Monday, August 10, 2020
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An observatory needs volunteers

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory needs volunteer tour guides, so if you live near Tucson, Arizona, and can devote about three days a month to giving guided tours over the next two years, the activity may be something you’ll enjoy, especially if you’re into astronomy.

Kitt Peak (Voxitatis)
The dome that houses the Mayall 4-meter reflector, Kitt Peak National Optical Astronomy Observatory (Voxitatis)

If a tour guide, known as a docent, had been available today, I would be able to write a much better story about the work that goes on at the observatory. For one thing, Kitt Peak National Observatory is on a mountain, hence the name. The facility actually has several telescopes, mainly for optical astronomy, of the variety you can see with your eyes. But the 4-meter parabolic primary mirror in the largest telescope gives astronomers the ability to pull in light our eyes would have no hope of seeing because it’s too dim.

The facility is operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), which is the national center for ground-based nighttime astronomy in the US. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, operates the site, and the list of universities includes a couple from Maryland (Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland) as well as Illinois (the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois).

The key to success in optical astronomy is the size of the mirror. The more light you can collect and direct toward your eyes or toward the sensor on a camera, the fainter the objects in space you’ll be able to see.

Since the 4-meter mirror was put in place at Kitt Peak in 1973, where the elevation of the observing floor is about 6,972 feet above sea level, telescopes with primary mirrors larger than 8 meters and 30 meters have been designed and some are built. But Kitt Peak, with its several large telescopes used by students and astronomy researchers alike, still plays an important role in researching astronomical phenomena, which has been the case since 1958.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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