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See the skies at Kitt Peak

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High on a mountaintop about 56 miles southwest of Tucson, located on the Schuk Toak District on the Tohono O’odham Nation, sits Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kitts Peak was named for Pima County surveyor George Ruskruge’s sister, Phillipa Kitt.

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Founded in 1958 and part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, its mission is to support nighttime optical and infrared astronomy and study of the sun.

The National Solar Observatory shares space with KPNO. That ensures both day and night viewings are covered. Eight astronomical research institutions are represented here.

There are three nighttime telescopes in operation, 22 optical and two radio telescopes. At the summit you’ll find the McMath-Pierce Solar Facility, home to a 1.6m diameter all-reflecting solar telescope as well as two 81cm diameter reflectors.

One of the buildings houses a book where visitors to the site can sign their names. One notable signature is by Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He was an honored guest at the facility and went on a tour prior to one of his missions.

There is whimsy on the mountain as well. A couple of the scientists that we visited with had attended the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison. Bucky Badger, the school’s mascot, is represented on Kitts Peak.

While all the long list of alphabets (KPNO, NSO, et. al.) can be confusing, the best thing to do is go to the visitor center open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are guided tours of the site offered at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tours are about an hour each. There is a fair amount of walking so make sure your shoes are comfortable. Some areas are not wheelchair accessible.

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