than it’s companion the Big Bear, Ursa Major. Within Ursa Minor is the well known asterism The Little Dipper. The end of the tail of the bear, or the end of the handle of the dipper, is a star called Polaris—the Pole Star, or the North Star. This special star happens to sit at the point where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects the sky
Virgo’s brightest star Spica is found by following the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper (“arc to Arcturus, in Boötes, then spike to Spica”).The rest of the constellation isn’t particularly bright, but Virgo lies along the ecliptic—the plane of the Solar System, so bright planets pass through occasionally.
M51 Whirlpool Galaxy
M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, gets its name from its bright and prominent spiral arms. It lies at a distance of 23 million light-years away. It also has a smaller, companion galaxy (NGC 5195). The two galaxies are one of the best examples of interacting galaxies.
M13 Hercules Globular
M13, the “Great Globular Cluster in Hercules” was first discovered by Edmund Halley in 1714, and later catalogued by Charles Messier in 1764. It contains 300,000 stars, and is 22,000 light-years away. Light would need over a century to traverse its diameter.
M5 is a bright, large globular cluster, 25,000 light-years away. It is 13 billion years old, 165 light-years in diameter, and may contain as many as half of a million stars.
Kitt Peak has an abundance of clear nights, but that doesn’t mean the clouds never move in. We hope you’ll join us again another time when our dark mountain skies are at their best!
The ecliptic is a path in the sky, forming a great circle around the Earth, which the Sun and other planets of the Solar System move along. It is formed where the plane of the Solar System intersects with the Earth’s sky.
Quick streaks of light in the sky called meteors, shooting stars, or falling stars are not stars at all: they are small bits of rock or iron that heat up, glow, and vaporize upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When the Earth encounters a clump of many of these particles, we see a meteor shower lasting hours or days.
That clumpy band of light is evidence that we live in a disk-shaped galaxy. Its pale glow is light from about 200 billion suns!
Human technology! There are almost 500 of these in Low Earth Orbit (we can’t see the higher ones). We see these little “moving stars” because they reflect sunlight.
Zodiacal light is the faint, smooth glow marking the ecliptic (the plane of the solar system). It is sunlight scattered off of gas and dust that orbits the Sun. This is a rare sight, only visible under very dark skies, and best viewed early in the year when the Ecliptic is higher above the horizon.
M35 is an open star cluster of over 300 stars. It lies at a distance of 2,800 light-years from Earth, near the foot of Castor, one of the Gemini twins. Tiny nearby cluster NGC 2158 is in the same field of view.
M44 The Beehive
M44, the “Beehive Cluster,” and also known as “Praesepe,” is a large, bright, diffuse open star cluster containing about 400 stars. It lies fairly close, at a distance of under 600 light-years.
M97 (Owl Nebula)
Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, a “gas giant” 11 Earth-diameters across. Its atmosphere contains the Great Red Spot, a long-lived storm 2-3 times the size of the Earth. The 4 large Galilean satellites and at least 63 smaller moons orbit Jupiter.
Castor (α Gem)
Castor (α Geminorum) is a multiple star in the constellation Gemini, the twins. Through the telescope, a close pair of bright white stars and a more distant red dwarf companion are visible, but these are each spectroscopic binaries, making Castor a six-star system. Castor is about 50 light-years away. The bright components orbit each other with a period of about 450 years.
Mizar & Alcor
In the handle of the Big Dipper, Mizar & Alcor (ζ & 80 Ursae Majoris) or the “Horse & Rider” form a naked-eye double star. They are traveling through space together about 80 light-years away from us, separated by about a light-year. However, it is unknown if they are actually gravitationally bound to each other. A telescope splits Mizar itself into two stars, but these both are again doubles, bringing the total in this system to six.
2.1 Meter Telescope and Robo-AO
The 2.1 Meter telescope has an 84″ primary mirror made of Pyrex, that weighs 3,000 lbs. The telescope became operational in 1964—one of the first operational reserach telescopes on the mountain. As part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) for many decades, it is an important part of the history of the mountain, and has made many important contributions to astronomical research. Despite its significant role within the National Observatory, by 2015 the time came to pass the telescope on to new tenants, so NOAO could focus its efforts on its newer, more advanced telescopes. The Robo-AO team stepped in, and installed their state-of-the-art robotic adaptive optics system on the 2.1 Meter. Adaptive optics allows telescopes to nearly eliminate the distorting effects of the atmosphere, greatly increasing the resolution of the telescope. Thanks to its new tenants, suite of instruments, and the dark skies of Kitt Peak, the 2.1-meter continues to make important contributions to astronomical research.
3.5 Meter WIYN Telescope
The WIYN Observatory is owned and operated by the WIYN Consortium, which consists of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the University of Missouri, and Purdue University. This partnership between public and private universities and NOAO was the first of its kind. The telescope incorporates many technological breakthroughs including active optics hardware on the back of the primary mirror, which shapes the mirror perfectly, ensuring the telescope is focused precisely. The small, lightweight dome is well ventilated to follow nighttime ambient temperature. Instruments attached to the telescope allow WIYN to gather data and capture vivid astronomical images routinely of sub-arc second quality. The total moving weight of the WIYN telescope and its instruments is 35 tons. WIYN has earned a reputation in particular for its excellent image quality that is now available over a wider field than ever before through the addition of the One Degree Imager optical camera.
Arizona Radio Observatory 12 Meter Telescope
Originally, a 36 foot (11 meter) radio telescope resided in this dome. Built in 1967, the 36 Foot Telescope, as it was known, was a part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). In 1984, it was replaced with a slightly larger dish, and the name was changed to the 12 Meter Telescope.
In 2000, the NRAO passed control of the telescope to the University of Arizona. The University of Arizona had been operating the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) located on Mount Graham since 1992. When it took over operations of the 12m, it created the Arizona Radio Observatory (ARO) which now runs both telescopes.
In 2013, the telescope was replaced with ESO’s ALMA prototype antenna. The new dish is the same size, but has a much better surface accuracy (thereby permitting use at shorter wavelengths), and a more precise mount with better pointing accuracy. The 12m Radio Telescope is used to study molecules in space through the use of molecular spectroscopy at millimeter wavelengths. Many of the molecules that have been discovered in the interstellar medium were discovered by the 12m.
Though the Calypso telescope and its 1.2 meter mirror have now been acquired by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope team, it once occupied the large “garage on stilts” on the west side of the mountain. Edgar O. Smith, a businessman-turned-astrophysicist, designed Kitt Peak’s only privately owned telescope to create the sharpest possible images. The garage-like building rolls away on rails, leaving the telescope very exposed, and able to cool to ambient temperature. Its adaptive optics system can adjust 1,000 times per second to remove atmospheric blurring. Calypso will eventually be moved to Cerro Pachón in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The “garage on stilts” sits empty.
Kitt Peak VLBA Dish
The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is a part of the Long Baseline Observatory (LBO). It consists of a single radio telescope made up of ten 25 meter dishes. The ten dishes are spread across the United States, from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. One dish is located on Kitt Peak: The LBO Kitt Peak Station. Kitt Peak Station, along with the other dishes, work in unison to point at the same targets at the same time. The data is recorded and later combined. By spreading the dishes out over such a great distance, instead of building them all in the same place, a much higher resolution is gained.
Mayall 4 Meter Telescope
The Mayall 4 Meter Telescope was, at the time it was built, one of the largest telescopes in the world. Today, its mirror—which weighs 15 tons—is relatively small next to the mirrors of the world’s largest telescopes. Completed in the mid-’70s, the telescope is housed in an 18-story tall dome, which is designed to withstand hurricane force winds. A blue equatorial horseshoe mount helps the telescope point and track the sky. A new instrument called DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument) will soon be installed on the 4-meter. Once installed, DESI will take spectra of millions of the most distant galaxies and quasars, which astronomers will use to study the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe.
The Mayall 4 Meter is named for Nicholas U. Mayall, a former director of Kitt Peak National Observatory who oversaw the building of the telescope.
McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope
The Mc Math Pierce Solar Telescope is actually 3 telescopes-in-one. It was, at the time of its completion in the 1960s, the largest solar telescope in the world. It will remain the largest until the completion of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in 2018. The Solar Telescope building looks like a large number 7 rotated onto its side. The vertical tower holds up 3 flat mirrors, which reflect sunlight down the diagonal shaft—a tunnel which extends 200 feet to the ground, and another 300 feet below ground, into the mountain. At the bottom of this tunnel are the three curved primary mirrors, which reflect the light of the Sun back up to about ground level, where the Sun comes into focus in the observing room.
MDM Observatory is located on a lower ridge to the southwest of the main observatory campus. Its name comes from its original member universities—University of Michigan, Dartmouth and MIT. Current members of the observatory are University of Michigan, Dartmouth, Columbia, Ohio State University, and Ohio University. MDM consists of two telescopes—the McGraw Hill 1.3 meter and the Hiltner 2.4 meter.
Your Telescope Operator and Guide. Thank you for joining me this evening! See you soon!!
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Nightly Observing Program. Most of the above images were taken as
the Overnight Telescope Observing Program. For more information on this unique experience please visit Overnight Telescope Observing Program.
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