Kitt Peak National Observatory

This weekend the kids and I visited Kitt Peak National Observatory (NOAO), located at the top of route 386 on the Tohono O’odham Nation, 56 miles outside of Tucson, AZ. Kitt Peak is home to one of the largest arrays of radio and optical telescopes in the world. I signed us up for the three daytime tours: the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope Tour (10-11am), the 2.1 meter telescope (11:30-12:30pm), and 4-meter Mayall telescope (1:30-2:30pm). All three docent-led tours cost $13 per person, a steal in my opinion.

According to NOAO, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope is “the world’s most striking solar telescope” and is “used by astronomers primarily during daylight hours to study the nearest star, the Sun” because it can “see farther into the infrared than any other solar telescope.”

Here are a few more images from the McMath Pierce Solar Telescope. In the first picture Gigi, our docent, explained that this is the control panel astronomers use for the telescope. Interestingly, it is made by the same company and in the same era as they control panels at the Titan II Missile Museum! The second image is also in the control room, where the image the telescope collects comes through a hole in the ceiling and onto an image processing station. Way cool!

The 2.1 meter telescope was the first major solar telescope on Kitt Peak, seeing its first light in 1964. According to NOAO, “numerous important discoveries were made at the 2.1-meter. It first detected very distant clouds of hydrogen gas between galaxies, known as the Lyman-alpha forest. It observed the first example of gravitational lensing (as predicted by Einstein) and the first pulsating white dwarf star. Research into the rotation rate of spiral galaxies that began at the 2.1-meter eventually led to our current understanding of the existence of dark matter in the Universe.” I took this black and white image while we were inside the viewing area of the actual telescope. I had no idea this is what they actually look like.

The 4-meter Mayall telescope is the largest telescope on Kitt Peak weighting just shy of 300 tons. Seeing its first light in 1973, it is “one of the most scientifically productive telescopes in the world. …For over 40 years the Mayall has been involved in cutting-edge astronomical research, most notably in understanding the size and large-scale structure of the visible universe. It has also been used in research on exoplanets (planets that orbit stars other than the Sun).” Currently, astronomers on Kitt Peak are retrofitting the Mayall with DESI, an acronym for a unique spectrometer which will allow the telescope to quickly obtain the spectra of 5,000 objects simultaneously.

Here are more images from this gigantic telescope. The first two images are from inside the viewing area of the actual telescope. The last three are from inside and outside the environment viewing area of the telescope. From here you get a bird’s-eye view of surrounding landscape of the Tohono O’odham Reservation.

A lot of the tour went over my kids’ heads, but for me, the knowledge I gained about the field of astronomy blew my mind. Of course, I was particularly interested in the history behind it all (for example, the observatory was built in the fifties in response to the space race and the Cold War) but the details behind the science used here took my breath away. Highly recommend!


2018 Titan II Missile Museum Field Trip!

Last week my US History students went on a field trip to the Titan II Missile Museum. Located just 45 minutes from our school, visitors can experience for themselves the last remaining nuclear missile silo from the Cold War era. “This preserved Titan II missile site, officially known as complex 571-7, is all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987” (Titan Missile Museum). Below are some of the class comments about their time during the field trip and a few of the pictures students took. The parent chaperones had a great time too! Here is a link to a gallery of photos that a parent took.

…it gives amazing insight into what the government and military was doing during the Cold War and definitely makes you realize just how serious of a situation it was… – Drew

Possibly one of the most exciting sites to see in the city of Tucson, Arizona, the Titan II Missile Museum mesmerizes (sic) its visitors with technology found in no other museum. – Tori

The 390th Strategic Missile Wing helped to keep the peace during the Cold War for 24 years, with its main message being “peace through deterrence,” which obviously worked. – Tori

Not only did I learn extremely interesting information about the Cold War and how missiles work, but my eyes were opened to how serious the situation really could have been.  If anyone is looking for an opportunity to learn about Tucson’s own contribution to the world’s affairs, and wants an interactive, walk-through experience, this museum is a fantastic option. – Tori

Not only is the museum tour entirely educational, the wonders of Cold War era technology and protocols are only fathomable (sic) once seen. – Wini

Not only will you learn about the history of the cold war and Titan missiles but you will also beforehand learn the chemistry of why and how the missile is able to launch. – Kati

I would give Titan 2 Missile Museum 10 big red buttons out of 10. – Emma

Perhaps the most entertaining thing I learned was what life was like for the soldiers themselves stationed at the missile silo.  While their lives must’ve seemed uneventful, they carried a duty to essentially carry out WWIII if necessary. This surely was a huge responsibility to bear. – Adam

This place also serve as a reminder of our human nature, each of us is always trying to be on top of the game. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction resonates through the silo and the missile stands a pillar of strength to back those thoughts. – Sky

A demonstration was done to show how the chemicals self ignite. Another demonstration was done to show how the missile takes off and what the flame would look like. – Taylor

One thing that interested me the most was “peace through deterrence.” The fact that this was the only thing keeping the Cold War from going hot is unbelievable. – Taylor

As an aspiring Airman it just gave me another reason why I want to enter that field. To honor those who came before me and to inspire those who follow me. – Taylor

I left with the knowledge of what the lifestyle was like for the crew and the amount of precautions that they had to take to ensure security. – Aubrie

I had the opportunity to stand facing an object that held the potential to alter the course of our nation’s history within minutes and that could have destroyed numerous lives and generations to come. – Aubrie

The tour guide keeps visitors engaged by involving the audience, by letting someone sit in the chair and press buttons, and by asking questions. – Chelsea

There are no words to explain how amazing it felt to be so close to it all, to be able to see the actual bomb, to be able to see the motherboard which controlled everything in the shelter. – Carlos

…Chuck did several demonstrations though one that produced the loudest, “Whoaaa” was when Chuck filled a water jug with a small amount of rocket fuel, and setting the jug into a plastic, skeletal-like cylinder, he held a flame to the open nozzle, exposing the fumes to the rocket fuel and BAM off it went. – Hannah

Being able to understand the chemical reactions behind it all showed me how there was so much more than pushing a button and ta-da, big explosion, but there was time, study and hours of lab work dedicated to the construction of this missile. – Hannah

The Cold War In My Backyard

The control room

]It wasn’t until I returned to Tucson as an adult did I realize that my hometown was one of three locations in America where nuclear missiles would have been launched from during the Cold War, aimed towards the former Soviet Union (had our President given the order to “push the red button”). Over winter break I went to the Titan Missile Museum where visitors are giving a fantastic tour of one of the silos (the only one not destroyed after the Cold War ended) and the control room.

According to their website, the Titan II was capable of launching from its underground silo in 58 seconds and could deliver a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead to its target more than 6300 miles (10,000 km) away in less than thirty minutes. For more than two decades, 54 Titan II missile complexes across the United States stood “on alert” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, heightening the threat of nuclear war or preventing Armageddon, depending upon your point of view.

Did you realize that during the Cold War America tested a total of 1032 nuclear weapons? The Soviet Union tested 715 and a number of other countries tested their own. To see a time-lapse of who tested nuclear weapons and where, please watch this video. You will be amazed!

If you are at all interested in the Cold War and are driving through Tucson, AZ, I highly recommend taking a tour at the Titan Missile Museum. You will not be disappointed!