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$4.5M science foundation grant latest in Kitt Peak telescope revitalization

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The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope facility on Kitt Peak will have an expanded lobby, hands-on exhibits, videos and wall-sized graphics.

A $4.5 million National Science Foundation grant will be used to develop a state-of-the-art public visitor program for Kitt Peak National Observatory.

The foundation awarded the grant to the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy to develop the program, called Windows on the Universe Center for Astronomy Outreach, within the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope facility on the mountain about 50 miles southwest of Tucson.

“This effort will give second life to an architectural and scientific icon. It will be an epicenter for astronomy education and outreach,” for both Kitt Peak as well as NSF telescopes scattered around the globe, said Bill Buckingham, Kitt Peak Visitor Center manager, who envisioned the telescope’s new fate.

Currently, rolls of bubble wrap, half-packed cardboard boxes and the forgotten paraphernalia of generations of astronomers litter the control room of the solar telescope at Kitt Peak on the Tohono O’odham nation. The most recent observers at McMath-Pierce, solar astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, are moving out, leaving it for now without a science mission.

Within the last decade, the telescope, and a few others on the mountain, lost federal funding as priorities shifted toward building larger, high-tech telescopes. But the 56-year-old solar observatory has avoided being mothballed or demolished in the astronomers’ wake.

The McMath-Pierce is one of 25 telescopes on Kitt Peak.

The grant money will fund renovations, exhibit and program design and development and the first three years of operations.

“We’ve proven we can run off of ticket sales. When the visitor center was cut off from federal funding about a decade ago, we found a way to operate on our own revenue,” Buckingham said.

Buckingham spent 2½ years developing his proposal to the NSF. Months were spent crawling around the telescope interior with a tape measure and camera, documenting the space and imagining the future.

An interior view looking out of the 2-meter McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak. The telescope, one of 25 on Kitt Peak, was built in 1962.

Analog control units still direct the movements of the McMath-Pierce solar telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Quinlan Mountains on Sept. 18, 2018, west of Tucson, Ariz.

The vision

The telescope’s copper paneling peaks out from chipped white paint. Weeds poke through cracked parking lot pavement. The squat, blocky entrance welcomes visitors with faded rainbow-painted panels as if little has changed since the 1960s.

A 110-foot-tall tower anchors the telescope. The diagonal part of the structure, which houses the mirrors directing sunlight into the control room, plunges 200 feet at an angle from the tower top to the ground. An additional 300 feet of the diagonal extends below ground. The exposed structure will be repainted, the surrounding asphalt will be repaved and the entrance will be remodeled.

Back to front, the two-meter McMath-Pierce solar telescope, .5-meter visitor center telescope, and a mural slated to be repainted at Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Quinlan Mountains on Sept. 18, 2018, west of Tucson, Ariz.

At ground level, an exterior door to the diagonal telescope tunnel leads to a viewing gallery of the telescope’s interior. Signs and arrows will be displayed showing how everything works.

But the most dramatic changes will occur within the 5,200-square-foot building.

After renovations, guests will be welcomed by an expanded lobby housing introductory exhibits, videos and wall-sized graphics.

The 130-foot hallway leading from the entrance to the control room will double in width and will host hands-on exhibits focusing on the science of astronomy.

The control room will be preserved and used as an interactive exhibit. As a result, 30-inch images of the sun and moon as well as smaller images of other bright objects can be projected into the control room for visitors to explore.

An exhibit in the southeast wing of the building will be dedicated to showcasing other NSF telescopes around the world including those in Chile and Antarctica. An astronomy classroom, a full-dome planetarium and exhibits highlighting the history of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope will also be added.

The vertical housing of the Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun will be torn down, along with two of the three lightning rods at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

The main attraction of the repurposing, however, is the ability for the facility to serve as an introduction not only to Kitt Peak, but also other federally funded telescopes around the world, Buckingham said.

To do so, however, takes some tech. A room to the left of the lobby on the northwest end of the building will house the Science on a Sphere theater. Special software can take any image and use four projectors in each corner of the room to lay images across a reflective globe hanging in the middle of the room.

“You can play satellite views of earth, run forward or backward in time, show live images of the earth or show the location of continents in the time of the dinosaurs. We can project images of the sun, moon, Mars, Jupiter … in a darkened room. It really looks like Jupiter is in the room,” he said.

Data from any of the 150 theaters within the Science on a Sphere user group can be shared with Kitt Peak’s theater, and any data compiled at Kitt Peak can be shared with the theaters globally, including the Grand Canyon and the Smithsonian.

“We’re going to serve as a gateway for the public to all other observatories that are challenging and expensive to get to, and we can now reach a global audience,” Buckingham said.

Construction is expected to take about two years. The structure will retain the name McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, and while the observatory is being converted into a state-of-the-art public outreach center, it will retain the capability to do science if astronomers choose to return.

“I don’t know of people taking a major federal research telescope and converting it into a major outreach center,” Buckingham said. “We’re transforming the whole complex. I really think this will be unique for a long time.”

Buildings and observatories at Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Quinlan Mountains on Sept. 18, 2018, west of Tucson, Ariz.

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Kitt Peak’s fate

The McMath’s repurposing is just the latest reinvestment on the mountain. On all three corners of the mountaintop, there are new telescope operators with big projects underway.

The 4-meter Mayall, the largest telescope on the mountain, is in the middle of being refitted with a new instrument called DESI, short for Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, will probe the nature of the force thought to drive the expansion of the universe.

The DESI project is led by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and most of the funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

At the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope, preparations are underway for a new instrument that will be used to characterize planets around other stars under a joint NASA-NSF program called NN-EXPLORE. The NASA-funded NEID spectrograph, is under construction at Penn State University.

Both cutting-edge science missions are expected to start in late 2019.

From left, the four-meter Mayall telescope, 2.3-meter Bok Reflector operated by the Steward Observatory and the .9-meter Spacewatch telescope operated by the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Quinlan Mountains on Sept. 18, 2018, west of Tucson, Ariz.

“We’re at the beginning of an exciting new era on Kitt Peak,” said Lori Allen, Kitt Peak director.

Besides the science, visitors also have more to look forward to.

A large doughnut-shaped concrete replica of the Mayall’s primary mirror will be repainted with its third mural by Michael Chiago, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation. It will be accompanied by informational signage highlighting the tribe’s culture and the concrete replica’s history.

Additionally, a new observatory, two amateur-sized telescopes, cameras and computers — totaling $400,000 — was privately donated to the Kitt Peak Visitor Center by California-based amateur astronomer Gary Shreve.

This will be the fifth observatory that the visitor center operates for public programs on the mountain. Only one in three requests for overnight public programs is accepted by the visitor center because of the high demand. This donation, as well as additional volunteers, will help support the popular overnight programs. Buckingham hopes to increase the volunteer staff from 40 to 100 in the next 2½ years.

Additionally, solar viewing telescopes and additional nighttime imaging telescopes will be relocated to a renovated shed next to the visitor center, granting easier access for visitors who used to have to walk more than a quarter-mile to use the equipment.

“For several years, there was anxiety and worry among staff here and concern within the public about the future of Kitt Peak,” Buckingham said, especially after the NSF announced plans to reduce funding. “I’m happy to say that Kitt Peak has a bright future.”

Contact reporter Mikayla Mace at or 573-4158.

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