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Kitt Peak - the National Observatory

April 14, 2018

A peak with not one, but over 20 telescopes designed to observe all manner of light or electromagnetic radiation (EMR).  Often students and the general population assume that telescope are for observing only visible light and fail to see the similarities between light and all its counterparts.  In science we teach kids about that and how light is just one part of a spectrum that includes everything from our cell phone signals to the gamma radiation that turns us into superheroes!  This means that even though our eyes can only perceive a small section of this spectrum, their similarities allow us to examine them using similar shaped devices.  The telescopes on Kitt Peak collect and examine EMR from the diverse cosmic skies to learn about where we come from, what it out there and are we alone in the universe.

The question, “are we alone in the universe” is seems to grab everyone’s attention, but the vast number of questions that remain for us to find is perhaps as endless as the stars.  Kitt Peak was chosen as the site for the National Observatory in 1958 and over the years housed 23 optical telescopes and 2 radio telescopes.  While many of the telescopes have exceeded their useful lifespan, programs such as Spacewatch and Nightly Observing Progam (NOP) have extended their usefulness.  Other telescopes like the 4-metre Mayall Telecope are being retrofitted with BigBOSS, the world's largest spectrograph, which will be capable of mapping the universe.  The 2.1-meter telescope was modified by Caltech to use Robo-AO, a robotically controlled telescope that employs adaptive optics to enhance the images it captures. The WIYN Telescope is another one that continues to be used for research and was one we visited while on the mountain.

We returned the next day for night viewing, a chance to see the skies from 6,877ft. While the sky at night were stunning, I felt lucky to live in Southern Alberta.  We can find these dark sky areas all around us, areas free from light pollution and clouds.  So often I marvel in the crisp winter air at the stars above me.  Too often we forget to take advantage of this opportunity that opens our imagination to what is out there.  We observed stars, galaxies and nebula's through the public observation telescope on Kitt Peak on our visit, but it was the outdoor walk with our eyes where we realized the simplicity of astronomy.

 While the research and telescopes peaked our intellectual sides, the unaided night viewing seemed to spark our enthusiasm for the skies.  It’s the stories of the constellations that remind us that we seek to make sense the unknown.  Early civilizations used stories of gods and heroes to make sense of the stars.  Today we use science, but we shouldn’t forget to tell the stories as well.  Not stories of the supernatural, but the human stories of the scientists and astronomers. Like the stories of the past they can help connect our students to the unknowns in the skies...

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