When is a Crazy Telescope 60% Underground? World Class Solar Observatory in Sunspot #NewMexicoTrue #astronomy #science #solar

Sign for Mars in NSO model of Solar Syatem

Once you reach the inner solar system, you’re almost there

Where can you travel through the solar system in half an hour? Sunspot, New Mexico, where the American west’s largest scale model of the solar system (and third largest in the USA) runs along NM 6563 from Cloudcroft (a cute mountain tourist town) through the Lincoln National Forest to Sunspot.

I traveled the Scenic Byway recently from Pluto (yes, Plutophiles, Sunspot keeps Pluto in their model) to the National Solar Observatory. Scientists have studied the sun here since 1952, though newer instruments are replacing some of the site’s telescopes. The machine shop at Sunspot spends most of its time making equipment for telescopes in Hawaii, and data is probably delivered to scientists over the internet so they no longer hole-up in the on-site labs. Too bad for them! They miss the Lincoln Forest.

Sign showing NSO solar system model layout

You’ve reached the Sun

There’s a small museum and gift shop, and you’re allowed to walk around the interior of one of the strangest telescopes you’re likely to see.

Like an iceberg, only a part of the telescope’s bulk is visible above ground. The optical path starts at a heliostat on top of a 136-foot-tall (41 m) tower and continues 193 feet (59 m) more underground to the primary mirror. The lowest excavated point (the bottom of the sump) is 228 feet (69.5 m) below ground. Wikipedia

Model of Saturn in NSO's Sunspot Visitors' Center

More scale models in the Visitor’s Center

Sadly, there are no guided tours so be sure to stop by the Visitors’ Center and bring information with you. Have a great time!

Dunn Solar Telescope, Sunspot, NM

Yes, that’s a telescope


Astoundingly Beautiful American Southwest – Vacation Destination #travel #camp #Arizona #Utah #vacation

White House Trail Canyon de Chelly

White House Trail, popular with school groups

I’ve been camping in the canyons of Arizona and Utah. Most of the time we were out of internet and cell phone range. It’s a wonderful way to unplug. Since I owe you a post, perhaps you’ll indulge me and look at few of my vacation pictures.

White House ruins Canyon de Chelly

Ancient ruins

Canyon de Chelly is in America’s National Monument system, located entirely on Navajo land. It may not be as big as the Grand Canyon, but it is grand nonetheless. Excellent roads take you around the north and south rims to amazing overlooks. In most places you must hire a Navajo guide to hike down into the canyon, but one exception is the White House trail. This fantastic path clings to the side of the sheer canyon wall, ending at some well preserved ruins from an ancient culture. The hike was popular with school groups the day we were there.

Junior Rangers

Junior Rangers are sworn in

I was honored to watch a group of kids sworn in as Junior Rangers at Natural Bridges. We hiked down into the canyon there on a long trek between the largest bridge formations.

Valley of the Gods Utah

Camped beneath a massive rock formation, overlooking Valley of the Gods. Amost got bogged down in sand! But we made it.

In the nineteenth century, when the American government carved up the conquered western lands, after everyone had their first choice, the remainders were placed under the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). These lands are often overgrazed and under-regulated. They seldom offer anything special in the way of views, but are wonderful for those of us, like me, who want to travel cheaply. You can  camp for free on BLM land anywhere you want. There will be no rangers to answer questions, and roads may be impassible in rain or snow, which can be a challenge since you’re usually out of cell phone range. But in the  Valley of the Gods the BLM has a gem of fantastically carved rocks and mesas. The main gravel road is in good shape, though side roads are dirt tracks that can be dicey. But I’ve never had a better campsite.

A landscape needs two attributes to be named after God or the Devil. First, it must inspire awe. The stare-in-wonder sort of awe. But that’s not enough. It must also be indifferent, even hostile, to humans. The combination leaves me feeling  small and quiet. It would be presumptuous to try to fill such a space with myself. Instead I ache with the grandeur of our world.


When Rain is Made of Dust – life in the dry American Southwest #dust

rain spotted windows

After the wind-whipped drizzle

I live in dry mountians, on the edge of the Gila National Forest, and always said I wouldn’t complain about rain. But this is ridiculous. Accompanied by strong winds, a cloud dropped its virga to the ground and welded dust against all my windows. Our dust sticks to glass like nothing I’ve ever seen. It will take a lot of work to clean those windows. I’ve never found anything that works very well – and, yes, I’ve tried newspaper, squeegies, vinegar, and a slue of commercial products. New Mexico dust is serious dust.

Happy spring.