March 13th: The History of Kitt Peak

By on March 13, 2012 in

Date: March 13, 2012

Title: The History of Kitt Peak

Podcasters: Rob Sparks & Dr. John Glaspey

Organization: National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)


Description: Kitt Peak National Observatory was founded in the late 1950’s. In today’s podcast, Dr. John Glaspey discusses the role of a National Observatory and the history of Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Bios: Rob Sparks is a science education specialist in the EPO group at NOAO and works on the Galileoscope project (, providing design, dissemination and professional development. He also pens a great blog at

Dr. John Glaspey obtained a B.Sc. in Astronomy from what was then the Case Institute of Technology in 1966, and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 1971. During his studies in Tucson he also worked several summers at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and continued to carry out research projects there. After graduating he worked at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, The Universite de Montreal in Quebec, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas.  He returned to Tucson in 1998, where he managed the scientific operations on Kitt Peak for KPNO for seven years.  He was also actively involved in dealing with the Tohono O’odham Nation, on whose land the observatory is situated. He continues to be involved with education and outreach projects on the reservation in his retirement.

Sponsor: This episode of the “365 Days of Astronomy” podcast is sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. NOAO is a US national research and development center for ground-based nighttime astronomy. We provide astronomers access to world-class observing facilities on a peer-reviewed basis. Our mission is to engage in programs to develop the next generation of telescopes, instruments, and software tools necessary to enable exploration and investigation through the observable Universe. For information on observing proposals or our public programs, please visit for more information.


Rob: Hi, I would like to welcome you to this episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. This is Rob Sparks of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and I am here today with Dr. John Glaspey. Good morning, John.

John: Good morning, Rob.

Rob: You are retired from the National Observatory now, correct?

John: That’s correct.

Rob: First, could you tell us a little about your background and what you did during your long career.

John: Well, I first came to Kitt Peak when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona from 1966-1971 and I was fortunate enough to be able to work part time here in the summers and then continue to collaborate with one of the astronomers through my graduate career. Then from Tucson I went off to British Columbia where I was at the University of British Columbia and got involved with detector and instrument development. That led me to Quebec where I worked for 12 years on a 1.6 meter telescope that was developed there. From there I went to Hawaii where I was an astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telecope becoming associate director for six years. Then I went from there to the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope in Texas for a few years during its early development phase, but then came to Kitt Peak in 1998 and retired just two years ago.

Rob: Well, Kitt Peak National Observatory was founded in the 1950s and a couple of years ago we celebrated our 50th anniversary and you did a lot of work on that I remember. You took a lot of pictures and did a lot of historical work. So first, what is a national observatory and why do we need one?

John: In the 1950s, not long after the commissioning of the five meter telescope in California, what was affectionately known then as the 200 inch telescope, the Hale Telescope, other astronomers around the country didn’t have easy access to that. They would have to collaborate with somebody, one of the Hale Observatory astronomers. The telescope was pretty popular and pretty heavily used so it was hard to get time and they started to talk about having a national observatory, where astronomers all around the country  would be able to request time and come and make their observations and publish their data as astronomers always do. That led to the development of a committee to investigate possible sites. That was created I believe in 1955 and they appointed Dr. Aden Meinel as the head of that committee to search out sites. Meinel and his collaborators quickly zeroed in on the southwest as being very clear, a good choice for where to put this kind of observatory and they selected four or five very reasonable sites, including Kitt Peak in Arizona. That was their final list that they were going to pick from. Starting in 1958 they obtained a lease from what was then the Papago and now the Tohono O’odham tribe to build the observatory on the top of Kitt Peak.

Rob: You mentioned that several sites were considered for the National Observatory. What were the criteria for selecting the sites. What were they looking for in those sites?

John: Well, they have a variety of criteria, some very practical. Clearly, they wanted a nice clear area where they could get as many night per year that would be usable for the research as possible. But they also had to be practical about it. This was in the 1950s and travel was less convenient that it is now. A lot of travel was done by train and aircraft, air travel was really just beginning to take off you might say. So they were looking for a site that would not be too difficult to get to from, shall we say anywhere. They were also looking for a good academic environment. So the scientists that would come to work at the National Observatory would be near a reasonable sized city with a university that would attract them. So Tucson fit all of these criteria and Kitt Peak turns out to be a very good site. Yes there are others that seem to be better elsewhere in the world these days, but Kitt Peak has done very well over the years and it certainly has led to a good collaboration between the astronomy that has developed in this are because of Kitt Peak really growin and the university and the science community here in Tucson.

Rob: I know there are a lot of telescopes up there on Kitt Peak and a lot of construction has gone on over the years. I know we can’t talk about all of them but could you give us a few highlights or milestones in the development of  Kitt Peak in the 1950’s. What are some of the most important developments?

John: Well, apparentally in the development of the National Observatory, they did not want, the committee and the people talking about it then, they did not want to threaten the Hale Observatory people by saying oh, we’re going to build a telescope that’s bigger than you. But they early on decided that they wanted a big telescope that would be of comparable size. And they knew that they would need a variety of other telescopes. So the early planning requested two small telescopes, two sixteen inch telescopes, a 36 inch telescope and an 80 inch telescope which became the 84 inch and then planning for what was called the 150 inch telescope started before the observatory was even operating. That led ultimately to what we call the four meter, the 158 inch telescope on Kitt Peak as the largest telescope that was operated by the observatory. But it was quickly realized that the site was big enough and adequate for other observatories to come and move their telescopes there or build telescopes there. So there are really over 20 telescopes on the mountain now and we shouldn’t forget the solar telescope, that was a very important part of the early development. There are even radio telescopes on the mountain. So the mountain became a site for other institutions to come and locate their telescopes as well. Sometimes Kitt Peak Observatory collaborated with them in the operation of those telescopes as well.

Rob: So Steward Observatory and the University of Arizona and organizations such as that built some of their telescopes up there.

John: That’s right. Steward, even at the time Kitt Peak was being founded as the National Observatory, Steward was considering moving their telescope, which was then the 36 inch, out of Tucson to a better site outside of town. So it was natural that they came along and were collaborating with the National Observatory.

Rob; And then the most recent major construction was the 3.5 meter WIYN telescope, correct?

John: That’s right That’s the major telescope that was built in recent times. It’s called WIYN, that’s W-I-Y-N, because it’s a collaboration between Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale and NOAO, which gets about 40% of the time on the telescope.

Rob: That was constructed in the 90’s I belive. In ’94 it was commissioned?

John: It was commissioned I think in ’95 or ’96 but I am not sure.

Rob: Well we are up to the present now in the development of Kitt Peak. Could you tell us about some of the future plans? I know we are not building any more major telescopes, but there are plans for upgrading some of the existing facilities.

John: That’s right. Telescopes never remain static. The goes from the beginning of modern astronomy 100 to 150 years ago. With the development of modern electronic detectors especially in the last 50 years or so, that has made these made these telescopes, kept them to be very valuable contributors to the research that is going on. And part of the way that is done is to modernize the instruments. So some old instruments may be put into mothballs you might say, but newer and more efficient ones are developed and build and operated an put on the telescope.  Right now, for example, there is great interest in developing a large spectrograph project that basically would take up most of the time for the four meter telescope doing large  survey telescope dong faint object spectroscopy of objects all over the sky. Spectroscopy is the instrument or the kind of research where you take the light from the object and spread it out in very small increments in order to look for details in either the motion of the object or the physical parameters of whatever it is you are looking at.

Rob: And the four meter, also known as the Mayall, is very well suited for that type of research, isn’t it?

John: That’s right. It was designed for wide field use so the concept is to have many optical fibers up at the optical focus of the telescope that is in a fairly wide field of view so you get a lot of different objects at the same time and that makes the instrument that much more efficient. When I was a student you would take the spectrum of one object at a time with whatever instrument you were using.

Rob: And it could take quite a while to get that one spectra.

John: Photographic plates were used in that era and I was fortunate over my career to be involved in the development of and use of many of the new digital detectors as they came along.

Rob: Thanks for joining me today John. I hope we get to have many more years of observing up on Kitt Peak.

John: I hope so too.

Rob: This is Rob Sparks for the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. I hope you will join us next month.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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