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.
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.
The Summer Triangle is an asterism involving a triangle drawn on the northern hemisphere’s celestial sphere. Its defining vertices are the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, which are the brightest stars in the constellations Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, respectively.
The brightest star in Aquila is Altair—one of the brightest starts in the summer sky, and a point of The Summer Triangle. The name aquila is latin for eagle, and the brightest stars in this constellation do seem similar to the shaape of an eagle standing upright with its wings spread out at its sides. Altair is at the head, or more precisely, the eye of the eagle. In Greek mythology, Aquila carried Zeus’s thunderbolts.
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.
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.
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.
Little Delphinus looks like a tiny celestial dolphin breaching the waves of a vast cosmic sea. It is small and faint, but has a distinctive dolphin shape, and is right in the middle of the plane of the Milky Way.
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.
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.
Sagitta, the arrow, is a small, dim constellation. It is located between the larger, brighter constellations Cygnus (the swan), and Aquila (the eagle). The only notable deep sky object in this small constellation is Messier 71, which is a peculiar globular star cluster.
Sagittarius, the archer, is often depicted as a centaur wielding a bow and arrow. Within Sagittarius, is a fairly recognizable teapot shape known to many simply as The Teapot (the teapot is not a true constellation, but an asterism). The plane of the Milky Way passes through Sagittarius, and in fact, the center of the Milky Way is in the direction of the westernmost edge of this constellation—just above the spout of The Teapot. With the plane of the Milky Way passing through, there are a plethora of deep sky objects to be found in Sagittarius.
Both the plane of the Solar System (called the ecliptic) and the plane of the Milky Way pass through Scorpius—the scorpion. As a result, you can find both the planets of our Solar System (which move along the ecliptic), and many kinds of deep sky objects in this constellation. Scorpius’s brightest star, Antares, is also known as the Heart of the Scorpion, because of it’s reddish hue and location in the chest of the scorpion. Being both red in color, and near the ecliptic, Antares is a rival of sorts to the planet Mars, which is also reddish in color, and occasionally passes through Scorpius. The name Antares means “opposing Mars”.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The same side of the Moon always faces Earth because the lunar periods of rotation and revolution are the same. The surface of the moon is covered with impact craters and lava-filled basins. The Moon is about a fourth of Earth’s diameter and is about 30 Earth-diameters away.
The Galilean Moons
Jupiter’s four largest moons are known as the Galilean Moons, named for Galileo, who was the first astronomer to study them in depth and determine that they were orbiting Jupiter. Their individual names are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—in orbital order from closest to Jupiter to furthest out. Ganymede is the largest of these four moons, and is the largest moon in our Solar System. Io, the closest of these four moons to Jupiter, is the most volcanic world in our Solar System. Io is home to hundreds of active volcanos. Its neighbor, and the next furthest from Jupiter of the four, Europa, is a dramatic contrast to Io with its icy surface. Europa is covered by water, which is frozen solid at the surface. The furthest our of the four, Callisto is a fascinating world in our Solar System because it is so utterly geologically dead. Without weather, moonquakes, volcanism, or any other surface-altering processes, Callisto’s surface is billions of years old—a kind of record of the history of the Solar System.
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.
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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