New Mexico's Observatories

Very Large Array
Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI

New Mexico has clear, dark skies that make it a good place for astronomical observing. The state's observatories include optical observatories with telescopes and radio observatories that observe phenomena on a different wavelength. 

If you're interested in seeing objects in the night sky, you need to look no further than the observatory at the University of New Mexico's campus. Run by the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the observatory offers a large optical telescope for viewing, right in the heart of the city. The UNM Observatory has a 14" Meade telescope and every Friday night during the fall and spring semesters when the weather is clear, viewing is available. Telescopes are often set up outside the observatory by amateur astronomers from the Albuquerque Astronomical Society.

There are always astronomers on hand to help explain what's in the sky and answer questions. The observatory is a family-friendly activity that is free of charge. Find it on Yale Blvd. two blocks north of Lomas.

The Most Famous Arrays

Heading south of Albuquerque into Socorro, the Very Large Array (VLA) offers visitors a chance to see how radio telescopes work. Because radio waves are so large, an array of large dishes is set out on the plains of San Agustin to capture them. The dishes are on railroad tracks and can be moved into different configurations, called arrays, that allow for explorations of the heavens. The telescopes are 27 x 25m telescopes that are part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatories (NRAO). The 27 radio antennas combine electronically to give the resolution of an antenna that is 36km (22 miles) across.

The VLA's configuration schedule lets you know when the antennas will be moved, and into what configuration. Tours take place every first Saturday of the month, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Having stood inside one of the antenna dishes, I can attest to the magnitude of what takes place at the VLA. Visit if you can. The VLA lies about 50 miles west of Socorro.

The Long Wavelength Array (LWA) is also in the Socorro area. The LWA is a low-frequency radio telescope that produces high-resolution images in a radio frequency that has been a poorly explored region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Located near the VLA, it has an array of stations in New Mexico and likely beyond.

Further south in the Sacramento Mountains you'll find a number of observatories. The most well known is the National Solar Observatory, (NSO) found at Sunspot, at the top of the mountain peak near Alamagordo, New Mexico. The 60-inch Dunn Solar Telescope (DST) takes advantage of the clear sky quality found atop the mountain, which allows for great solar viewing. The DST has excellent resolution and has revealed many intricacies of the Sun's surface features. The NSO is open during the daytime for visitors.

There are tours that visitors can take while there. A virtual tour is also available. While at the observatory, take time to see the Visitor's Center, and learn about how astronomers explore the universe with the detailed exhibits. It's exciting to see the Armillary Sphere and Sundial, which shows the relationship between the Earth and sky. It's possible to visit the telescopes and facilities at Apache Point Observatory as well as the telescopes and exhibits at the NSO. Apache Point is right next door to the NSO.

Apache Point features a 3.5-meter telescope, the New Mexico State University 1.0 meter telescope, and the Sloan Foundation 2.5 meter telescope, which is used for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is mapping the universe. The Sloan has created detailed three-dimensional maps of one-third of the sky. Apache Point also contains the Astrophysical Research Consortium's 3.5-meter telescope.

New Mexico is a major center for telescopes of various kinds and has some of the leading observatories in the field of astronomy.