Image Credit: NOAO / KPNO
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the official dedication of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, one of the world's largest collection of telescopes about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona. Prior to the founding of Kitt Peak, most observatories were privately owned and operated by individual universities or organizations. This meant that astronomers who wanted to use telescopes had to either be employed by the observatory or had to strike some sort of deal (like buying part of the telescope or building a new camera for the telescope).
In the 1950s, the Cold War heated up and the U.S. government greatly increased funding for science. The astronomy community realized that they had an opportunity to create facilities owned and maintained by the government, open for any U.S. researcher to use. This way, astronomers could work at any university or college, not just colleges with large observatories. The benefits would be two-fold: the number of astronomers could increase, and the number of college students getting educated in the science of astronomy by an active astronomer would greatly increase.
For this reason, among others, a search was made for a suitable location for a national observatory. Many different mountain ranges were ranked on a variety of considerations, including weather patterns, cloud cover, atmospheric stability, winter weather, and accessibility. After three years of study, In 1958, Kitt Peak was selected as the site. Today, there are 19 telescopes on Kitt Peak, some of which are owned by private consortia, and the rest of which are operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
The telescopes at Kitt Peak can be used, free of charge, by any astronomer in the world. Telescope usage is doled out based on the quality of the proposed science. Astronomers do have to pay for their travel and for their room and board, but the telescope usage itself is free, paid for (ultimately) by taxpayers. This concept of free telescope usage greatly increases the amount of new science that can be done, because an astronomer with a new idea does not have to first come up with thousands of dollars to try it out -- she just needs to get a few nights of telescope time and scrounge up airfare to Tucson.
Since the founding of Kitt Peak, a second national observatory was set up in Chile, called the Cerro Tololo Inter-american Observatory. Different objects are visible in the southern hemisphere than from the United States, which is why a U.S. facility is overseas (with significant support from our Chilean partners). The Gemini Observatory, two large (8 meter diameter, or about 25 feet) twin telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, also offers free access to American astronomers.
Another national astronomy facility formed in the 1950s was the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). The NRAO runs the radio telescopes in Green Bank, West Virginia and at the Very Large Array outside Socorro, New Mexico (the observatory in the movie Contact), among others, and is a major partner in the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, an exciting new radio observatory being built in Chile.
It also would be unfair for me to talk about Kitt Peak and not mention the Tohono O'odham, a Native American nation that lives in southern Arizona. Kitt Peak, which the Tohono O'odham know as Ioligam, stands on their land. The Tohono O'odham hold Kitt Peak as sacred, and there are tensions between astronomers and the O'odham. The vast majority of astronomers and Kitt Peak observers that I know are sympathetic to the plight of the O'odham, who, like all Native Americans, have all too often suffered injustice at the hands of the United States. Kitt Peak National Observatory does offer jobs and educational activities for the O'odham, and they do pay rent for use of the mountain.
My personal opinion is that much more should be done for the O'odham, including higher rent, more technical training and education, and efforts to better blend the observatory in with the mountain. But these all cost significant amounts of money which are not available. Kitt Peak's operating budget is $5 million a year, fairly cheap as far as large telescopes go, but that budget is barely enough to keep the telescopes operating; in fact, a lot of necessary maintenance has been deferred for many years due to a perennially tight budget. New initiatives with the O'odham nation are just not viable in the current budget framework. However, at the very least we astronomers can increase our show of respect for the O'odham. For example, I have started acknowledging the Tohono O'odham in every journal article I publish containing data from Kitt Peak, and I have started trying to learn more about the O'odham and their rich history and culture. It is an absolute minimum of what I can do.
These days, the telescopes at Kitt Peak do not have quite the same lustre as the large telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, but they are still producing important scientific discoveries, from planets around other stars to supernovae that help us to learn about dark energy. And the basic business model of Kitt Peak, of national facilities available free of charge for the best science projects, has indeed led to a flourishing of astronomy at universities and colleges across the country. In fact, the National Science Foundation has been increasingly encouraging this model, even going so far as to require private observatories who want grant money for new cameras to offer some small fraction of their observing time to astronomers outside of the observatory's partners.
Happy 50th birthday, Kitt Peak National Observatory!
Here are some links to more information and news about Kitt Peak National Observatory: