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34. The National Observatories - Nifty 50

Kitt Peak National Observatory

For 40 years, NSF has provided U.S.A. and international astronomers access to several world-class observatories. NSF supports three national astronomy centers - the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center - that operate large optical and radio telescopes and radar facilities.

Research in ground-based optical, infrared, radio and radar astronomy and solar physics is conducted in facilities such as the 4-meter optical telescope on Arizona's Kitt Peak, the 10 separate antennae of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) telescope spaced across the country and solar telescopes on Kitt Peak and on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico.

NSF's support of these facilities ensures a broad range of U.S.A. scientists and students will have access to these facilities.

Astronomical discoveries

From studies using these national facilities, scientists and the public first learned that the distribution of galaxies in the universe is lumpy and that galaxies existed billions of years ago.

The first gravitational lens, a foreground galaxy that gravitationally distorts the image of a more distant galaxy behind it, was discovered at Kitt Peak. Three teams of radio scientists have used NSF's VLBA radio telescope to learn tantalizing new details about how sun-like stars are formed.

A different team of radio astronomers has used the VLBA to make the most accurate measurement ever made of the distance to a faraway galaxy.

These observatories have allowed the gathering of more information about the evolution, the composition and the variations among protostars, stars, clusters, planetary nebulae, novae and X-ray binaries. Virtually every branch of contemporary astronomy has been advanced by the national telescope facilities.

Original publication date: April 2000

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