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Realm of the Long Eyes: A Brief History of Kitt Peak National Observatory

James E. Kloeppel (1983; rpt. 1996)


By 1956, on the basis of the ground examination results, all but five of the possible sites had been rejected. The remaining sites were: Chevalon Butte, southwest of Winslow, Arizona; Summit Mountain, south of Williams, Arizona; Hualapai Mountain, southeast of Kingman, Arizona; Kitt Peak, southwest of Tucson. Arizona; and Junipero Serra Peak. near Monterey in California. During the next year Chevalon Butte and Summit Mountain would be eliminated, and a new possibility, Slate Mountain, northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona would take their place. (9-10)

Finally, after three years of searching and conducting exhaustive tests, the results were announced in March of 1958: Kitt Peak was clearly the best choice. In the Final Report on the Site Selection Survey for the National Astronomical Observatory, issued by Dr. Meinel, the relative merits of Kitt Peak and Hualapai Mountain were listed. In rainfall, sky transparency, and darkness of the night sky, the two mountain areas were about equal; and a water-supply problem existed at both sites. There were somewhat clearer nights on Hualapai, and the problems of road access, bringing in utilities, and land procurement would have been less than for Kitt Peak.
However, the latter was rated superior on eleven counts: good seeing, low wind velocity, temperature stability, microthermal stability, upper-air trajectories, absence of airplane vapor trails, developable area on the mountaintop, more southerly latitude, less interference from city lights, nearness of general support facilities, and proximity to an academic institution. (15)

The Papago people were less than thrilled about Kitt Peak being chosen as the site for a National Observatory. As Kitt Peak lay just inside the three million acre Papago Indian Reservation, permission was needed from the Tribal Council before work could begin. And this permission was not readily forthcoming. The Tribal Council was hesitant; they were unfamiliar with the science of astronomy, and were leery of an observatory being placed on their sacred mountain. That the presence of the observatory might despoil their land and upset their quiet way of life was among their concerns. (19)

Negotiations with the Tribal Council for permission to test Kitt Peak as a potential site for the National Observatory were lengthy. Permission was finally granted after Dr. Edwin F. Carpenter, director of Steward Observatory on the University of Arizona's Tucson campus, invited members of the Tribal Council and their families to look through the University's 36-inch telescope. The sight of the moon and planets awed the Council and convinced them that astronomical research would not despoil their land's natural beauty nor disturb their quiet peace. When Kitt Peak proved the optimal choice, the Tribal Council granted permission for the astronomers, whom the Papago call the People with the Long Eyes, to erect their telescopes on the mountain. (20)

A special bill was proposed allowing a perpetual lease for "as long as the land is used for astronomical study and research and related scientific purposes." The lease agreement was made binding in 1958 by a special law passed by the 85th Congress and signed by the President of the United States. The Papago received $25,000 for access rights to the site plus $10 an acre annually for about 200 acres of summit area to be then developed. The protective perimeter area of 2200 acres was to be rented at 25C an acre annually. (21)

After reconsidering their approach to the water supply problem the engineers came up with a novel solution. They decided the best way to supply enough water for the observatory was to take the rain which fell on the top of the mountain and keep it there. Based on a yearly rainfall of only eight inches, the engineers' calculations showed that a paved collection area covering three acres would supply over half a million gallons of water yearly. Since the minimum rainfall recorded in the Kitt Peak area during the years 1930 to 1940 had been eight inches, with the average yearly rainfall more than twice that amount, such a collection area would indeed provide an adequate supply of water. (30)

Plans were completed and construction of the collection area was begun. A natural basin was selected on the summit, smoothed, and coated first with asphalt and then concrete. In addition to the paved catchment basin, a water purification and filtering system was built, along with the necessary pumping station. Garland Steel Company was selected to construct two storage tanks— each to hold half a million gallons of purified water. The two tanks, costing $45,000, were finished by the end of 1959. (31)

The wing on the right served as a temporary museum for visitors from January of 1963, when the public road was opened, until June of 1964 when the museum was finished. Papago arts and crafts along with concessions were sold on the main floor which is now a laboratory for infrared detectors. (46, capt.)

Designing the solar telescope was a difficult task. The structure supporting the heliostat mirror had to be so rigid that even when a 25-mile-an-hour wind slammed against it, the image of the sun at the end of the 780-foot optical path would not deflect by more than 1160 of an inch. Additionally, to avoid thermal effects on the optical path, the air inside the structure would have to be maintained at a temperature equal to the air outside. Therefore, a design criterion was that all surfaces exposed to sunlight had to be temperature-controlled. (60)

Western-Knapp Engineering Company, a subsidiary of Western Machinery, was the prime contractor for the solar telescope. Excavation of the 300-foot tunnel and adit was perhaps the most dangerous task in constructing the mammoth telescope. All the necessary precautions were taken to ensure the construction workers' safety. As the tunnel was extended deeper into the mountain, rock bolts were driven into the sides of the tunnel and steel netting suspended to catch any rocks which might fall. But, man can not always protect himself from his machines, and a tragic accident occurred when an end-loader (used to remove boulders from the tunnel) rolled over and instantly crushed the driver to death. (62)

The skeletal framework of the diagonal wind shield is visible as construction progresses on the solar telescope. Installation of the tube-in-strip cooling panels had already begun on the vertical wind shield when this photograph was taken. Nearly 30,000 square feet of the cooling panels were installed over the framework of the telescope. Through the panels nearly 19,000 gallons of a special antifreeze solution are circulated. (63)

An offshoot of the Kitt Peak Space Division occurred during June of 1968 when astronomers successfully used the McMath Solar Telescope to direct a laser beam at the Surveyor VII landing site on the moon. Although six observatories made the attempt at bouncing laser beams off the lunar retro-reflectors, only Kitt Peak and one other observatory were successful. (82, capt)

The concept for the 58-inch telescope mounting was developed by W. W. Baustian, chief engineer for Kitt Peak, and is a modification of types originally investigated for the 200-inch, Mount Palomar telescope. In many ways the mounting is similar to the 200-inch, but the "horseshoe" is located at the declination axis. This allows the telescope tube to swing freely between the tines of the yoke, rather than between the struts running from the yoke to the south bearing. The moving parts of the mounting weigh about 300 tons, and turn on a thin film of oil only 0.004 of an inch thick on eight hydrostatic bearings. The telescope is so precisely balanced it can be moved by a 1/2 horsepower motor. (91)

The 36-inch telescope of the University of Arizona, originally erected on the Tucson campus in 1922, is now housed within a dome on Kitt Peak. This instrument was used to show representatives of the Papago Tribal Council the moon and planets in an effort to obtain permission to construct the National Astronomical Observatory atop Kitt Peak. (113)

Perched atop Horseshoe Ridge, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory began studying the heavens in 1966. More than thirty different types of molecules have been detected in the space between stars; most of these molecules were discovered with this 36-foot radio telescope. The staff informally named their site "Caboodle Knob" so the whole "Kitt and Caboodle" would be in the Quinlan Mountains. (116)

There are frequent training sessions to be attended by the entire mountain staff. When you are situated on a remote mountain top with the nearest hospitals and fire departments located 55 long miles away, emergencies can not wait for outside assistance. Therefore, the mountain-based staff is trained in such emergency procedures as handling the observatory's fire truck and fire-fighting equipment, and driving the observatory's ambulance. First-aid procedures such as treating rattlesnake bites, scorpion stings, and sprained or broken limbs, are also covered. Thus, Kitt Peak personnel are trained and equipped to handle most emergencies which might arise. (118)

All potential observers had to outline their proposed observing projects, as they vied for time on the great telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. A panel of astronomers judges the requests, and only the most meritorious observing projects are approved. There simply is not enough available time on the Kitt Peak telescopes to satisfy the overwhelming demand. For example, three of every four astronomers requesting time on the 158-inch telescope must be refused. (121)

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