McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope

  • Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
  • Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
  • Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
  • Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
  • Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
  • Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto
  • Image © SOM

Glowing like an American Stonehenge, this giant, upside-down concrete “V” looks like a tribute to the Sun God, which in a sense it is. Designed in 1958-1959 by an SOM team led by Myron Goldsmith, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope on Arizona’s Kitts Peak was the world’s largest instrument dedicated to viewing the sun at the time of its completion.

The telescope is a 110-foot-tall, 26-foot-diameter platform that supports a mirror that reflects light down a 200-foot-long concrete optical tunnel. At the tunnel’s base, a 34-inch parabolic mirror captures the images that are then used to study the sun. The structure was engineered to defeat the forces of heat and wind. Both the tower and the light tunnel stand freely inside water-cooled protective concrete casings. These shelter the telescope from mountaintop winds, utilizing a square form tilted at a 45-degree angle.

During its 1962 inauguration, President John F. Kennedy acclaimed the McMath-Pierce Telescope as “bold in concept and magnificent in execution.” Along with advancing the understanding of the sun, the much-photographed telescope has become an exemplar of outdoor monumental sculpture.