Kitt Peak renovations spare telescope, increase ‘global reach’

The McMath-Pierce facility will transition into the Windows on the Universe Center for Astronomy Outreach over the next two years. The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope was dedicated in 1962 and was the only telescope capable of observing the sun at infrared wavelengths. (Photo by Corinna Tellez)

Kitt Peak National Observatory is receiving a two-year, $6.4 million transformation to save its historic solar telescope facility and renovate its aging visitor center.

Built in 1962, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope with its iconic V shape is about to be knocked out of first place as the world’s largest solar telescope. The government stopped funding operations of the facility in late 2017 to build a larger and more capable solar telescope in Maui.

Kitt Peak received only one proposal from a group or university to save its solar telescope, but it was rejected and the observatory was left with two options: fence off the facility and let it decompose, or tear it down. As a result, Kitt Peak visitor center manager Bill Buckingham submitted a plan to redesign the inside of the McMath-Pierce facility to the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that supports research and education in non-medical and engineering fields of science.

Buckingham’s redesign included a planetarium, another theater for “Science on a Sphere,” several small and large exhibit galleries, high-tech astronomy and learning classrooms, and keeping the solar telescope functioning to display live footage of the sun and the sun spectrum to visitors.

NSF officials approved the plan in September with a $4.5 million grant. The goal is to transform McMath-Pierce from a research facility into a state-of-the-art center with a global reach. The new facility, led by Buckingham, will be called Windows on the Universe Center for Astronomy Outreach.

“We no longer have to depend on just the people coming to visit us here. We’ll have a global reach,” Buckingham said. “Our research with our name on it, Kitt Peak National Observatory, can be seen around the world.” 

Science on a Sphere is an educational tool produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data. The planetarium and Science on a Sphere have a collaborative network that will provide visitors with a virtual experience of the telescopes and research from other NSF-funded facilities in Hawaii, Chile and the South Pole. Between the planetarium and Science on a Sphere, research can be displayed in more than 250 museums and centers around the world. 

“This really reaffirms Tucson’s place as the world’s capital of astronomy and as a world-class communicator of astronomy,” Buckingham said. 

Kitt Peak, about 50 miles southwest of Tucson, hasn’t seen a major renovation to its 1964-built visitor center since 1996. Buckingham began plotting improvements when he was hired four years ago.

“We were looking our age. We were looking worn. We were straining the limits of our exhibits and facilities to meet people’s expectations,” Buckingham said.

Bill Buckingham walks back into the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center. The visitor center was established in 1964. (Photo by Corinna Tellez)

Renovations for the visitor center are focused around beautification, modernization and new informative and interactive exhibits for visitors.

Some improvements have already been completed, including a new entrance wall that states what the building is, the center’s first-ever PA system and a new administration desk.

The renovations were funded by charitable donations and money generated from programs and fees at Kitt Peak.

Corinna Tellez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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