How did Arizona get to be the epicenter of astronomy in the United States? Part of it was happenstance. But Arizona’s notoriously clear and dark skies played a role, too.

In part two of Collecting Light: An Exploration of Arizona Astronomy, we examine the state’s history as a hotbed of astronomical research.

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A man named Perceivel Lowell got the ball rolling. It helped that he had some money behind him. He scouted around Arizona in the late 1880s, measuring sky conditions and looking for a good place to build an observatory. He found it in Flagstaff and today Lowell Observatory is both an important research facility and popular tourist destination.

Pluto discovery telescope
The 33-centimeter (13-inch) Pluto Discovery Telescope, used by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 to discover the dwarf planet Pluto. (Photo: Mark Duggan)

Meanwhile, interest was building on southern Arizona as a good place to study the stars.

By the 1920s, the University of Arizona had an astronomy department, which gave an academic and scientific legitimacy to what had been a hobby of the wealthy.

The federal government became interested in astronomy in the 1950s and established a national optical observatory on Kitt Peak, about 60 miles west of Tucson. They located their headquarters at Steward Observatory at the UA. 

Kitt Peak National Observatory
Kitt Peak is home to the largest concentration of optical and radio telescopes in North America. (Photo: Mark Duggan)

Today, there are dozens of individual observatories in Arizona. Some are research-focused while others have added popular public viewing programs to their mission. Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to the largest concentration of telescopes in the world.

But scientists know they’re only seeing part of the picture. To see the night sky from the southern hemisphere, astronomers in Arizona have developed new, massive observatories in Chile.

Collecting Light: An Exploration of Arizona Astronomy is an audio documentary series looking at the past, present, and future of both professional and amateur stargazing in the state.

See a gallery of photos from the series here. Listen to the other episodes now:

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