Happy 50th Kitt Peak
Last night I went to a couple of talks commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Kitt Peak National Observatory. This event was the culmination of the 50th anniversary celebrations. There have been a variety of events going on the last couple of years as we celebrated the anniversary Disney style. Of course, what do you celebrate? The selection of the site, the dedication? Well, celebrate a lot!
Last night’s talks were by Dr. Aden Meinel, Kitt Peak’s first director, and Bernard Siquierios, education curator at the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Cultural Center and Musuem.
Meinel is one of those people who make you realize how little you have accomplished. Director of Kitt Peak and Steward Observatory, founder of the U of A College of Optical Sciences, was in World War II and a rocket expert who worked with the V-2, w0rked at the legendary Area 51 and I can’t remember what all else, but that is plenty right there (he even claimed that the Hubble was basically a copy of an existing spy satellite, a claim I have heard made before but this is the first time by someone that worked in a position that he might have first hand knowledge).
He primarily talked about the site selection process and the first trips up Kitt Peak. I found it interesting that a requirement was that the facility be below 8000 feet (he jokingly said that it hadn’t occurred to anyone to build telescopes at the top of a high mountain and living facilities lower, like they did on Mauna Kea in Hawaii). I always wondered why they choose 6800 foot Kitt Peak…now I have a little more insight on the history. He had some interesting old photos and short movies of the first trip up the mountain.
After a nice traditional song by Bernard’s family accompanied with a beautiful slide show (a good combination), he talked about the mountain from the tribe’s perspective. There were some traditional stories which I expected, but also a lot of personal anecdotes about the mountain which were entertaining. A fitting end to the 50th Anniversary Celebration.
For those not as familiar with Kitt Peak, the idea of a national observatory was to give astronomers around the U.S. access to world class telescopes. In the ’50s, most large telescopes were run by universities or private foundations. That was great if you were at one of those places (like Cal Tech which ran the Palomar Observatory) but not so great if you weren’t. The National Observatory was founded to give telescope access to astronomers on a competitive basis, best proposals win time. A second observatory was built in Chile (the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory or CTIO) to obtain access to the southern skies.
Kitt Peak no longer holds the worlds largest telescopes. They have moved on to higher mountains. Kitt Peak is also being effected more and more by light pollution from Tucson and Phoenix (Phoenix has much more lax lighting ordinances). Kitt Peak still does a lot of great research, but its role will inevitably change as time goes on. Here is wishing Kitt Peak many more years of productive research!
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