As a guide in our Nightly Observing Program at the Kitt Peak Visitor Center, I find enjoyment in many aspects of our programs. The programs do, after all, involve astronomy, which is both my hobby and my livelihood. Our guests have new experiences at the observatory and learn much about astronomy, the night sky, and telescopes. Whether guests marvel at Saturn seen for the first time in a telescope or discover that they can use a planisphere, to share their experiences is always a treat. But there are some moments in the program that I anticipate more than others. A favorite moment of mine in the Nightly Observing Program is when the guests take that first walk onto the patio and under the dark sky that makes Kitt Peak so special.
At the beginning of our program, after the preliminaries, the guests take a short walk to an overlook from which they watch sunset. Sunset from Kitt Peak is pretty spectacular. The Sun slips below the horizon and pulls the blanket of night slowly over Kitt Peak. As it does, the western sky salutes our star’s departure with hues of saffron and crimson. I must admit that this, too, is a special time on the mountain because all over Kitt Peak telescopes come to life in preparation for a night of observation and discovery. Observatory shutters roll back or slide open, and nearby one might hear the gentle rumble of a dome turning. Sunset is the start of the astronomers’ work day and a beautiful start to our guests’ celestial adventure.
Even though the Sun has set, the sky still isn’t quite dark enough for observing. Yet as we walk back to the visitor center, some of the brighter stars become visible and a planet ablaze with reflected sunlight might herald the coming of darkness. But we need to wait just a little longer.
Back at the visitor center we discuss the use of red flashlights during the program and the need to protect the science that is the observatory’s ultimate purpose. A few other remarks about cell phone screens, photography, and other possible sources of light pollution and it is time to get the party started.
The crowd is divided in half. One group goes to the telescope to begin observations, and the other group remains in the visitor center to learn the use of planispheres. That discussion takes about thirty minutes. By the time the guests are ready to step out onto the patio to apply their newly acquired knowledge, the sky has gotten dark. This is the moment.
I know the sense of wonderment the guests feel as they get their first glimpse of that sky emblazoned with stars, bisected by the soft, distant glow of the Milky Way arching overhead on a summer night. Dark rifts stand out against the glow like celestial sandbars creating eddies in a river of starlight. So many stars are visible that the constellations are almost difficult to recognize among them. As their collective gaze follows the Milky Way south toward the constellation Sagittarius, guests see the ancient glow of nebulae and star clusters, their light traversing thousands of light years to reach us at that moment when we stand, seemingly, among the stars.
Many of our guests have never seen a natural night sky. And it is at that moment as we stand, staring up, that I know we share something truly special. We revel in a universal heritage, common to us all from earliest times and so much a part of our world but one too seldom experienced by too many of us because the spread of light pollution deprives us of the sight. But now we enjoy the night sky as it can be enjoyed only from a dark site such as Kitt Peak.
Soon we turn our attention back to the planispheres, the binoculars, and the telescope. We have more experiences waiting, but it is this one that, for me, is most abiding and certainly a favorite moment in our Nightly Observing Program.
To experience this and other special moments for yourself, join us for the Nightly Observing Program by making reservations at https://visitkittpeak.org/night-observing-program/. You can also check out our other nighttime and overnight observing programs at https://visitkittpeak.org/night-programs/ and https://visitkittpeak.org/overnight-programs/.
— Robert Wilson, Kitt Peak Visitor Center Guide.