World’s 14th Largest Telescope Brings Visitors Closer to Sky

Michael Calkins feels like a space traveler — but with a shorter commute.

He works as a science technician at the MMT Observatory, an astronomical observatory at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado. Mr. Calkins appreciates the delicate nature of astronomical science and hopes that the data that he collects can help future generations discover new worlds and perhaps even new life.

“I get to be an astronaut without the travel time. You’re on the top of a mountain in the middle of the Sonoran Desert,” Mr. Calkins said. “You can’t help but dream a little in this environment.”

The MMT Observatory is not like others around the Arizona area, because it has a telescope, by the same name, that is 21-feet wide and is the first telescope that rests on a rotating building according to the observatory’s website. It is also the 14th largest in the world.

MMT stands for Multiple Mirror Telescope and is an abbreviation from the 1979 original telescope that the new one, which was commissioned in 2000 and that stands in the same location, was named after.

The MMT, one of the many telescopes within the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, is about 35 miles south of Tucson and sits 8,500 feet high on the top of Mount Hopkins, one of the highest peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains.

The building’s rotation and array of instruments of the telescope allows for the tracking of multiple objects across the sky with relative ease.

The MMT telescope in resting position before the building’s shutters open.DANIELA FRANCO/NYTIMES INSTITUTE

In 2011, scientists working with the MMT telescope found evidence of white dwarf mergers, which, when and if they collide, can explode as supernovae. It is the go-to telescope for scientists who want to see deep space.

Although not a very widely publicized observatory, visitors are welcome to the MMT. Tours can be arranged ahead of time through the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory basecamp, located at the base of the mountain.

They are offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday and meet in the visitor center to head toward the summit around 9:30 a.m. Pricing is $10 for adults and $5 for children six to 12 years of age, although school group tours are free.

Visitors take a bus, which can only handle a maximum of 30 people, up a 10-mile unpaved road toward the observatory. The tour is a day-long trip and visitors are advised to bring their own packed lunch that they can enjoy with the view of the mountains from picnic tables.

This accessible observatory offers insight into a science that is rapidly developing. Ricardo Ortiz, the mountain operations manager, explains that working with the telescope allows for scientists to become artists. “The sky is closer than you think,” he said.


This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 28, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the year the original telescope began operating at the observatory. It was 1979, not 1968.