Going to the Astronomy & Visitors Center at Sunspot is a journey through our galaxy and beyond - Albuquerque Journal

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

It is no great secret that the night skies of New Mexico make it a great place for viewing the stars.

But the factors that make it so great for night viewing – like low air pollution and dry climate – also make it a spot for solar observing.

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

What’s more, the Sunspot Astronomy & Visitors Center (sunspot.solar), sitting at 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, little hidden gem in New Mexico,” said Heidi Sanchez, who does public outreach for the site.

It is an educational experience, she said, beginning with the route out of Cloudcroft, N.M. 6563, so designated to reflect the light wavelength in angstroms used by scientists to locate active areas on the sun.

Additionally, the road that climbs through the switchbacked Sacramento Mountains not only delivers stunning views out across the vast Tularosa Basin, larger than the state of Connecticut, and also home to White Sands National Monument, but it is a learning opportunity as well.

Taking New Mexico State Road 6563 from Cloudcroft to Sunspot is a good lesson in the immensity of the solar system as planets are marked by signs laid out in 1 to 250 million scale, with the peak as the sun. (Courtesy of Sunspot Solar Observatory)

With Cloudcroft designated as Pluto, various signs along the route depict the planets of our solar system, Sanchez said.

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

Every sign is set in 1:250 million scale, Sanchez said.

“The solar system is enormous,” she said. “We don’t realize how enormous it is. But when you see it this way, you can kind of get an idea. The distance between Neptune and Uranus is so far, but then when you get to the rocky planets, all of sudden, the next planet is right 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 not only see a working solar telescope, but possibly a scientific team undergoing research, Sanchez said.

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

“You can’t actually look through the telescope because it’s not the type of telescope that you can do that, but everything is fed through the monitors,” she said. “All of the monitors and instruments are out on tables and you can actually see the sunlight traveling through the equipment. The scientists are watching the monitors right there in front of you.”

The site originally had four working telescopes, but is down to one working one now, the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope.

“It was constructed in the late 1960s and opened in 1969,” Sanchez said. “It’s still a remarkable achievement because it implemented unique design features when it was constructed.”

Although its use has diminished, Sunspot used to be the go-to site for solar astronomers.

“We do have scientists worldwide that use it, but they’re not here on a day-to-day basis,” Sanchez said. “In its peak, 1970s-90s, this was the happening place to be. If you were a solar physicist, you came through these doors at one time. It had such prominent place for such a long period of time.”

Because of COVID-19, tours of the telescope, which are included in the $5 per vehicle cost to visit the site, have to be scheduled in advance, and the best time is the mornings when the scientists are most likely to be working, she said. It’s also the best time to get a good feel for the telescope.

“You can really see the magnitude of the structure,” Sanchez said. “It’s 300 feet long, but you only see one-third of it from the outside. The rest of it is below ground.”

The visitor’s center also includes a small museum with interactive displays on the solar system and the sun, as well as a movie theater that shows a short movie on 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 goes into deeper detail on the background of 13 points of interest.

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