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.
Andromeda was the princess of myth who was sacrificed by her parents to the sea monster Cetus. Fortunately, the hero Perseus came along to save her, and they were eventually married. The constellation Andromeda is host to the Andromeda Galaxy. Although there are smaller, dwarf galaxies that are closer to our galaxy, Andromeda is the closest big galaxy like our own; in fact, it’s bigger.
Cygnus is a large constellation, prominent in the Northern Hemisphere. Its name comes from the Greek for “Swan” and can be imagined as a giant, celestial swan, flying overhead, with its wings fully extended. The brightest star in Cygnus is Deneb, which is one of the brightest stars in the sky, and a whopping 800 lightyears away! Deneb is one point of an asterism called the Summer Triangle—three very bright stars that form a large triangle shape prominent in the Northern hemisphere summer skies.
Hercules is named for the famous hero of Greek mythology by the same name. It’s one of the larger constellations, but its stars are of only moderate brightness. The Keystone is a well known trapezoid-shaped asterism (association of stars that are not an official constellation) within Hercules. This constellation is host to M13 (Messier 13), a globular star cluster. Otherwise known as the Hercules Globular Cluster, M13 is home to 300,000 stars, and is just over 22,000 light-years away.
M20 Trifid Nebula
M20, the “Trifid Nebula” gets its nickname from the dark dust lanes that seem to split it into three parts. It is a region of star formation—a giant cloud of gas, roughly 30 light-years across, and about 5,200 light-years away.
M31 Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda Galaxy is our nearest major galactic neighbor. It is a spiral galaxy 2,500,000 light-years away, and has a diameter of 220,000 light-years. This galaxy contains as much material as 1.5 trillion suns.
M81 Bode’s Galaxy
M81 is a small spiral galaxy, 12 million lightyears away. It is a disk of 50 billion solar masses, only a stone’s throw (150,000 lightyears) from M82.
M82 Cigar Galaxy
M82, the “Cigar Galaxy” is an edge-on spiral galaxy, 12 million light-years away, and perhaps 37,000 light-years across. There are vast gas clouds in this galaxy, where stars are being born at an incredible rate.
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.
M4 is a globular star cluster located near the bright, orange star Antares, in the constellation Scorpius. It is on the small side, as globular clusters go—only 70-75 light-years across. It is about 7,200 light-years away, which makes it possibly the closest globular cluster to our solar system.
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.
From the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s Motorola launched a total of 95 communication satellites into orbit around Earth. Today, they are most noted not for their intended purpose, but instead for their ability to reflect sunlight. Shiny antennae briefly (for 10-20 seconds) reflect sunlight to make these objects almost as bright as the moon.
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.
The twinkling of star light is a beautiful effect of the Earth’s atmosphere. As light passes through our atmosphere, its path is deviated (refracted) multiple times before reaching the ground. Stars that are near to the horizon will scintillate much more than stars high overhead since you are looking through more air (often the refracted light will display individual colors). In space, stars would not twinkle at all. Astronomers would like it if they could control the effects of this troubling twinkle.
The Green Flash
What we call “The Green Flash” is not so much a flash as a flicker of green color, seen on the top of the sun as it sets (or rises). This rare event needs just the right atmospheric conditions.
M38 Starfish Cluster
M38, the “Starfish Cluster” is one of a trio of bright open star clusters in the constellation Auriga. It lies about 4,200 light-years away, has a diameter of about 25 light-years, and is 220 million years old.
M57 Ring Nebula
M57: The Ring Nebula. This remnant of a dead star looks exactly as it’s name says – a ring or doughnut shape cloud of gas. The nebula is about 2.6 lightyears across and lies about 2,300 lightyears away.
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.
Albireo (β Cyg)
Named long before anyone knew it was more than one star, Albireo (β Cygni) comprises of a set of stars marking the beak of Cygnus, the swan. Through a telescope, we see two components shining in pale, but noticeably contrasting colors: orange and blue. The difference in color is due to the stars’ difference in temperature of over 9000°C! The brighter orange component, Albireo A, is actually a true binary system, though we can’t resolve two stars in the telescope. The fainter blue component, Albireo B, may be only passing by, and not gravitationally interacting with Albireo A at all. Albireo is about 430 light-years away.
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.
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.
SARA 0.9 Meter Telescope
SARA stands for Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy. Formed in 1989, SARA sought to form a mutually beneficial association of institutions of higher education in the southeastern United States which have relatively small departments of astronomy and physics. At the time, a 36″ telescope on Kitt Peak was being decommissioned by the National Observatory. The Observatory planned to award the telescope to new tenants who showed they could use the telescope well. SARA’s proposal for use of the telescope was selected out of about 30. Today, SARA operates the 0.9 meter telescope of Kitt Peak, as well as a 0.6 meter telescope at Cerro Tololo in Chile. Both telescopes can, and are mostly used remotely.
The Robotically-Controlled Telescope (RCT) is a 1.3-meter telescope on a German equatorial mount. The RCT occupies the dome across from the Kitt Peak Visitor Center. The long building attached to the RCT dome is the Kitt Peak administration building. The RCT name originally stood for Remotely-Controlled Telescope, and it served the KPNO user community almost 30 years before being closed in 1995. The telescope was originally proposed by the Space Sciences Division at KPNO as the Remote Control Telescope System (RCTS) to be an engineering research platform for the development of remote control protocols for envisioned orbital telescopes. In later years, the telescope was used to test out various instrumentation that was later used on the larger 2.1-meter and 4-meter telescopes of Kitt Peak. In 2004 The RCT Consortium began operating the telescope as its new tenants. Today, the telescope is mostly used either remotely, with observers operating the telescope via the internet, or robotically, with the telescope opening and observing automatically, using its programming to determine what to observe based on scheduling and observing conditions.
The web page for the program in which you just participated is at
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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