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Field Course Louisa Connolly


McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope Welcome

Inside this visitor guide:
Design Construction OpticsHeliostat Dr. R. McMath Dr. A. Pierce Dedication Discoveries

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Welcome to the worlds largest Solar instrument! This guide is designed to give you information on the structure of the history of the observatory, the instruments within it and the important discoveries subsequently made.

The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at twilight.

It was in 1955 when a special advisory panel was appointed by the National Science Foundation to advocate the construction of a new Solar telescope. The idea was to design an instrument that could be used to study the physical and chemical features of the Sun. In the original designs, the telescope was an immense vertical triangle with its hypotenuse along the polar axis. Thus the telescope resembled a gnomon, of an incredibly large sundial. The heliostat that sits on top of the 30 metre tower weighs almost 4.5 x 104kg. The

Quick Facts:
The McMath-Pierce facility is part of the National Solar Observatory. It is the largest Solar instrument in the world. It is the worlds largest unobstructed (it doesn't have a secondary mirror in the path of incoming light) aperture optical telescope, with a diameter of 1.6 m. Unlike other Solar telescopes, it is sensitive enough to observe bright stars in the night.

tower was designed to be so rigid, that even when a 11 m/s wind knocked against the image of the Sun at the end of the 240 metre optical path it would not be deflected by a significant amount. The final design sees the heliostat sitting atop a massive concrete cylinder eight metres in diameter with steel reinforced walls which are one metre thick.

Under construction.

The telescope comprises of a 30 metre tower rising from the ground. A 60 metre shaft slants toward the ground from the top of this tower. A tunnel of 90 metres continues into the mountain. As the telescope is exposed to solar heating, and thermal airflows, a cooling system has been introduced to counteract these fluctuating temperatures. The liquid within this system can resist freezing in low temperatures. The exterior systems use copper and concrete.

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The three mirror Heliostat within this instrument is owned by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. It is 50,000 kg and is circular in cross-section. The heliostat directs the suns light down the long shaft and underground to the telescopes prime focus, which has a resolution of 2.50 arsec/mm. A steel jacket is wrapped around the heliostat to protect it against wind movements, this is an independent structure from the tower. The mirror is mounted equatorially and rotates with the celestial sphere once per day. It can also move in declination. However one disadvantage of the heliostat is that its image rotates once per day, which means the instrument had to be built in such a way that it could rotate at the same rate to compensate. This is overlooked however by the other benefits the main benefit being it is a single moving mirror system that does not get shadowed during the observing day.

Work on the spectra of solar granules, on the physical structure of sunspots and their associated magnetic fields, requires considerable image size. Past experience has shown that the optimum image of the sun should be approximately a yard (0.91-m) across (McMath & Pierce 1960).

Dr. Robert McMath

Dr. Robert R. McMath

Dr. McMath was a devoted solar astronomer. Tragically, he died in 1962, just one month before the dedication of the worlds largest solar telescope. The existence of the telescope was largely a result of McMaths efforts in both astronomy and politics. He received his bachelors degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Michigan (1913). In 1919 after serving in World War I, he left the army after gaining the rank of Major. Along with his father and close friend Judge Henry S. Hulbert, a shared interest in astronomy and education saw them build a private observatory to experiment with astro-cinematography. Successful filming of Jupiter's atmosphere and moons led to McMath's rising reputation in the astronomical community as well as his contribution to many scientific papers on the subject. His doctor of science degree was an honorary award from the Pennsylvania Military college (1941). McMath's career slowly moved towards a specialization in solar astronomy . He became both professor in solar physics and astronomy at the University of Michigan. The solar telescope project at Kitt Peak represented the realization of his long sought after goal of constructing the worlds largest solar telescope. The details he left of the project were passed onto his younger and trusted colleague of Dr. A. Keith Pierce.
Dr. Keith Pierce

Dr. A. Keith Pierce

Dr. A. Keith Pierce was a graduate student in Astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1940s. He complete his doctorate here in 1948. After working as an assistant to Dr. Leo Goldberg at the University of Michigan, he was noticed by Dr. McMath and was consequently made a staff astronomer at McMaths private observatorythe McMath-Hulbert Observatory. He was assigned to work on the Solar Telescope Project at Kitt peak, and his first assignment included visiting several solar observatories in Europe to investigate the solar seeing problem. He became the primary Scientist in charge of development of the telescope from its design to construction. After the dedication of the McMath solar telescope, he remained at the observatory as an active solar researcher. Although retired, he remained an active observer at the telescope and held the title of Astronomer Emeritus with the National Solar

Observatory, In 1992 a ceremony was held to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the telescopes original 1962 dedication and on this day it was rededicated as the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope facility. Dr. Pierce passed away in 2005.

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The great new solar telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona is a source of pride to the nation. The largest instrument for solar research in the world, it presents American astronomers with a unique tool for investigating the nearest of the stars, our sun. The project is of exceptional interest to all our citizens - President Kennedy

It was 1962 on November 2nd that the telescope was formally dedicated.

Sun Spots
One of the uses of the McMathPierce is to study the structure of sunspots, as well as sunspot spectra. A sunspot is a temporary cool region in the sun's photosphere compare to surrounding regions. They are created by intense magnetic activity. A typical sunspot appears dark and irregularly shaped. This image of a sunspot with exceptional detail was taken on September 9, 1990, with the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. The outer diameter of this sun spot measures about 22 million metres. Suspended over the umbra, the sunspot's darker inner core, is a rope-like light bridge.

Two white light images of a sunspot, using different exposures, and obtained during exceptionally good seeing conditions at Kitt Peak.

The telescope has contribute d to many important discoveries since its construction. Examples include the detection of water and isotopic helium on the Sun, solar emission lines at 12 microns; first measurement of Kilogauss magnetic fields outside sunspots and the very weak intra-network fields; first high resolution images at 1.6 and 10 microns and the detection of a natural maser in the Martian atmosphere. A maser is similar to a laser but involves microwaves instead of visible light. The camera and reimaging bench has been used for rapid imaging during the partial eclipse of May 20, 2012, and for imaging polarimetry during the Venus transit of June 6, 2012; the science data for both events is currently being analysed.


Off 386, Kitt Peak National Observatory, Pan Tak, Arizona, United States

A location map of the McMathPierce Telescope within Kitt Peak. It is located in the bottom right hand corner.

Thank you for visiting