Tucson’s Guide to the Galaxy
Southern Arizona City is a Hub for Astronomers and Stargazers
If you’ve ever found yourself outside at night in Tucson’s cool, crisp air, you have undoubtedly felt your eyes wander up to the sky. There, above you, is a network of twinkling stars, so vast and radiant you are left dumbfounded by their beauty and how unimaginably insignificant they make you feel. You are far from alone in your observations. As headquarters of DarkSky International, the greater Tucson area has long been a haven for stargazers and astronomers alike. Light pollution ordinances by the City of Tucson and Pima County enacted in the ‘70s have ensured that residents and researchers will have the opportunity to continue to foster their so-called “relationship” with the night sky for decades to come. It's these ordinances that have helped Saguaro National Park become the world's ninth Urban Night Sky Place. This certification recognizes sites near large urban areas whose planning actively promotes an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light at night.
Wildcat Country Extends Beyond the Milky Way
Begin your exploration of the night sky at the University of Arizona, home to one of the most reputable astronomy departments in the U.S., credited with leading projects such as the Phoenix Mars mission and the OSIRIS-REx sample return mission to the Bennu asteroid. Visit Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium, Steward Observatory, and Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory to learn about the university’s astronomy missions and other projects.
The Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium is anchored by Southern Arizona’s Eos Planetarium Theater, where you can immerse yourself in the night sky with surrounding screens and state-of-the-art projection technology. From there, explore the museum’s exhibits, like Destination: Mars and Solar System Revealed, and enjoy a viewing from the 16-inch telescope that’s manned by volunteer astronomers.
Just a stone’s throw away is the Steward Observatory, the research arm of the University of Arizona’s astronomy center, which has been hosting free public lectures since September 1922. Credited with assisting in the discovery of many space phenomena, including the recently discovered black hole at the center of our galaxy, you can use the observatory’s telescope free-of -charge following each lecture.
Tucked beneath the University of Arizona’s football stadium is the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, which manufactures the gargantuan mirrors used in some of the most advanced telescopes throughout the world. These mirrors represent a radical departure from yesterday’s conventional solid-glass mirrors and instead have a honeycomb structure on the inside. Get more insight into the production process and how it has revolutionized today’s telescopes during a tour of The Mirror lab, resuming in 2024.
Got Stars? Will Travel
It comes as no surprise that The University of Arizona’s astronomy education programs extend beyond their main campus. The Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, about an hour from the university, is located in the Santa Catalina Mountains at an elevation of 9,157 feet. There, you have access to two of the largest telescopes available to the public in the Southwest as well as programming such as the SkyNights StarGazing Program, Astronomer Nights and even an immersive Astronomy Camp.
Just two hours southeast of Tucson, the University of Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory is used for research by scientists throughout the world. In fact, it’s home to the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, among others. Tours are available mid May through October, with reservations. Another of the Southwest's foremost astronomy facilities, Kitt Peak National Observatory, is about an hour from downtown Tucson on the Tohono O'odham nation's land. With a great visitor's center, amazing mountain-top views, and world-class telescopes it's a must-see for learners of all ages. Founded in 1958, it features more than 20 optical and two radio telescopes and is the longtime home of what once was the largest solar telescope in the world.
Not to be outdone, the Smithsonian has its largest satellite facility on Mount Hopkins, Ariz., about 1.5 hours from downtown Tucson. The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory was established in 1966 and is home to a world-class cadre of telescopes. They are currently closed to the public but plan to reopen in late 2023.
In total, the state of Arizona boasts 48 astronomical observatories that are using their telescopes to collect and report data. The vast majority of these are in southern Arizona, just a short drive from Tucson.
Continue your celebration of the night sky during the Tucson Astronomy Festival, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association’s hallmark annual event. Taking place in April, this free festival begins in the afternoon with safe solar viewings, hands-on exhibits for children, and a telescope giveaway – and concludes in the night after solar system viewings. If you can’t make the festival, the association hosts many other events throughout the year, as well as stargazing.
Hoping to attend a Star Party? Look no further than Oracle State Park or Kartchner Caverns State Park, both designated as Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark Sky Association. On predetermined dates, the parks will host guest presenters who guide attendees through a viewing, first by explaining what’s most visible in the night sky and then through viewings of planets, nebulas and stars from a variety of telescopes.
Before I Lay Me Down to Sleep
It’s not just scientists who look to Tucson’s skies with adoration. Many of Tucson’s resorts honor the night skies with viewings of their own.
Book a weekend at Cat Mountain Lodge and Roadside Inn, a bed and breakfast that’s also home to the custom-built Spencer’s Observatory, featuring a private patio with a retractable roof. Splurge with a personal tour of the observatory and viewing with a Star Guide.
Stay and play at the upscale Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, nestled at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, to enjoy complimentary stargazing for guests with a Mount Lemmon SkyCenter program guide on select nights. Visit the rustic Tanque Verde Ranch to ride horses by day and stargaze with a guide at night.