NM Skies Trip

by Kevin Schuerman

This weekend, I took the opportunity to use my gift certificate (which I "won" at Shingletown) to New Mexico Skies guest observatory. I left on Thursday morning and made it as far as Tempe, Arizona, where I stopped for the night. The ride was long, but I successfully skirted the LA area and any significant traffic, so it wasn't unpleasant. On Friday morning, I continued on to New Mexico Skies, located in the Sacramento Mountains east of Alamogordo. Each state along the way had its own distinctive plants: Joshua trees in southern California gave way to saguaro cacti in southern Arizona, followed by yucca trees in southern New Mexico. The terrain also changed somewhat, but was mostly astronomers' paradise -- secluded, dry desert with good horizons -- well, a paradise at night, at least! I arrived before dark and was greeted by Lynn Rice, one of the proprietors. She gave me a quick tour of the grounds and then showed me to my accommodations. They have a Library/Lounge that's open 24 hours a day and is replete with several computer terminals, all sorts of reference material and atlases, hot coffee and cappuccino (sorry Mark, no Mexican coffee!) This place is definitely set up for serious observing -- skies as dark as Shingletown, if not darker, but with no light domes in any direction. The observing area has good horizons all around. There are no white lights on the grounds after dark and the cabins are completely outfitted with red lights so that you can keep your dark adaptation throughout the night.

I rented their 15" f/4 Dobsonian for the weekend. Mike and Lynn Rice set the telescope up after sunset and it was collimated and ready to go by 9pm. I finished setting up my laptop and eyepieces and then started out with M13 and NGC 6210 in Hercules. Andromeda was well placed, so I chased some galaxies there after marvelling at NGC 891. There was a group of amateur astronomers from the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Astronomical Society observing next to me. They were using the JMI 6" reverse binoculars and generally enjoying the dark skies they never get to see in their home state. Occasionally, they wandered over to take a look through the 15". Mike Rice was working on a project, doing some imaging in the one of the domes behind me. I spent some time socializing with the other observers and before I knew it, it was time for the mid-evening cappuccino break in the lounge. Mike, the group from Indiana, and I chatted for a while as we warmed up. After the break, I spent the remainder of the evening looking at Mars and Saturn, since the Moon rose shortly before 1am. The detail on Mars was fair, but Saturn was just plain swimmy. As usual, I was the last one to pack up and head in for the night. It wasn't a terribly productive night, but I had a lot of fun nonetheless. Tomorrow would be better, I thought.

As it turned out, Saturday was mostly cloudy with some thunder and lightning and even a few raindrops. It began to break up just before sunset, but then clouded up again. It did eventually clear, but that wasn't until after 10pm. I decided to observe. Hey, it was only another 50 bucks and I didn't drive all the way to New Mexico to sit in my room! There were two other observers on Saturday night; a gentleman from Columbus, Ohio and Ron Wodaski. I spent nearly a half hour talking to Bill from Columbus before beginning my observing. We were talking about M33, so I started there. Very nice spiral structure with arms and dark voids in between. I then moved to other galaxies in Draco -- NGC 6503, NGC 6643, and NGC 6690. I've not done a lot of observing in Draco, so I also looked at the Cat's Eye Nebula, NGC 6543, for the first time. How did I manage to miss this one all these years? I saw the oval-shaped nebulosity, central star and a greenish blue color. I couldn't quite see the green nebulosity color described in the NSOG, however. Time flies, as it was now cappuccino time again and I spent about 45 minutes in the lounge chatting with Mike and Lynn Rice, Bill, and Ron Wodaski. We discussed everything from Southern Hemisphere observing to clouds on Titan to general imaging. After the break, I did a little nekked eye observing and spotted a distinctly brighter haze right under the Circlet of Pisces. Since this area was 12 hours in R.A. away from the Sun's position, I assumed I was successful in seeing the gegenschein -- if so, another first! I then took a look at both Mars and Saturn, which were both too swimmy to see any real detail. I finished up the evening with M42, M43 and the waning crescent Moon. The Moon was also quite swimmy, but the most notable feature was seeing Mare Crisium illuminated by Earthshine. The area around the mare was a lot brighter and framed Crisium nicely. I shut down the scope and headed in at about 3am.

On Sunday, I visited the National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak and Apache Point Observatory before heading down the mountain. The National Solar Observatory was very interesting, especially the Tower Telescope. That particular telescope is approximately 400 feet long, with roughly one-third of it above ground and two-thirds below ground. The entire telescope, including the main instrument floor and spectrographs, rides on a mercury bearing so that the whole assembly can turn to follow the Sun. Apache Point Observatory, where the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is conducted (among other things) is also interesting, but the buildings aren't readily open to the public. My last stop before heading out of New Mexico was White Sands National Monument. White dunes of gypsum sand that stretch for miles and miles and can be seen from Sacramento Peak. As a matter of fact, the sands made it look like low clouds were hanging over the Tularosa basin.

I would highly recommend a trip to NM Skies for anyone who wants to do some serious observing or imaging under pristine skies. The accommodations were very conducive to a quiet weekend of relaxation and being able to sleep well past sunrise. If you rent one of their telescopes, either a Dobsonian on an observing pad or one of the more elaborate setups in one of the domes, you can image or observe until dead tired and then be in bed within fifteen minutes with no tear-down to worry about. I can easily see why most of the guests that I spoke with were from even farther away from New Mexico than I was.

See y'all at LSA...