Heavenly Kitt Peak

Near Tucson, starry, starry nights and deep-space views
Jonathan Hanson

Surrounded by giant domes housing the largest collection of telescopes on one mountain anywhere in the world, participants in Kitt Peak's Nightly Observing Program get a whirlwind tour of the universe that begins with a glorious Arizona sunset and ends with a look at distant galaxies.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, some 55 miles southwest of Tucson, draws professional astronomers from many countries to its 25 telescopes, which include the massive 4-meter Mayall and the world's largest solar telescope, the McMath-Pierce. Visit during the day, and you can join behind-the-scenes tours of these scopes led by the observatory's docents. But at dusk, when the astronomers are going to work, you can get a hands-on introduction to the wonders of space ― led by one of Kitt Peak's expert observing staff.

The evening starts with a simple box dinner, while your host gives you some perspective about celestial distances you'll observe. (You'll learn, for example, that if our entire solar system were the diameter of a penny, the Milky Way galaxy would cover most of the Western states.) Then you move outside, where you're equipped with binoculars and a planisphere ― a sky chart showing the locations of stars, constellations, and other celestial objects. With the instructor's help, you'll soon be finding your own way through the heavens ― you might count the moons of Jupiter or focus on a star cluster beyond our galaxy's edge.

Later, in the observation dome of the visitor center, you'll peer through a powerful 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. If you haven't been awed yet, you will be here, as your view leaps out across light years of distance, from newborn stars within glowing nebulae to entire swirling galaxies.

At the end of the evening, you'll take home a sheet of small pictures of the objects you've seen in space. But the most vivid record will be your own new understanding of the mysteries of the universe, recalled every time you look up into a starry sky.