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8:23 PM Tue, Dec. 11th

Hualapai Mountain just barely missed having a national astronomical observatory

The Flame and Horsehead Nebulas, NGC 2024 and IC 434, respectively. These are examples of emission and dark nebulas. Emission nebulas are excited by radiation from hot, young stars hidden behind the glowing gas. Dark nebulas are dust clouds that obscure and block light from objects behind them. These nebula lie about 1500 light years away in the constellation Orion, the Hunter, visible high overhead this time of year. These nebula are South, and slightly East of the Easternmost star in Orion’s belt. (Photo Courtesy HDAC members)

The Flame and Horsehead Nebulas, NGC 2024 and IC 434, respectively. These are examples of emission and dark nebulas. Emission nebulas are excited by radiation from hot, young stars hidden behind the glowing gas. Dark nebulas are dust clouds that obscure and block light from objects behind them. These nebula lie about 1500 light years away in the constellation Orion, the Hunter, visible high overhead this time of year. These nebula are South, and slightly East of the Easternmost star in Orion’s belt. (Photo Courtesy HDAC members)

The year is 1956. The National Science Foundation is in search of another peak to place a National Astronomical Observatory. An aerial reconnaissance produced 150 possible sites, which was later narrowed down to five, and then two.

In 1958, it was between Hualapai Mountain or Kitt Peak.

Members of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) were scoping the cosmos from atop Hualapai Mountain in 1957. Aden Meinel of AURA invited the public to Lt. Beale Memorial Park to view the moon using a telescope being used to test the Hualapai Mountain site in September 1957. According to a Mohave Miner article, 1,400 area residents attended the program, and the following day the telescope was moved from the park to the Hualapai Mountain site.

John Golson, an observer for NAO, moved from Waco, Texas, to spend the year in Kingman and study the possibilities of having an observatory in the Hualapais.

From 1957 to 1958, Golson observed the sky from the Hualapai site. March 13, 1958, the final vote came in. Kitt Peak was selected and the Hualapai test site was taken down.

“Chief factors against the site included the large growth potential in the Kingman area, transcontinental air traffic, both military and civil, which will increase with time and create a vapor trail problem,” Meinel said in a 1958 Mohave Miner article.

However, the Hualapai site did rank highest in number of clear nights, land procurement, access from the nearest town and access to utilities.

The voting breakdown was four in favor of the Hualapai site, five voted the two sites were equal, and 11 voted in favor of Kitt Peak.

In October 1958, a lease was signed with the Papago Indian Tribe granting AURA and the NAO 200 acres of the mountain top for scientific research as well as 2,200 acres for a buffer zone. The Kitt Peak National Observatory is located 56 miles southwest of Tucson and is currently working on creating a 3D map of the cosmos. The map will help chart out the role of dark energy in the expansion history of the Universe.

photo

Chris Patrick of the High Desert Astronomy Club shows the observatory he has built at his home in Valle Vista.

Chris Patrick of the High Desert Astronomy Club in Kingman said the club is trying to find the Hualapai test site in honor of what would have been the observatory’s 60th anniversary. Patrick said they are waiting to hear from AURA with the exact latitude and longitude to make the trek up the mountain.

Patrick said he was put onto the trail of the Hualapai Observatory by an email.

“This guy said he went on a field trip up there when he was 8,” Patrick said. “He asked why the club didn’t have anything about (the Hualapai site) on our website.”

Patrick said he has an educated guess where the test site might have been, but without the AURA coordinates, that’s all it is – a guess. He does know the test site had a 60-foot tower, but Patrick said it is unlikely there is anything left at the site.

“It was probably easily removable,” Patrick said.

Problems with the vapor trails and being on the fly away to Los Angeles could be fixed with modern astrophotography, so Patrick said there were likely other factors which influenced the decision to have to observatory at Kitt Peak. His hunch is the lack of a university nearby likely factored into it.

Kingman citizens were huge supporters of the project. Meinel said the enthusiasm and cooperation of citizens of Kingman was unparalleled and “will always be remembered by us as outstanding.”

“Arizona has some of the best skies in the nation for astronomy,” Patrick said. “If (Mohave County) was to build on what it can do for astronomy, it would help the economy, the schools and downtown. It is unfortunate another site was chosen. It would have been a boon for this area.”

After Kitt Peak was selected, rumors circled that the AURA board of directors didn’t base their decision on scientific reasoning. The disappointment was almost palpable.

However, Mayor E.J. McCarthy said it best when, in March 1958, he told the Mohave Miner: “We have lost the observatory, but I am sure we have attained a goal in our work.

“I would venture to say that never has a community such as the Board of Supervisors, the Chamber of Commerce, the City Council and all the people put their shoulders together, forgot all personal differences and worked so hard together to complete the program … the community will forge ahead and gain population, prosperity and become a better place for all of us to live in if we will continue to work for industry, highways and all other projects as diligently as we worked with the people of AURA.”