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My District: Is Home to Kitt Peak National Observatory

Stargazers can look through telescopes and stay overnight.

By Nora Caley  |  May 6, 2024
Brian Fernandez Arizona

Amateur astronomers, dark sky enthusiasts and general science fans delight in observing the universe through a telescope. Kitt Peak National Observatory, also known as KPNO, located 50 miles west of Tucson, Ariz., has nearly two dozen active telescopes, and several are open to the public. Visitors can look through four of the telescopes, book a nighttime viewing program, or reserve a dorm room for an overnight stay under the stars.

KPNO is a program of NOIRLab—formerly known as the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory—the nation’s center for ground-based, nighttime optical astronomy. The facility sits atop I’oligam Du’ag (Kitt Peak), in the homeland of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The observatory is also home to the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, or DESI, the world’s most powerful multiobject survey spectrograph. DESI’s 5,000 fiber-optic “eyes” feed 10 high-efficiency spectrographs and are designed to measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe.

KPNO was closed after a 2022 fire damaged a road, dorm, shed and cabin, but it reopened in September 2023 and is now open seven days a week. Visitors can take walking tours to the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the KPNO 2.1-meter Telescope and the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope. There is a four-hour nightly program that views the sunset from an elevation of 6,877 feet, includes a light meal, and costs $75. For an extended viewing experience, KPNO offers an overnight option, which includes assistance from a telescope operator, meals and a dorm room, ranging from about $1,000 to $1,400.

We spoke with Arizona Sen. Brian Fernandez (D) of Legislative District 23 about looking at the stars.

What does Kitt Peak National Observatory mean for your district?

Kitt Peak National Observatory is a source of pride and scientific excellence for our district. It represents a hub of astronomical research and discovery, contributing to our understanding of the universe. Its presence in our district brings prestige and opportunities for education and scientific collaboration. Furthermore, the observatory attracts tourists and researchers alike, boosting our local economy and promoting STEM education.

Have you been to the observatory? What’s your favorite part?

As a senator, I have indeed visited the observatory. My favorite part is the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. It was the largest solar telescope for 50 years, and I really feel it exemplifies how groundbreaking this institution’s work is while also demonstrating how prestigious it continues to be.

What else is great about your district? What else should visitors see?

Our district is rich in cultural diversity, with vibrant communities and a blend of urban and rural landscapes and attractions, from the historic sites of Yuma to the natural beauty of Tucson’s desert. Additionally, our district is home to several reservation lands, including the Tohono O’odham Nation, where Kitt Peak National Observatory resides. Each offers its own rich heritage and traditions that visitors should experience and appreciate.

Whether it’s hiking in the Sonoran Desert, exploring indigenous cultures or enjoying the local cuisine, (my district) has something for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

The area is also represented by Rep. Mariana Sandoval (D) and Rep. Michele Peña (R).

Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelancer.

“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to tell us about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the virtues only locals know about.

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