Kitt Peak Prepares For Visitors Again After Tucson Wildfire

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A huge wildfire in June was a real threat to the complex of telescopes on top of Kitt Peak. But now the national observatory that was founded in 1958 is working to get ready to resume research and allow visitors again.

It would have been a huge loss to science and the public if the Contreras Fire had burned its way to the Kitt Peak telescopes.

The observatory near Tucson had minor losses but it will still take time before it’s back to normal.

Telescopes are often on remote mountaintops and that can leave them especially vulnerable to wildfires.

The only structures the Contreras wildfire took were one dormitory for visiting astronomers and one other small building.

Now scientists and technicians are working to see if there’s more subtle damage to any of the sensitive instruments.

“We definitely do have concerns that there could be smoke contamination or other issues, which is why we are having our staff go dome to dome and telescope to telescope to do really thorough checks before we go back to operations,” said Kitt Peak associate director Dr. Michelle Edwards. “But we are now in the position where we can safely do that. And so I think we will be moving forward really rapidly with that recovery.”

It complicates recovery that the fire burned power poles that carry electricity to the complex. It also destroyed guardrails needed to protect drivers as they head up the mountain road to the observatory.

Edwards is eager to see Kitt Peak get back to the work it was built for.

“We have some really exciting science projects that are ongoing at the observatory including Desi which is on our four meter telescope that is basically exploring dark energy and also is making a three dimensional map of the entire universe,” she said. “So obviously that project has been slightly delayed, but it is a five year project. And so it’s a very small fraction of the time that’s going to be lost to this.“

Visitors simply interested in science are important to Kitt Peak too. The observatory was remodeling one of the telescopes to be a new visitor center, but it’s not clear when the fire recovery will be done and visitors can return.