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Two Nights on Kitt Peak

Rob Hawley


“While on the peak you are literally one of the astronomers. ”



Yes Virginia, Arizona does have weather in the spring - BAD weather. But that is getting ahead of the story.

Last year I visited Kitt Peak as a part of a Sky and Telescope Arizona trip (Ephemeris June 2003). We participated in the Nightly Observing Program which spends about an hour looking through one of the two scopes; a 16" Meade SCT or a 20" Ritchy-Chretien (RC). I was on the Meade along with the editors of this paper. The views were impressive and the guide was knowledgeable. As they pulled us from the dome we learned that the scope was being handed over to an observer in the Advanced Observers Program who would get to use it the rest of the night. That sounded good to me.

Why come all the way to Kitt Peak to do observing? I must admit that I was asked that question multiple times (one friend even offered to rent me his 20" scope). If you are an intermediate level observer, cannot travel to a dark sky site, or have modest equipment, then this is an opportunity to do some serious observing at a world class site with excellent equipment and assistance.

For a more experienced visual observer who has access to large aperture equipment, then the question is harder to answer. While on the peak you are literally one of the astronomers. So you could go for just the experience. You over-day in a nice hotel style room on the Peak and eat in the same cafeteria as the astronomers. I had a chance to talk with astronomers or operators of many of the research instruments.

The reason I went was galaxies. I had an (overly) ambitious list of targets that were a mix of Abell galaxy clusters and showy galaxies. My goal was to see objects that were dimmer or smaller than I could see at home. The 16" Meade is 6" larger than the largest scope I own.

The 7000' elevation and steady desert skies make this an ideal site. I landed in Tucson the night before my observing time. Kitt Peak was clearly visible in the distance under crystal clear skies. Alas that would not last. The next evening the sky was about 1/2 covered. I got some sleep while the nightly program ran and joined my guide about 10 PM. The first night I was assigned the Meade. Initially every place we wanted to look was cloud covered. Finally about 11 PM the clouds broke enough so I could start the main viewing list - Abell 1367. We initially positioned the scope to center NGC 3862. From there I manually slewed the scope to explore the other galaxies in the cluster. I finally ended up confirming 8 others. Unfortunately high winds robbed us of good seeing and less than normal transparency meant that I saw far fewer dim and small objects than intended. By 1 AM the clouds had returned and we were done for the night.

This was the first time I tried sketching what I saw. I am not an artist, but making a crude sketch allowed me to more easily communicate with the guide. Comparing the sketch to the laptop prevented biasing the object identification that may have happened if I had worked directly from the laptop.

The next night the weather was VERY windy. One of the domes clocked a gust to 140+ MPH, but at the Visitor Center they were only 70-80 MPH. The entire mountain shut down due to a combination of wind, dust, and fog. About 3 AM the skies cleared and steadied enough to do some binocular work. The Milky Way glowed brightly to the south. We quickly found M51, M11, M8, M6&7, and several other M objects in Sagittarius. Finally about 4 it was safe enough to use the 20" RC scope. That spectacular instrument is usually reserved for CCD work.

The AOP staff was outstanding both days. They really tried to do everything they could to work around the weather problems. They were nice enough to prorate the viewing time. One thing I noted to them (and would warn any other experienced observers) is that the Peak uses poor light etiquette when compared to most star parties. I took an eye patch to protect my vision.

Even with the weather I enjoyed the experience enough to schedule some additional time in November. This time I plan to do some CCD work - something I have not done before. That way I am not fighting the culture of the mountain AND I will get some one-on-one CCD training.


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