(ARIZONA HIGHWAYS TV) -- Arizona is home to three world-renowned observatories. We take a look at why you should visit each of these sites.
If you have a hankering to look through a giant telescope, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff is for you. It is one of the oldest and most esteemed observatories in the country, and it's been open to both scientists and stargazers since before the turn of the century.
Mars Hill overlooks downtown Flagstaff. It's the cold, clear mountain skies above Flagstaff that drew astronomers here more than a century ago. There's very little moisture in the air and no big city lights -- things that might blur what you see through a telescope.
"Telescopes are light buckets," explained Jeffrey Hall, the director of Lowell Observatory. "What astronomers do is collect light and interpret it."
Percival Lowell picked this site in 1894. Work here at Lowell Observatory 100 years ago led to the first evidence that the universe is expanding.
The telescope is a marvel.
"A ton worth of weight on the telescope itself, a ton counterweight and a couple more tons on the pier that holds it," Kevin Schindler explained during our tour. "It is a 24-inch lens, so you have a 24-inch lens at the very top of it. At the bottom, you see where the eyepiece is, but also a bunch of knobs that do different things to adjust the telescope. "
"We've got the ladder assembly that Percival Lowell built so that he could be seated in a chair from his kitchen table while he was doing his observations," he continued. "What makes it turn are 24 1954 Ford truck tires.
Lowell looked first to Mars and Venus, but had a hunch there was something more out there -- a new planet, beyond Neptune.
His hunch was right, and the 1930 discovery of Pluto put this place on the map. They found it only after relentlessly snapping shots of the night sky, looking for something that moved. Keep In mind, much of the critical work here got done before computers. Back then, high-tech meant brass and copper and tools like Thacher's Calculating Instrument, the mother of all slide rules.
The Rotunda Museum has treasures from that era.
The search for answers continues at Lowell, but with ever better tools.
Hall summed up the work.
"The hunt for planets elsewhere in the universe and the characterization of what planets outside our solar system might look like."
That hunting is done at another telescope south of Flagstaff on the other sub-mesa. And this year, the Discovery Channel Telescope will dwarf them all.
Inside the DCT, as it's called, is a big new mirror and robust new sensors to gather faint light far away.
"The new Discovery Channel Telescope, which we have almost completed, has a primary mirror about 168 inches in diameter," Hall explained. "It has a tremendously greater collecting area allowing astronomers to observe much fainter objects that you couldn't do with smaller telescopes. This really is a great place to visit both day and night time."
Even without peering through a telescope, you will be wowed by sights like the San Francisco Peaks.
"The first thing about a nighttime visit, especially with kids, is to arrive a little bit before dark," Schindler said. "Even if it's snowing or raining up here you can still see the stars from the Planetarium. As it gets dark, we gave telescopes that we start setting up."
If skies are clear -- and they usually are -- -- you can get a big, bold eyeful -- the moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter. If you go, keep your eyes peeled for some scary stuff that might be out there, too.
"These chunks of rock that come flying by and occasionally uncomfortably close to the Earth."
He's not kidding. Arizona has been hit by a meteor before -- a big one. It's been called "the world's best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth."
[WATCH: How Meteor Crater came to be]
As impressive as Lowell Observatory is, there's something bigger at Kitt Peak.
It was founded in 1958, but the idea for a national observatory was born earlier, at a meeting of astronomers in Flagstaff in 1953. Leo Goldberg proposed the concept of a national center for ground-based astronomy.
Located high above the Sonoran desert on the Quinlan Mountains, 56 miles southwest of Tucson is Arizona's -- and the world's -- link to the stars, the sun, the planets, and galaxies.
Twenty-seven telescopes sit on 200 acres of land; they are used by scientists from all over the world to unlock the mysteries of the universe.
"Annually we have about 700 visiting astronomers come through here, bringing about 250 different observing programs with them," Robert Wilson of Kitt Peak National Observatory said.
Among some of the more powerful scopes is the 4-meter Mayall Telescope, which stands at 18 stories. The WIYN Telescope is the second largest on the property and has been used to study gamma-ray bursts and the evolution of stars in clusters.
"We've had a number of discoveries made here at Kitt Peak," Wilson said. "The 2.1-meter, which was originally one of the first large telescopes built here, was the first to observe an instance of gravitational lensing in the universe, which was something that was proposed by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, which said gravity can bend light much like a lens."
"The four-meter telescope, the largest optical telescope on Kitt Peak, was one of the first to really do infrared astronomy," he continued. "It's been responsible for studying the role of dark matter in the universe."
Kitt Peak is also home to the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the world's largest solar instrument.
"Additionally, they found evidence of water vapor on the sun," Wilson said. "It studied the moons of Jupiter. It's regularly used to study the atmosphere of Mercury."
The telescopes are housed in protective structures that open up to reveal the skies above. It's kind of like a metal curtain call. All eyes wait for the doors to open to catch the big show.
Specialized computers help astronomers navigate the telescopes all over the nighttime skies.
"For people who visit Kitt Peak, I really hope that they're able to leave with a better understanding and appreciation for the science of astronomy, what it is we do here, how we advance humanity's understanding of the cosmos and our place in it," Wilson said.
If you would like to peer through one of the three telescopes at the visitors center at Kitt Peak, you can do so all year long, seven nights a week, except for six weeks during the Monsoon. Kitt peak offers an observing program that's open to the public.
MOUNT LEMMON SKYCENTER
At over 9000 ft above sea level, the Mount Lemmon Skycenter is a professional observing site with some of the largest telescopes available to the public.
At this observatory, you become the astronomer.
In fact, through the Mount Lemmon telescope, people have a chance to see things that most of humanity have never really been afforded the opportunity.
Unless you can get your hands on a bigger telescope and plop it down in a better site, this is a good as its gets as far as seeing the universe.
Located on Mt. Lemmon near the town of Summerhaven, this observatory offers international and remote access to people around the globe.
You can control this telescope from anywhere, so people can log on using specialized software, to see what the telescope is doing. It also offers nightly programs where visitors can become an astronomer for the day viewing the wonders of the cosmos. From constellations to atmospheric phenomena.
A featured telescope is called the Schuman Telescope, it is specially designed not only to get a good view through, but to take pictures with. You can see to the furthest reaches of the universe, very faraway galaxies, quasars, or things that are nearby, planets within our own solar system, asteroids and many others. This telescope which contains two mirrors, one of which is 32 inches, is specifically designed to reflect light, capturing some of the most interesting images, ones you could say are out of this world.
All telescopes can see the universe out there, but the larger your mirror, the more light you collect, and for us that means more light we can put in our eyeballs, the better we see things.