UA Invites Public to View Stars from Mount Lemmon SkyCenter
The Mount Lemmon summit will become a unique science learning center.

By Lori Stiles, University Communications
May 13, 2008

A new public program established by The University of Arizona invites people to view the heavens from telescopes on the summit of Mount Lemmon, one of the highest mountaintops in the continental United States.

Participants can sign up as a member of a small group evening observing program or as individuals who will be treated as visiting astronomers – joined one-on-one by an experienced astronomer – in overnight observing.

The new public observing opportunities on Mount Lemmon are part of the University's initiative "to create world-class science learning experiences that will enrich the lives of thousands of students and visitors every year," said Valerie Grindle, who joined the UA College of Science in January. "The SkyCenter will build upon the knowledge base at the University and the uniqueness of the site to deliver these educational adventures."

As executive officer of the newly named Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, Grindle will direct development of science programs, camps and workshops at the University's 25-acre mountaintop observing site.

"The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter will open the world of astronomy and other sciences to southern Arizona and its visitors in a uniquely inspiring and educational way," said UA President Robert N. Shelton. "This is one more way the UA is fulfilling its modern land-grant mission of bringing its science off campus and into the minds and imaginations of the communities it serves. The SkyCenter will inspire more young people to pursue careers in the sciences."

UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz added, "Among the responsibilities of great universities is to bring our understanding of the universe to our communities. An appreciation of how our world works and its place in the universe is essential for making intelligent decisions about our future. The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is a unique place, with unique tools, for creating matchless opportunities for general education."

Located on 'Sky Island'

The SkyCenter is located on 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Coronado National Forest in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The access road to the observatory begins at the very end of the scenic and popular Mount Lemmon Highway, beyond Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. The 30-mile Mount Lemmon Highway, also known as the Catalina Highway, winds more than 6,000 feet up through six distinct ecosystems on Mount Lemmon, one of 27 "sky islands" unique to the U.S. Southwest.

Over the past year, the UA's Steward Observatory and College of Science have used private donations and funds from the Tucson-based Research Corp. to develop a new educational facility called the Learning Center. The building includes a fully furnished kitchen, computer facilities and a multipurpose room designed for dining and workshops.

Private donations given to remodel and refurbish the facilities came primarily from donors who have attended astronomy camps run by UA astronomer Donald McCarthy Jr. McCarthy has organized and run hundreds of life-altering astronomy camps for thousands of teenagers and adults on Mount Lemmon over the past 20 years.

In addition to new public observing opportunities, the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter will offer new astronomy and science camps for adults, youth, educators and students, as well as workshops on topics ranging from how to use a telescope to tree-ring science, Grindle said.

SkyCenter Public Evening Programs

The SkyCenter's Adam Block coordinates the new public evening programs. Block transformed the nondescript interior of one of seven domes on the site into an attractive and comfortable observatory this spring. He and others installed a new 24-inch telescope in the newly remodeled dome on the summit on April 7.

Block took "first light" images that show spectacular views through the 24-inch telescope, which is on loan from RC Optical Systems, of Flagstaff, Ariz., until the optics manufacturer completes a new 32-inch telescope that will replace the loaned telescope 18 months from now.

The first light images, which will be released on Wednesday, show how spectacular stars and galaxies look from the SkyCenter.

"Despite its proximity to Tucson, the night sky on Mount Lemmon is still a premium natural resource and a choice location for both public outreach and research in astronomy," Block said.

The air is clean, the humidity is low, and visibility averages 100 miles from the summit. Mount Lemmon has clear skies about seven of every 10 nights.

Block will begin group evening programs with a presentation about the natural wonders of the special mountain and the mysteries of the cosmos, and an introduction to facilities and telescopes on the mountaintop. After a light meal, visitors will learn how to use star charts and binoculars to view the night sky. Minutes before sunset, the group will go to a prime viewing spot to watch the setting sun and Earth's rising shadow. During deep twilight, participants will get an orientation and hands-on practice at navigating the night sky with star charts and binoculars. Finally, when the sky turns truly dark, visitors will experience what it's like to see planets and galaxies through the telescope eyepiece.

Mount Lemmon Astronomy

The Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is a new chapter for a place with a rich history.

UA and other entities have used the Mount Lemmon summit for astronomy and other scientific research since 1970.

The U.S. Air Defense Command maintained an early warning radar base to detect Russian bombers from 1956 until 1970. When the Air Defense Command decommissioned the radar base in 1970, Gerard Kuiper, founder of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, negotiated with the Air Force and the U.S. Forest Service to convert the site into the Mount Lemmon Infrared Observatory.

Mount Lemmon is arguably the birthplace of infrared astronomy. Pioneering research in infrared astronomy on Mount Lemmon led to the development of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a NASA aircraft that routinely flew an infrared-optimized telescope in the stratosphere above Earth's water vapor, and also to infrared cameras that UA astronomers are flying on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as cameras they will fly on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in about five years.

Mount Lemmon also is the site of one of the most productive telescopes in the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory's Catalina Sky Survey. The Catalina Sky Survey has been the premier program among NASA-funded searches for near-Earth objects, including those potentially hazardous to Earth, for the past several years.

Extra info


Evening astronomy program and observing


Mount Lemmon Sky Center

The evening observing program costs $48. To register and for more information, including scheduling and special introductory group discounts, call Block or Cathi Duncan at Steward Observatory, 520-626-8122.

Mount Lemmon SkyCenter 



Resources for the media

Valerie Grindle