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Starry, Starry Nights

Southern Arizona's clear skies and the absence of lights in the surrounding desert make the night sky here as brilliant as anywhere on earth. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the world's astronomers, and consequently, southern Arizona has come to be known as the Astronomy Capital of the World.

Many observatories are open to the public, but you'll need to make tour reservations well in advance. In addition to the ones listed below, the Flandrau: The UA Science Center in Tucson offers public viewings. In Flagstaff, there are public viewing programs at the Lowell Observatory. Flagstaff is also home to the Shooting Star Inn, 27948 N. Shooting Star Lane, Flagstaff, AZ 86001 (tel. 928/606-8070; www.shootingstarinn.com), an off-the-grid inn where you can gaze through the owner's impressive array of telescopes.

The Mount Lemmon Sky Center (tel. 520/626-8122; http://skycenter.arizona.edu), 27 miles from Tucson near the summit of Mount Lemmon, is affiliated with the University of Arizona and is the most convenient place to attend a night-sky viewing program. This facility has a 24-inch telescope, and celestial objects you'll see during one of these programs include binary stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, planets, and the moon. These SkyNights programs cost $48, last 4 to 5 hours, and include a light dinner. Allow 90 minutes to drive to the center from midtown Tucson.

The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (tel. 520/670-5707; www.cfa.harvard.edu/facilities/flwo), atop 8,550-foot Mount Hopkins, is the largest observatory operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Six-hour tours of the observatory are offered mid-March through November on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and cost $7 for adults, $2.50 for children 6 to 12; no children 5 or under are allowed. Reservations are required and should be made 4 to 6 weeks in advance. No food is available here, so bring a picnic lunch. The observatory's visitor center (Mon-Fri 8:30am-4:30pm; closed federal holidays) is reached by taking I-19 south from Tucson to the Canoa exit (exit 56); go under the freeway and then turn right on E. Frontage Road and drive south 3 miles, and turn left on Elephant Head Road and then right on Mount Hopkins Road.

Located in the Quinlan Mountains atop 6,875-foot Kitt Peak, Kitt Peak National Observatory (tel. 520/318-8726; www.noao.edu/kpno) is the largest and most famous astronomical observatory in the region and is the site of the world's largest collection of optical telescopes. This is the region's only major observatory to offer public nighttime viewing. Day visitors can stop in at the observatory's visitor center (daily 9am-3:45pm), explore a museum, and take a guided tour. Tours are held at 10am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm. Admission to the visitor center is free; tours are $5.75 to $7.75 for adults ($7.75-$9.75 for all three tours) and $3 to $4 for children ages 7 to 12 ($3.25-$4.25 for all three tours). The observatory is 56 miles southwest of Tucson off Ariz. 86 (allow 90 min. for the drive). Nighttime stargazing (reservations required, call 2-4 weeks in advance) costs $48 for adults; $44 for students and seniors. The visitor center is closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

The Mount Graham International Observatory near the town of Safford offers 7-hour tours that include lunch but do not include viewing through the observatory's telescopes. Tours are arranged through Eastern Arizona College's Discovery Park Campus, 1651 W. Discovery Park Blvd., Safford (tel. 928/428-6260; www.eac.edu/discoverypark). The tours operate from May through October and cost $40 (reservations are required).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.