Construction begins on NOIRLab Windows on the Universe Center

Construction begins on NOIRLab Windows on the Universe Center

What was once the largest solar observatory in the world is now undergoing a transformation to become a one-of-a-kind facility for sharing the wonders of astronomy with people around the globe. Construction work has started to recast the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope facility at Kitt Peak National Observatory into the NOIRLab Windows on the Universe Center for Astronomy Outreach.

Dedicated in 1962 and retired in 2017, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, in southern Arizona was used to make numerous scientific discoveries about the Sun, the Moon, and the planets, including detecting water vapor on the Sun. In 2018, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $4.5 million grant to convert the facility into a unique outreach center that will provide the public with new ways to experience the cutting-edge research being carried out at KPNO and NSF’s other astronomy facilities around the globe.

“Instead of getting the wrecking ball, the McMath-Pierce is going to be transformed,” said Bill Buckingham, Project Director for Windows on the Universe. “It’s being given a new mission, which is just as important as research, to demonstrate why the public should support astronomy research. I don’t know of any other retired federal telescope being repurposed like this before in the US.”

Visitors to the center will explore the wide variety of research carried out at NSF’s astronomy facilities, including KPNO, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the international Gemini Observatory, Vera C. Rubin Observatory, and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope – all managed by AURA – as well as the Very Large Array (VLA), Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), South Pole Telescope, IceCube Neutrino Observatory, and Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The center will ultimately feature a digital planetarium, interactive exhibits, and a Science On a Sphere display.

Part of the center’s mission is to convert data, images, and video from NSF observatories into formats that can be shared and displayed in planetariums and Science On a Sphere exhibits around the world, expanding the center’s reach globally. The center will also preserve three solar telescopes (called heliostats) and a control room from the McMath-Pierce observatory, to give visitors the experience of being at a telescope and participating in research carried out at NSF facilities.

“This is a unique and distinctive 10-story structure that extends deep underground, and it was also used by Apollo astronauts to examine the Moon’s surface,” said Buckingham [1]. “There is no other outreach facility with this kind of history and architecture.”

Much work is needed to turn the research observatory into a public museum that can host exhibits and also be comfortable, safe, attractive, and functional for guests visiting from around the world. The first step, which has begun, is to identify and safely remove hazardous materials from the building.

After that, workers from the W.E. O’Neil Construction Company of Tucson, Arizona, will begin to knock down walls to convert small rooms – once used as offices, workshops, photographic darkrooms, and other science and engineering spaces – into large rooms that will host interactive exhibit galleries and astronomy visualization theaters.

Plumbing will be added for public restrooms and water fountains, along with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Internet connections will be installed in addition to new lighting, carpeting, and acoustic upgrades. In all, more than 750 square meters (8000 square feet) of space within the former observatory will be modified. This work is expected to take six to eight months to complete. It will then take an additional 10 to 12 months to install the theaters and exhibits. Windows on the Universe is expected to open to the public in 2023.

“We are excited to see the transformation of this iconic building into a new educational facility on Kitt Peak,” said Chris Davis, NSF Program Officer for NOIRLab. “Through the Windows on the Universe Center, NSF’s NOIRLab will be better able to share the awesome results of US astronomy facilities across the globe.”

Kitt Peak National Observatory and the McMath-Pierce facility are located about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Tucson, Arizona, in the Schuk Toak district on Tohono O’odham Nation land. Windows on the Universe and its exhibits are being developed in consultation with educators and leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation. We are privileged to conduct research on Ioligam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) and acknowledge the Tohono O’odham Nation as the original stewards of these lands.

At present, Kitt Peak National Observatory is closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Kitt Peak Visitor Center could reopen on-site nighttime programs to the public in November 2021 and daytime programs could return in spring 2022, if conditions allow.

Learn more about Windows on the Universe in a recent Live from NOIRLab online presentation by Bill Buckingham called Opening Your Windows On The Universe.

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