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Astronomy in New Mexico

New Mexico’s skies are exquisite. The abundance of earth tones is offset by a sky prone to colorful antics. The sky often looks more like a movie set, rendered by an artist that might be under the influence of something. Whether at sunrise, sunset or while star gazing, the sky consistently provides the impetus to look up, to look around, to marvel at the clouds, the mountains, the stars, to contemplate one's place in a very large universe. The sky provides a theatrical performance using the sun, the clouds and the moon as players. The show varies by season and time of day, but the skies of New Mexico consistently command attention and a reverent “wow.”

 

Hundreds of stars, and the milky way, are readily visible from the cities, but when you drive a short distance away from the lights…the view is resplendent. Seriously. It is “Whoa”…gotta pull over, unbelievable, jaw gaping, off world, surreal magnificence. It can be inspiring, intimidating, overwhelming and more, depending on your state of mind and philosophical inclinations. The phenomena of dark sky, coveted by astronomers, is the norm in New Mexico. The soaring mountains allow exceptional views of Venus and Mercury, along with many constellations popularized in native art and lore (like Orion, Gemini, and Taurus).

 

There is rarely cloud interference, because it rarely rains, which means low humidity, eliminating condensation that would impair visibility. It’s the same reason ten percent of the state is visible from the top of Sandia Peak without binoculars.

 

    “Viewing stars against a jet black sky is like diamonds on velvet, and star clusters with points of light too numerous to count fill the eyepiece like fireworks.” ~ Geoff Goins, Park Ranger, founder of Night Sky Adventures

 

New Mexico skies are so spectacular that an astronomy community has emerged near Silver City. The New Mexico Skies Astronomy Enclave is 20 miles north of Deming, or 30 miles south of Silver City on highway 180, near the City of Rocks State Park. The community has implemented covenants in the homeowner association bylaws restricting light to protect the dark sky phenomena that makes their location special. The New Mexico Skies observatory is next door, making this emerging community a haven for astronomy buffs. There are also rentals available in the area for amateur astronomers looking to enjoy a getaway that involves a celestial light show every night.

 

Stars-N-Parks hosts family friendly star parties in several southern New Mexico state parks:

 

    City of Rocks State Park, Faywood

    Leasburg Dam State Park, Radium Springs

    Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus

    Caballo State Park, Caballo

    Oliver Lee State Park, Alamogordo

    Rockhound State Park, Deming

 

These family star parties offer camping in the state parks, “tours” of the night sky and sometimes visits to an observatory. TIP: You can get a discount if you volunteer to help with the events.

 

There are numerous options for learning more about the night sky throughout New Mexico, with several options included below.

 

1) Very Large Array (Socorro): Pictured above, the VLA is one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories. The installation consists of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped   configuration fifty miles west of Socorro on the Plains of San Agustin. The Magdalena Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual Enchanted Skies Star Party about 20 miles from the array.

 

2) Chaco Culture National Historic Park (between Cuba & Farmington): They host a night sky program with presentations on archaeoastronomy and the role the heavens played in the life of the Chacoan people. Chaco is an IDA-designated dark-sky park.

 

3) Astronomy Adventures (Cerrillos Hills State Park): Provides star tours on the Turquoise Trail with Peter, a park ranger by day, astronomer by night.

 

4) New Mexico Skies (between Silver City & Deming): Cabin rentals bordering the Lincoln National Forest. Hike by day, stargaze by night.

 

5) Night Sky Adventures (was Red River, now in Bandelier): Another park ranger by day, astronomer by night. This fellow also taught astronomy at the University of New Mexico Taos branch, though the repetition in theme makes me wonder if park rangers have spent more time looking at the heavens than most.

 

6) Clayton Lake State Park is an IDA-designated dark-sky park in northeastern New Mexico, near Clayton and Raton.

 

7) El Rito Observatory, located near Abiquiu, hosts monthly "dark night" star parties. From Española, travel north on the road to Abiquiú (84/285) for approximately 20 miles. Turn right a few miles before Abiquiú at the sign for El Rito and Northern New Mexico Community College. This is State Road 554, and you go approximately 12 miles on this road until you reach El Rito. The college is on the left side of the road (look for the water tower). You should see the dome-shaped Observatory in a field on the left just before the campus. Take the first college driveway on the left. Drive to a T, turn left and go past some buildings and into the field where the Observatory is located.

 

8) Enchanted Forest Cross Country ski area, near Red River isn't the darkest site, but it can be accessed via a paved road and there's an outhouse available, though they advise bringing your own toilet paper.

 

 

9) Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park, contact them directly for information on upcoming star parties or astronomy related events.

 

10) El Malpais National Monument near Grants offers dark skies amidst the basalt lava flows of Bandera. Contact regarding upcoming events.

 

11) White Sands National Monument offers a unique star gazing opportunity. Whereas there is light emanating from Alamogordo and the dunes reflect moonlight more radiantly than most places, the waves of gypsum dunes under the night sky merely add to the ambiance.

 

12) Gila Cliff Dwellings became a U.S. International Dark Sky sanctuary in January, 2016. Call directly to get information on upcoming astronomy events.

 

13) Cosmic Campground is a 1.42 hectare (3.5 acre) site in the Gila National Forest of western New Mexico, U.S. Situated between the Gila Wilderness and the Blue Range Primitive Area. The nearest significant source of artificial light is more than 30 miles away in Arizona.

 

14) Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument offers periodic night sky programs, providing an opportunity to marvel at the heavens in the shadow of the ancients.

 

15) Capulin Volcano National Monument provides spectacular views of the night sky. It is among the top 20 darkest night skies measured in more than 90 national parks.

 

16) Bisti-De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area isn't specifically referenced as a dark sky site, but the night sky coupled with surreal landscape are transcendental.

 

Whether you get expert astronomy insight or just lie in the back of a pickup, take the time to look up and savor the New Mexico sky.

 

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