May 28, 2017
The second day of my Memorial Day long-weekend stay in Las Cruces, NM I headed about an hour and a half northeast of Las Cruces to the Alamogordo vicinity. I had one specific destination in mind but discovered several other interesting things during the day so I was very happy I had the luxury of time on my side.
I had made a quick 4-day to trip to New Mexico back in 2014. I have a friend who lives in the central part of the state (his father was a tax client of mine) and I decided to fly out for a few days after tax season. My friend asked me what I planned to do while I was here and I rattled off about a half dozen destinations (including Alamogordo). There was a pause and Mark said “Uh, you realize those places are all pretty far apart?”. He was right and I never made it to Alamogordo, Carlsbad or Roswell – a situation I would resolve here in the next few days…
Anyway, today I drove past White Sands which I visited yesterday and continued up to Alamogordo. Once there I proceeded east a few miles to Cloudcroft, then south about 20 miles to the tiny town of Sunspot.
(Photo credit: nsosp-dev.nso.edu)
Here I found the Sunspot Solar Observatory.
Here is the view as I ascended up the mountains towards Sunspot (elevation 9,147 feet). The white in the center portion of the photo below may appear to be low clouds but is actually White Sands National Monument!
Here are some of the things I found when I arrived at the Solar Observatory:
This is the main telescope, used to study the sun:
The visible part of the telescope enclosure rises 136 feet above the ground. Like an iceberg, however, this instrument is located mostly under the surface! The telescope inside the white enclosure continues down 193 feet underground.
Elsewhere on the property is a solar telescope originally located at the South Pole.
During “summertime” down there the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day so scientists have lots of time to study it (and the atmosphere isn’t as disrupted). There is now a much more modern and sophisticated solar telescope at the South Pole.
The Sunspot Solar Observatory was in the news in September of 2018 when the FBI mysteriously swooped in and told all the employees they had to leave the property immediately. They kept the facility closed for about 10 days and were very tight-lipped about what was happening. Theories ranged from aliens, a chemical leak (various gases are inside the telescope enclosure) or a terrorist threat. Turns out it was nothing quite as unusual or scary as those things. Seems a janitor at the facility was using their computers to collect and distribute child pornography!
As I was leaving the Observatory I saw signs for another facility, the Apache Point Observatory, just up the road. That facility is private so there is no public access but I did see this photo outside the gate which shows some of the telescopes there:
Among other things, this facility uses lunar laser-ranging to measure, with millimeter level accuracy, the precise distance to various instruments on the moon.
As I drove back to Alamogordo I stopped at “The Lodge,” a beautiful hotel in Cloudcroft which has hosted many celebrities and is rumored to be haunted.
Lastly, the Alamogordo area is home to many large farms which grow pistachio nuts. I stopped and sampled many flavored varieties and bought a few pounds (which didn’t last long!).
I headed back to Las Cruces, drove down to La Mesilla for dinner and I got home in time to watch the Coke 600 race from Charlotte. A very full and rewarding day!