The journey from Earth to astronomy heaven takes just 20 minutes. A modest turnoff from State Route 86, a lightly trafficked slash of asphalt cutting through the Tohono O’odham reservation, begins the constantly rising path to Kitt Peak National Observatory. Each twist of the 12-mile drive shifts the balance between terrestrial and celestial, as the baked, brown Sonoran Desert takes on atmospheric blue overtones and the sky opens wide. Then they pop into view, first in ones and twos and then en masse: the domes, dishes, and strange sheds that house the 23 telescopes of Kitt Peak, the largest, most diverse gathering of astronomical instruments in the world.
Here Vera Rubin and Kent Ford of the Carnegie Institution of Washington cataloged the rotations of spiral galaxies and discovered that the universe is full of invisible dark matter. Here Robert Kirschner of Harvard University and his colleagues found an enormous void of starless space, 150 million light-years across, while another team uncovered evidence of a black hole that packs the mass of 2 billion suns into a space no larger than our solar system.
During the day, a displaced calm hangs over the site. Signs outside the two dormitories issue a terse warning: “Day sleepers—quiet, please.” Only a few instruments can operate in the blazing Arizona brightness. The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the largest of its kind, burrows 150 feet deep into the ground to provide a cool, clear view of the sun. The 25-meter (82-foot) dish of the Very Long Baseline Array telescope operates in tandem with nine identical ones around the world to form a 5,000-mile-wide radio antenna; light does not interfere with this work.
After sunset the sky explodes with stars, and Kitt Peak springs to life. Every instrument plays its role. The oldest telescope here, the 0.9-meter Spacewatch, predates the observatory complex by 36 years (it was moved here in 1963), yet it remains an active player. James Scotti of the University of Arizona uses it to catalog asteroids that pass uncomfortably close to home, searching for the one that might be headed toward a catastrophic impact. The newest telescope, the boxy WIYN 3.5 meter, inaugurated in 1994, serves as a test bed of new astronomical technologies. Steve Howell of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory has outfitted it with an experimental silicon chip that electronically removes distortion, which should allow him to track the subtle shadow of a Jupiter-size planet passing in front of its parent star in another solar system far, far away.
But not tonight. High winds and sheets of cloud roll in, severing Kitt Peak’s connection to the sky. Howell shakes his head at the blobby images on his computer screen. He will have to wait until his next observing run. Fortunately, heaven can wait.
Fast file: Kitt Peak National Observatory
Elevation: 6,875 feet
Area: 200 acres
Location: Within the Tohono O’odham Nation, 56 miles southwest of Tucson
Clear skies: 72 percent of the time
Scientist population: More than 500 researchers a year work at Kitt Peak
Year founded: 1957 (site selected), 1960 (first telescope installed)
Origin of name: Surveyor George Roskruge named it after his sister, Philippa Kitt; the Tohono O’odham call it Ioligam (meaning “manzanita,” a shrub).