Of all the interesting places we visited and all the surprises that Tucson offered, our visit to the Kitt Peak Observatory topped it all. My husband, always thoughtful and a masterful trip planner, reserved our visit as a surprise to me. We were originally meant to visit the day after we arrived in Tucson, but because of the overcast weather, we had to reschedule to Memorial Day.
The Kitt Peak Observatory is administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). Indirectly it is supported by tax dollars: our taxes support the National Science Foundation, which supports the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which in turn supports NOAO. While one night at an observatory like Fred Whipple may cost $8,000, the Kitt telescopes can be rented for a mere $75 per night, including the dormitory stay, and food. At that cost, you can understand why, even though it’s one of the smaller telescopes, it’s still quite appealing as a research tool for astronomers who don’t work for an institution like the Smithsonian. Like other observatories, astronomers have to apply for telescope time. Between one-half and one-third of the applications are accepted and the wait time is typically twelve to eighteen months.
The Quinlan Mountains on which the observatory is built are located on land owned by the Tohono O’odham Indians. As the Tohono tribe owns the mountain, the telescope could not be built without their permission, something they would refuse to grant if they perceived the building as defiling the mountain in any way. The astronomers obtained the tribe’s consent by sharing with them the wonders of studying space. A night spent peering through a telescope was all that was needed to convince the tribe that the mountain they considered sacred would not be misused. Since the observatory was built, NOAO works in cooperation with the Tohono O’odham tribe, renting electricity from them and giving them first priority for all jobs, such as working the gift shop or performing janitorial tasks. The gift shop also sells objects made by the tribe members.
The Kitt Peak Observatory has 26 telescopes in all, more than any other observatory. As we drove up the mountain the famous image of the four meter telescope stood tall above the nearly seven thousand foot mountain, like the building itself is reaching into space to unravel its mystery. In fact, one reason telescopes are built on mountains is to reduce the amount of atmosphere and subsequent distortion that the light has to travel through to reach the lens.
Our night program started at six p.m. It consisted of a box dinner, twenty minutes watching the sunset, a tour of a telescope, and an explanation of how to use binoculars and interpret a star chart. When it was dark enough, we went into the night, freezing at our high elevation, the dark sky glittering with stars. There our guide taught us several key constellations and stars to use for orienting ourselves for our own amateur study.
Finally, the highlight of the night was our chance to look through a telescope. Fourteen of us rode in a van that used only running lights to ensure that no additional light interfered with the astronomers data, somewhere through the darkness to one of the available telescopes. We climbed up two flights of narrow steps inside a small telescope building and sat in a circle around the telescope dome. For the next two hours, our guide programmed in one distant starry location at at time, allowing us to take turns adjusting the dome opening and viewing objects millions of light years away from earth through the eyepiece.
Unlike the pictures of space that we often see from Hubble, when you look through a telescope, there’s no color, only black and white. The color in the pictures comes from computer generated light-shifting to help us interpret the part of the light that isn’t in the visible spectrum. The color variations are there, just not visible to the human eye.
The most spectacular object of the night was Saturn, bathed in bright, white sunshine, the rings as clear as in the Hubble photographs we’ve seen.
It was a romantic night that’s hard to put into words. I felt wonderfully small and insignificant. Our concerns are so trivial and fleeting. In the expanse and age of the universe, our lifespans cannot be measured in any way that is meaningful. It’s all too big for us to comprehend, to fit into a logical slot in our brain. Words like “forever” have no meaning. We grapple with spirituality. How did it start? What started the thing that started it all and what started that? We think linearly, but could it be circular, each thing creating itself? We can’t conceive of something so different, our imaginations always somewhat limited by our experiences.
In all that we’ve studied to date, a small portion, but yet a significant amount, we are still the only life in the universe. Whether we ultimately are or ever have been shouldn’t be as important as acknowledging and appreciating how rare life is. We would do well to treasure it more than we do. Life, such a gift, in all its forms and diversity from bacteria to whales. Yet we treat it with such disrespect, so little awe for the process that whether through eons of incremental changes or punctuated equilibrium, depending on your leaning, though it is most likely both, evolved us into the various realizations of where we are now. Why do we not revere all planetary life knowing how unfathomably long it took? Knowing from a practical standpoint how interdependent species are for sustenance, for a habitable world, knowing that without this interaction we would not exist now and we will cease to exist.
Ah, but we do not know this, do we. We fail to recognize the wondrousness of it all in our era that equates science with opinion. The ever-present fear resurfaces that our hubris will destroy us, a tragedy given what it took, the magic, the coincidence, the complexity, to make it all happen in the first place. We never want to be more of the nothingness of the rest of space, yet, our current course seems to be assuring that this will be our fate.