December 5, 2021

Going to the Sunspot Astronomy and Visitors Center is a journey through our galaxy and beyond

It’s no secret that New Mexico’s night sky makes it a great place for stargazing.

But the factors that make it so ideal for night-time viewing – like low air pollution and a dry climate – also make it a place for solar viewing.

The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope, opened in 1969, is the last remaining active solar telescope at Sunspot. Tours are available every day except Wednesday. (Courtesy of Sunspot Solar Observatory)

Additionally, the Sunspot Astronomy & Visitors Center (sunspot.solar), located 9,200 feet atop Sacramento Peak near Cloudcroft, is one of the world’s premier solar observatories and is open to the public for tours.

“It’s a cool hidden gem in New Mexico,” said Heidi Sanchez, who handles public education for the site.

It’s an educational experiment, she said, starting with Cloudcroft’s route, NM 6563, so designated to reflect the wavelength of light in angstroms used by scientists to locate active areas of the sun. .

Plus, the road that winds up through the winding Sacramento Mountains not only offers breathtaking views of the vast Tularosa Basin, larger than the state of Connecticut, and is also home to the White Sands National Monument, but it’s also home to the White Sands National Monument. is also a learning opportunity.

Taking New Mexico State Highway 6563 from Cloudcroft to Sunspot is a good lesson in the vastness of the solar system, as the planets are marked by panels arranged at a scale of 1 to 250 million, with the top as the sun. (Courtesy of Sunspot Solar Observatory)

With Cloudcroft designated as Pluto, various panels along the route represent the planets in our solar system, Sanchez said.

“It’s our way of trying to show how big the universe is,” she said. “Outside the visitor’s center is a 5.5-meter yellow dome which represents the size of the sun compared to other planets along the way.”

Each sign is set at a scale of 1: 250 million, Sanchez said.

“The solar system is huge,” she said. “We don’t realize how huge it is. But when you see it that way, you can kind of get a feel for it. The distance between Neptune and Uranus is so great, but when you get to the rocky planets, all of a sudden the next planet is just around the corner. It’s a great way to understand the layout of the planets and the solar system.

Sunspot itself offers a rare chance to see not only a working solar telescope, but perhaps a scientific team being researched, Sanchez said.

An image from September 22, 2020 shows the top layer of the chromosphere extending up to 1,000 miles above the solar surface. (Courtesy of Sunspot Solar Observatory)

“You can’t really look through the telescope because it’s not the type of telescope you can do, but everything is powered by the monitors,” she said. “All the monitors and instruments are on tables and you can actually see the sunlight coming through the equipment. Scientists are watching the monitors right in front of you.

The site originally had four functioning telescopes, but only one remains in operation today, the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope.

“It was built in the late 1960s and opened in 1969,” Sanchez said. “It’s always a remarkable achievement as it implemented unique design features during its construction. “

Although its use has declined, Sunspot was once the site of choice for solar astronomers.

“We have scientists all over the world using it, but they’re not here on a daily basis,” Sanchez said. “In its heyday, in the 1970s and 1990s, this was the place to be. If you were a solar physicist, you have already walked through these doors. He held such an important place for such a long time.

Due to COVID-19, telescope tours, which are included in the $ 5 per vehicle cost to visit the site, must be scheduled in advance, and the best time is in the morning when scientists are most likely to work, she mentioned. This is also the best time to get a good feel for the telescope.

“You can really see the scale of the structure,” Sanchez said. “It’s 300 feet long, but you only see a third of it from the outside. The rest is underground.

The visitor center also includes a small museum with interactive solar system and sun exhibits, as well as a movie theater that shows a short film about the sun.

The grounds include a half-mile walking tour of the various buildings on site. For $ 5, you can purchase an audio accompaniment that delves into the background details of 13 points of interest.


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