Astronomy in New Mexico

New Mexico’s skies are exquisite. The abundance of earth tones is offset by a sky prone to colorful antics. The sky often looks more like a movie set rendered by an artist that might be under the influence of something. Whether at sunrise, sunset or while star gazing, the sky consistently provides the impetus to look up, to look around, to marvel at the clouds, the mountains, the stars. The sky provides a theatrical performance using the sun, the clouds and the moon as players. The show varies by season and time of day, but they consistently command attention and a reverent “wow.”

Hundreds of stars, and the milky way, are readily visible from the cities, but when you drive a short distance away from the lights…the view is resplendent. Seriously. It is “Whoa”…gotta pull over, unbelievable, jaw gaping, off world, surreal magnificence. It can be inspiring, intimidating, overwhelming and more depending on your state of mind. The phenomena of dark sky, coveted by astronomers, is the norm in New Mexico. The soaring mountains allow exceptional views of Venus and Mercury, along with many constellations popularized in native art and lore (like Orion, Gemini, and Taurus).

There is rarely cloud interference, because it rarely rains, which means low humidity eliminating condensation that would impair visibility. It’s the same reason ten percent of the state is visible from the top of Sandia Peak without binoculars.

“Viewing stars against a jet black sky is like diamonds on velvet, and star clusters with points of light too numerous to count fill the eyepiece like fireworks.” ~ Geoff Goins, Park Ranger, founder of Night Sky Adventures

New Mexico skies are so spectacular that an astronomy community has emerged near Silver City. The New Mexico Skies Astronomy Enclave is 20 miles north of Deming, or 30 miles south of Silver City on highway 180, near the City of Rocks State Park. The community has implemented covenants in the homeowner association bylaws restricting light to protect the dark sky phenomena that makes their location special. The New Mexico Skies observatory is next door, making this emerging community a haven for astronomy buffs. There are also rentals available in the area for amateur astronomers looking to enjoy a getaway that involves a celestial light show every night.

Stars-N-Parks hosts family friendly star parties in six southern New Mexico state parks:

  • City of Rocks State Park, Faywood
  • Leasburg Dam State Park, Radium Springs
  • Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus
  • Caballo State Park, Caballo
  • Oliver Lee State Park, Alamogordo

These family star parties offer camping in the state parks, “tours” of the night sky and sometimes visits to an observatory. TIP: You can get a discount if you volunteer to help with the events.

There are numerous options for learning more about the night sky throughout New Mexico. For the sake of expediency, I have included five suggestions below.

1) Very Large Array (Socorro): One of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories. The installation consists of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped   configuration fifty miles west of Socorro on the Plains of San Agustin 

2) Chaco Culture National Historic Park (between Cuba & Farmington): They host a night sky program with presentations on archaeoastronomy and the role the heavens played in the life of the Chacoan people.

3) Astronomy Adventures (Cerrillos): Provides star tours on the Turquoise Trail with Peter, a park ranger by day, astronomer by night.

4) New Mexico Skies (between Silver City & Deming): Cabin rentals bordering the Lincoln National Forest. Hike by day, stargaze by night.

5) Night Sky Adventures (was Red River, now in Bandelier): Another park ranger by day, astronomer by night. This fellow also taught astronomy at the University of New Mexico Taos branch, though the repetition in theme makes me wonder if park rangers have spent more time looking at the heavens than most.

Whether you get expert astronomy insight or just lie in the back of a pickup, take the time to look up and savor the New Mexico sky.

Anomalous Arms

In this composite image of spiral galaxy M106 (NGC 4258), optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey is shown as yellow, radio data from the Very Large Array appears as purple, X-ray data from Chandra is coded blue, and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope appears red. Two anomalous arms, which aren’t visible at optical wavelengths, appear as purple and blue emission.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech; X-ray: CXC/Univ. of Maryland/A.S. Wilson et al.; Optical: Pal.Obs. DSS; IR: VLA: NRAO/AUI/NSF


Beyond Human Vision, Distant Galaxy Clusters Emit Spectacular Fireworks

“When extremely high-velocity gas clouds collide, the density and temperature both spike, resulting in the emission of energetic X-rays. At the other end of the spectrum, low-energy emissions appear in the radio, as revealed by the Very Large Array here on Earth.”

A galaxy cluster is the largest individual bound structure in the Universe, containing anywhere from dozens to thousands of times the mass of our Milky Way. Yet as the cosmic web grows and evolves, many such clusters merge together, creating the largest cosmic trainwrecks in the Universe. While very little evidence of a catastrophe is visible in the optical, the X-ray and radio emissions from these collisions tell a deep and varied story, and enable astronomers to reconstruct not only what physical processes are at play, but to understand how our large-scale structure evolves over billions of years. Go get the whole story in no more than 200 words for Mostly Mute Monday!

Violent Galaxy Cluster Smash Spawns Weird Radio Wiggle

When two clusters of galaxies collide, vast regions of space are energized by powerful shock waves, ripping through intergalactic gas and dust, triggering bright emissions across the electromagnetic spectrum. But what if four (yes, four!) galactic clusters slammed into one another?

In new observations captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Chandra X-ray space observatory and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), the complex violence of a galactic cluster four-way has been recorded 5 billion light-years distant and astronomers don’t yet fully understand what they are witnessing.

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Hydra A: Black Hole Pumps Iron (NASA, Chandra repost, 09/14/09) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

Via Flickr:
Hello Flickr friends! Feb. 20 is another lesser-known holiday: “Love Your Pet Day.” To celebrate, we looked up the top seven pets and searched for space images for each animal. I’m getting an early start tonight by posting this Chandra “Hydra” image in honor of #7 on the list: the crafty and often misunderstood snake. (That would be the Lernaean Hydra, not the simple, freshwater Hydra.)

As a bonus, check out this twisting, serpentine image of the Rio Negro floodplain in Patagonia, Argentina:…

Any guesses for what animal will be #6 on the list of most popular pets? I’ll post the answer tomorrow morning.

Caption: This composite image of the Hydra A galaxy cluster shows 10-million-degree gas observed by Chandra in blue and jets of radio emission observed by the Very Large Array in pink. Optical data (in yellow) from the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope and the Digitized Sky Survey shows galaxies in the cluster.

Detailed analysis of the Chandra data shows that the gas located along the direction of the radio jets is enhanced in iron and other metals. Scientists think these elements have been produced by Type Ia supernova explosions in the large galaxy at the center of the cluster. A powerful outburst from the supermassive black hole then pushed the material outwards, over distances extending for almost 400,000 light years, extending beyond the region shown in this image. About 10 to 20 percent of the iron in the galaxy has been displaced, requiring a few percent of the total energy produced by the central black hole.

Outbursts from the central, supermassive black hole have not only pushed elements outwards, but have created a series of cavities in the hot gas. As these jets blasted through the galaxy into the surrounding multimillion-degree intergalactic gas, they pushed the hot gas aside to create the cavities. A relatively recent outburst created a pair of cavities visible as dark regions in the Chandra image located around the radio emission. These cavities are so large they would be able to contain the entire Milky Way galaxy, but they are dwarfed by even larger cavities – too faint to be visible in this image - created by earlier, more powerful outbursts from the black hole. The largest of these cavities is immense, extending for about 670,000 light years.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Waterloo/C.Kirkpatrick et al.; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; Optical: Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope/DSS

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Hot, Young Star ‘Missing Link’ of Stellar Evolution

By Nola Taylor Redd

A  massive young star may prove to be the missing link between two stages of star formation.

While most stars have winds that pile the gas around them into columns streaming from their poles, some stars expel spherical winds of expanding material. A real-time study over almost two decades reveals for the first time a star in the process of changing from spherical winds of charged particles to streaming columns of them, linking the two structures together.

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Seasons Greetings!

Hoping you and your family have a wonderful holiday season and a marvelous next year.

The VLA is a radio astronomy observatory located on Route 60 West of Socorro, NM. The array is made up of 27 independent antennas. Each dish is 82 feet (25 meters) wide. The array is y-shaped and measures 13 miles long, and the configuration is actually movable and changed every three to four months. There is an array of ten similar sized dishes in Hawaii. The antennas received radio communications for Voyager 2 as it flew by Neptune. It has been used in more than 10,000 astronomical projects.

This array was shown in the movies “Contact,” “Armageddon,” “Terminator Salvation,” and “Independence Day.” It can be seen on the cover of the Bon Jovi album “Everyday,” and Dire Strait’s album “On The Night.”

According to Wikipedia it is not used to assist in the search for extra-terrestrial life. But I’m glad to use it to signify our families reaching out to our new and old family and friends.

Event Calendar for Tucson Area Photographers

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The Very Large Array reveals “bashful” black hole in neighboring galaxy

The instrument finally detected the long-sought radio emission coming from M32’s supermassive black hole.

Thanks to the extraordinary sensitivity of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), astronomers have detected what they believe is the long-sought radio emission coming from a supermassive black hole at the center of one of our closest neighboring galaxies. Evidence for the black hole’s existence previously came only from studies of stellar motions in the galaxy and from X-ray observations.

The galaxy, called Messier 32 (M32), is a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy, our Milky Way’s giant neighbor. Unlike the Milky Way and Andromeda, which are star-forming spiral galaxies, M32 is an elliptical galaxy with little star formation. About 2.5 million light-years from Earth, M32 is much smaller than either the Milky Way or Andromeda.

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