Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sacramento Peak Observatories - September 2015

This is a continuation of my trip to southeastern New Mexico. This part is exclusively for science and astronomy lovers... and for any others who still have a sense of wonder about the wider universe.

Part 1 is here.

Remember, to view larger images click on any one.

Part 2 of 2:

National Solar Observatory and Apache Point Observatory

Wednesday, September 16th

Sunspot, New Mexico

The day before, I noticed an unusual sign as I turned down the Sunspot Highway; it said "Neptune". Just before I got to the turn-off for Benson Ridge, there was another which said "Uranus." Ah, ha, I thought. Not a big leap as above the planet name was a sign that said "Solar System" and had little icons of the planets. The observatories, several educational institutions, and other organizations, such as NM Department of Transportation have laid out the solar system along the highway. An excellent way to bring home the vast distances of the outer planets, and how close (relatively) the astroid belt and inner planets are to the sun. Very cool and a good warm up for what's ahead down the road.

The destination and final (first?) Solar System sign.

National Solar Observatory

First I visited the National Solar Observatory.  They have a Visitor Center with exhibits (for a small fee), a gift shop, and restrooms. Pick up a brochure to begin the free walking tour. I'll include a very small snippet from the brochure with my photos, below, but it has more complete descriptions and the anatomy of the sun. In additions to the VC, two of the buildings are open to visitors.

The Big Dome

First stop on the walking tour is the "big dome", a.k.a., the Evans Solar Facility. It was completed in 1952 and holds two main telescopes. The facility is mainly used to study the sun's corona. There is a window through which visitors may look into the interior of the dome. One of the telescopes was visible - I had to hold my camera at an angle to fit it all in the frame.

One of the telescopes in the Big Dome. Note: I've marked "horizontal" on the right.

Next is the "Tower", a.k.a, the Dunn Solar Telescope. The structure holds a large vacuum telescope 136 feet tall, but also extending 228 more feet below the ground. The rotating part of the telescope weighs more than 200 tons. This telescope is used to study solar granulation, sun spots, faculae, filaments and solar flares.

The Tower

Schematic of the vacuum telescope

Visitors are allowed inside, around the base of the telescope. The light level is extremely low; allow a few minutes for your eyes to adjust lest you stumble or tumble. No flash photography is allowed, but my handheld photos are not too bad. I felt privileged to be able to enter, especially as observations were in progress.

The optical bench and instrumentation at the laboratory level of the telescope.
The mirrors, prisms, and filters are used to zero in to the light frequencies of interest to the investigator.

I looked at the computer screen the observer was consulting and it contained nothing but several columns of numbers - data, not images.

The control bay for the telescope. The screen at bottom right, partially obscured, is displaying the results of the current observation.

Next was the Improved Solar Observing Optical Network (ISOON) facility, though it's operations have recently moved to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

ISOON sits atop the peak of the peak

The the Hilltop Dome, also, is no longer used for active observations, but functions as an optical design laboratory. Ironically, the only dragonfly I saw my entire time in the Sacramento Mountains was cruising the lawn outside. One of those species that fly real fast and never perch, so all I could see is that it was green.

Hilltop Dome and research laboratory.

The Grain Bin Dome was the first telescope dome built in Sunspot. The grain bin was ordered from the Sears Catalog and modified to accept a 6" telescope. In 1963 the duties of the Grain Bin were transferred to the just completed Hilltop Dome. In 1995 a night-time telescope was installed so Sunspot residents could star gaze.

The Grain Bin Dome held the very first telescope.

Apache Point Observatory

This astronomical observatory is located a little farther south on Apache Point next to Sacramento Peak. It is run by the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC) with six university members, including New Mexico State University. None of the buildings are open to the public, but they do provide brochures on a sign post along the sidewalk from the parking lot. Information can be found on the facility at and

This observatory complex has four major telescopes that are actively engaged in observations and research: the ARC 3.5 meter telescope, the 2.5 meter Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope, the NMSU 1.0 meter telescope, and the ARC Small Aperture 0.5 meter telescope. The projects being studied are many, including studies of galaxy evolution, mapping nearby galaxies, studying the expansion of the universe, early phases of cosmic history, infrared spectroscopic surveys, and lunar ranging measurements.

0.5 meter Small Aperture Telescope

New Mexico State's 1.0 meter telescope

The big kahuna, the consortium's 3.5 meter telescope

A side view of the SDSS telescope. Note how it hangs over the edge of the mountain.
Yet, is firmly anchored to the ground. The whole top section is on rails and rolls out of
the way when it is time for the telescope to operate.

As a retired engineer I was fascinated by this custom built manipulator arm assembly with 2 "elbows".
If I've read the documentation correctly, it is used to lift & move the telescope's 400 pound data cartridges.

[Update: 9-27-15; 12:43pm MDT] Here is an interesting YouTube video created by the SDSS team showing the manipulator arm, cartridges and telescope in action.

I was awed by the solar observatory complex then wowed by the facilities at Apache Point. Although only the buildings housing the telescopes were visible, my imagination ran wild. Visions of all those PBS NOVA episodes on astronomy, the original Cosmos TV series, all the programs I attended at the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park when I lived out there, and the presentation I was able to attend at Stanford University given by Carl Sagen, all came together to boost my spirits out of this world! Gadzooks!

What the camera saw:

I love the symmetry of this photo. Note Tularosa Basin and White Sands in the background

What my mind's eye saw:

My night sky photo from northeastern New Mexico last June.

Before I departed the observatory, I had a sandwich on the adjacent picnic tables.

The lunch was plain, but the view was delicious.

A great conclusion to a wonderful trip in my little camper. Thanks for reading!


  1. Bill, another fun adventure and thank you for sharing more of your territory with us. We enjoy your love of the dragonfly family and how it opens up a new world for us. Impressive astronomical facilities in the Sacramento Mountains!

    1. Ski, thanks for your nice comment. I'm glad you are enjoying my tales of my corner of the world and some of the critters.

  2. I love the "mind's eye" photo! And i'm gonna click thru to the video of how those arm-things work... You always find the neatest places! thanks Bill

    1. Claudie, thanks very much. Glad you liked the "minds eye." I spent way too much time refining that one in photoshop!


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