Acura Group Drive Part 1: Kitt Peak Observatory in Tucson, Arizona

Odometer (Legend):  528,547

528547

Odometer (ILX):  65,353

65353

Nerd alert!  I’ve had a soft spot for science ever since childhood, and I met one of my heroes – Bill Nye the Science Guy – when I was in college.  But I’ve lived in Arizona for over 8 years ago and only recently learned that it’s home to an observatory with the largest collection of optical telescopes in the world.  Arizona is chock-full of hidden gems.

tyson_bill_nye

I first heard the name “Kitt Peak” when I drove past the turnoff last July while on a roadtrip to Why, Arizona.  Since then, I’d been wanting to make it back for a formal visit.  There are 3 tours offered daily.  Along with my friends Jason and Paul, I made it to the 10:00 a.m. program yesterday, which would focus on the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.  It is the world’s largest solar telescope.

This was a family outing.  And by that, I mean all three vehicles in our caravan were Acuras:

  • Black 2010 Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT (Jason)
  • White 2013 Acura TL SH-AWD AT (Paul)
  • Silver 2013 Acura ILX 6MT (Tyson)

The boys and I broke this trip into a two-dayer, with a Friday night rendezvous in Tucson before the big day.  After a hotel buffet breakfast, we fired up our cars and headed westward through the Sonoran Desert on a beautiful morning.  As soon as we exited Highway 86, the Tucson-Ajo Highway, I knew we were in for a treat.  The next 12 miles were filled with great curves and some of the best scenery in the southwest.  I took the lead in the ILX and we climbed to an elevation of 6,880 feet at the summit.  Jason and I rowed our manual gearboxes, while Paul manipulated his paddle shifters to command action from his 6-speed automatic transmission. The temperatures were notably cooler as we made our way toward the top.

three_acuras

Kitt Peak’s construction dates back to 1958 when the National Science Foundation supplied funding under President John F. Kennedy.  Extensive site evaluations had designated Kitt as the best place for a national observatory:  It had more “good seeing days” (273 per year, to be exact) than any other potential site.  However, because the land was owned at the time by the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation (and considered very sacred), the U.S. had to negotiate with the tribe before it could lease 2,000 acres.  Among the contract terms:  The observatory must buy electricity that’s supplied by the reservation.  Those stipulations are still in full force today.

welcome

paul_with_telescope

By 1962, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope had been completed and astronomers were coming from all around the world to try it out.  The telescope stands a massive 100 feet in the air, 200 feet into the ground, and has a 500-foot-long angled section that is exactly parallel to the earth’s axis.  A telescope uses a series of mirrors and discs that reflect light and focus it to create an image.  Even though McMath-Pierce is now over 50 years old, the technology that it employs is still relevant.  Infrastructure has been updated with fiber optic communication equipment.  Little known fact:  The telescope also acts as a gigantic sundial.  I guess that makes two massive sundials I’ve visited in recent months.  Our tour guide, Larry, took us inside the telescope for a closer look.

inside_telescope

Some 2,500 visitors travel to Kitt Peak each year to see McMath-Pierce as well as some of the 17 or so other telescopes on-site.  I’d love to go back to Kitt and stargaze sometime during one of the nightly observing programs.  For now, enjoy some of the many photos below from this part of our trip!  Tomorrow, I’ll share the adventures of the rest of our Saturday Acura drive:  A trip to Madera Canyon.

Thanks for coming along!

TL & ILX gearing up for departure on Friday evening

tl_ilx

Eastbound on Interstate 10 – it’s about a 90-minute drive to Tucson.

start

The Shell station located in Picacho Peak, Arizona has a good sense of humor.

restrooms

… Not to mention some great souvenirs.  Coonskin cap, anyone?

coonskin

Upon arrival in Tucson, I happened to hit 65,065 miles with an exterior temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.  The stars would have been in greater alignment if I had been going 65 miles per hour at the time.

65065

Saturday morning:  Mini waffles to fuel us for a long day of adventure behind the wheel.

breakfast

Let’s load ’em up!

tyson_thumbs_up

Couldn’t have asked for better weather for a Saturday drive.

tucson_weather

palm

Which would you pick?

acura_fronts

Westward on the Ajo Highway, we knew we were getting close.

kitt_distance_sign

Paul snagged a great picture of the ILX from the rear.  Kitt Peak was in the distance, awaiting our visit.

ilx_with_kitt_peak

And, here we are at the turnoff.

tyson_with_kitt_sign

From there, it was 12 miles to the summit at just under 6,900 feet in elevation.

cattle_guard

This type of sign gets me excited.

curves

As expected, views were exceptional from all around as we climbed the mountain.

climbing_kitt_peak

At these elevations, snow is possible and even likely this time of year.

backs

fronts

Getting close!

lineup_with_tyson

In 1957, our Acuras would have never made this trip.  Here’s what the Kitt Peak access road looked like then.

1957_kitt_peak_road

We soon rounded a bend and saw some of Kitt Peak’s telescopes in the distance.

arrival_kitt

Made it!

paul_tyson_arrival_kitt_peak

kitt_peak_welcome

The visitor center & gift shop dates back to 1962 and is staffed by members of the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation.

visitor_center_outside

Inside, there are many informative displays.  This one gave a comparison between the various sizes of reflective mirrors that are used in telescopes today.

visitor_center_kitt_peak

Our tour group was led outside to the massive white structure which was the McMath-Pierce Telescope.

tour_group

Yikes!

snake_signs

The telescope is actually made of copper, but it was painted white so that it can be as reflective of light as possible.

tscope

Inside, we stared down the inner barrel at all the mechanical components that make the telescope work.

looking_down_inside_telescope

This was a neat picture of what the telescope looked like when it was under construction.

telescope_under_construction

Here, Paul and I are standing in front of a 2.1-meter telescope in the background.

paul_tyson_kitt_peak

Back to the Acuras we went for the next leg of our journey.

circle

Paul took the lead in the white one and we made our descent.

descent

Later that afternoon, we explored one of Arizona’s hidden canyons.  Come back tomorrow & read about it!

9 Responses to “Acura Group Drive Part 1: Kitt Peak Observatory in Tucson, Arizona”

  1. Great weather, great cars, great friends, great scenery, and MINI WAFFLES!! What more could you add to the mix to make it a perfect day?

  2. Kevin Amoth Says:

    I’d pick all three.

  3. Nice little trip. Great roads as well. Any goPro video of this one Tyson?

  4. Tyson, thanks for a great drive! Great post and a nice intro there. I know Kitt Peak was big for you! The pictures you took came out great! I’m finally feeling well enough to start drafting my post on the trip. I’m already thinking of other drives we should take in the near future! 🙂

    • Hey Jason, glad you’re feeling better and I’m sorry you spent a few days under the weather! That’s really wild – Paul and I have both been fine this week so maybe you just ended up with a random AZ bug to take home as a souvenir with you. I look forward to seeing your pics from the Kitt/Madera drives.

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