Topics

Notes on Magdalena, New Mexico, and the Route 60 Corridor

John W Briggs
 

I saw early-on that this forum would welcome some discussion of dark-sky communities in general.  I guess I could say -- now that I think about it -- that I've actually lived at several.  Right now (and for the duration!) I live just outside Magdalena, New Mexico, a small, rural high-desert community of about 800 people.  We have a local Magdalena Astronomical Society; quite dark skies by many standards; and the advantage of a variety of interesting astronomical facilities nearby, like the Very Large Array radio telescope of NRAO. 

What I particularly want to share is how there's an increasing sense of astronomical community all along the "Route 60 corridor" from Socorro to the Arizona border, some 138 miles west.  The most extreme dark skies along this route are probably near where it crosses the continental divide just east of Pie Town.  Magdalena, some 30 miles west of Socorro (and 2,000 feet higher), allows easy access to the relative development of Socorro and New Mexico Tech, the local University.  And Albuquerque 70 road miles farther away to the northeast. 

I hope projects as ambitious as the Mirador plan being discussed here might consider both Magdalena area and the general Route 60 corridor as potential sites for a development.  The more astronomers we have in the region, the more easily, I believe, we can argue for and maintain sensible dark-sky preservation.

By many measures I believe things remain simple and possible in New Mexico, unlike in so many other overcrowded areas of our country nowadays.  In a few years recently I've succeeded with some personal astronomy projects here way beyond my wildest dreams.  It would not have been possible many places elsewhere. 

And regarding dark-sky communities -- I had not really thought about it until now -- but the rather unique observatory communities that evolved to operate originally remote places like Lick and Palomar, etc., were really a form of "dark-sky communities."  I had the good fortune to live and work at four such places, and generally with my family.  They were on the Yerkes campus, at Mount Wilson, and more recently at Sunspot, New Mexico.  The fourth was not with my family, and it was for only a year.  But it was unusual -- a winter-over at South Pole Station in Antarctica. 

Certain lessons can probably be gleaned from all of these places and others like them.  Additional lessons might be learned from the unusually dedicated and cohesive group that together own and operate Stellafane near Springfield, Vermont.  For most people, "Stellafane" refers to the annual convention that's quite famous in its own right.  But actually, the name is for the associated observatory that now involves some 80 acres and quite a variety of buildings.  The Springfield Telescope Makers who operate it all have a membership of about 150, I believe -- i.e., close to a number that was mentioned earlier here, if I recall right.

Cheers!
--John W. Briggs, 
Magdalena, NM.
PS:  Photo attached of FOAH Observatory located in hills typical of this area; FOAH is at 6,500 feet altitude.

David Oesper
 

Thanks for your note, John. I think we met at Yerkes many years ago, and I am looking forward to visiting you there in Magdalena as soon as the pandemic subsides.

I’ve visited Socorro, Magdalena, the VLA, and Pie Town, and I love the area. It is also a big plus that Socorro is home to New Mexico Tech and Socorro General Hospital.

I think we should definitely consider locating Mirador Astronomy Village along the Route 60 corridor. It makes good sense to locate Mirador in an area where there is already a significant infrastructure and interest in astronomy. Two other areas we are currently looking at are the Big Bend region of West Texas (home of the McDonald Observatory), and the Hwy 9 corridor in SW New Mexico.

Another, much less expensive, way to create Mirador or something similar to it that I’ve been considering would be to “adopt” an existing small town if they would be willing to adopt us. This could really help the local economy, but the existing residents would have to be on board with the idea and be willing to make some changes such as enacting a lighting ordinance. And we would need to be truly engaged with the existing community and their needs and desires so that it is a win-win situation. It looks like you have already made a lot of progress towards this in Magdalena, so I'm really looking forward to my visit there soon.

You bring up an excellent point about observatory communities at all the remote professional observatories. We could learn a great deal from them. I am somewhat familiar with the McDonald Observatory community. I thoroughly enjoyed helping with star parties (volunteer) and conducting special viewing nights (for pay) on the 36” and the 82” Struve telescopes. Oh, do I miss that!

Wow, there aren’t very many people on this planet that can say that they’ve spent a winter at the South Pole! I’d love to hear about your experience and what you learned about remote living in an inhospitable environment sometime! Though the desert southwest is far more hospitable (even in mid-summer) than Antarctica was, I’m sure much of what you learned would apply to Mirador or any other remote community.

Thanks for mentioning Stellafane and the Springfield Telescope Makers. We should probably contact them to get their insights about Mirador.

Thanks for including the photo of the FOAH Observatory and environs. To those of you who are interested in learning more about this observatory and are curious about what FOAH stands for (as I was), see here:

https://stellafane.org/misc/activities/publications/Magdalena-Briggs.pdf

You’ll also learn a little more about John and his interesting pursuits!

Dave

Steve Taylor
 

My younger offspring is/will be a final year civil engineer at NMT next semester. We are hoping to go out in late September/October to see him and steal his car, before we head down to Animas to our property on the abandoned Rancho Hidalgo development.

On Mon, 1 Jun 2020 at 17:51, David Oesper via groups.io <oesper=mac.com@groups.io> wrote:

Thanks for your note, John. I think we met at Yerkes many years ago, and I am looking forward to visiting you there in Magdalena as soon as the pandemic subsides.

I’ve visited Socorro, Magdalena, the VLA, and Pie Town, and I love the area. It is also a big plus that Socorro is home to New Mexico Tech and Socorro General Hospital.

I think we should definitely consider locating Mirador Astronomy Village along the Route 60 corridor. It makes good sense to locate Mirador in an area where there is already a significant infrastructure and interest in astronomy. Two other areas we are currently looking at are the Big Bend region of West Texas (home of the McDonald Observatory), and the Hwy 9 corridor in SW New Mexico.

Another, much less expensive, way to create Mirador or something similar to it that I’ve been considering would be to “adopt” an existing small town if they would be willing to adopt us. This could really help the local economy, but the existing residents would have to be on board with the idea and be willing to make some changes such as enacting a lighting ordinance. And we would need to be truly engaged with the existing community and their needs and desires so that it is a win-win situation. It looks like you have already made a lot of progress towards this in Magdalena, so I'm really looking forward to my visit there soon.

You bring up an excellent point about observatory communities at all the remote professional observatories. We could learn a great deal from them. I am somewhat familiar with the McDonald Observatory community. I thoroughly enjoyed helping with star parties (volunteer) and conducting special viewing nights (for pay) on the 36” and the 82” Struve telescopes. Oh, do I miss that!

Wow, there aren’t very many people on this planet that can say that they’ve spent a winter at the South Pole! I’d love to hear about your experience and what you learned about remote living in an inhospitable environment sometime! Though the desert southwest is far more hospitable (even in mid-summer) than Antarctica was, I’m sure much of what you learned would apply to Mirador or any other remote community.

Thanks for mentioning Stellafane and the Springfield Telescope Makers. We should probably contact them to get their insights about Mirador.

Thanks for including the photo of the FOAH Observatory and environs. To those of you who are interested in learning more about this observatory and are curious about what FOAH stands for (as I was), see here:

https://stellafane.org/misc/activities/publications/Magdalena-Briggs.pdf

You’ll also learn a little more about John and his interesting pursuits!

Dave



--
 

John W Briggs
 

Dear Dave and Group--

A potential advantage of Rt 60 over Rt 9 here in New Mexico is altitude.  Near Magdalena we're around 6,500 feet, and it gets higher as one drives west.  An effect of this is that we're typically almost ten degrees cooler than Socorro, about 30 miles east of us and 2,000 feet lower.  Of course that means we have colder winters, too!  I don't know Rt 9 well, but I suspect it's lower than Rt 60.

Ranch land around here is often sold in 40-acre parcels.  When my family and I bought two of these about 17 years ago, land was about $1,000/acre or a bit less.  It hasn't necessarily gone up too much since then, although often sellers ask two or three times more.

There's a lot of open land southwest of Magdalena off road 107.  This area is west of the Magdalena mountains and the seeing should be pretty good.  The lights of the Village there are very well blocked by local hills and mountains, as would also much of the modest Albuquerque light dome.  The area I'm thinking of starts about seven miles outside of Magdalena.  Two of our local club members already have homes and observatories out there. 

At my place, FOAH Observatory, the Village is only about three miles south of me.  But the direct lights are blocked by intervening hills.  I still get a small sky glow from the Village -- obnoxiously to my precious south -- especially when there's blowing dust.  But I chose my site to get a hilltop and the best chance for good seeing.  Looking back on it, I would say that I was much more specifically concerned about seeing than some others I know who have chosen observatory developments.  But one thing is sure true -- no site is perfect, and it's always a matter of compromise.  So you just do the best you can in given circumstances.  And there will always be some pros & cons!

I have several differential image motion monitors (DIMMs) all copied exactly after a system we developed at Apache Point Observatory and still used at some sites like McDonald.  We can use these to quantify, for example, if siting on top of a hill actually makes a difference in the seeing.

Cheers!   --John.
Copy:  Old poster paper about the DIMM seeing monitors.

John W Briggs
 

Steve, if during your visit to Socorro you can swing up to Magdalena to see some of the stuff here, that will be wonderful, and we'll look forward to it.  Just let me know as the time approaches!   --John. 

On Mon, Jun 1, 2020 at 4:02 PM Steve Taylor <steveastrouk@...> wrote:
My younger offspring is/will be a final year civil engineer at NMT next semester. We are hoping to go out in late September/October to see him and steal his car, before we head down to Animas to our property on the abandoned Rancho Hidalgo development.

On Mon, 1 Jun 2020 at 17:51, David Oesper via groups.io <oesper=mac.com@groups.io> wrote:

Thanks for your note, John. I think we met at Yerkes many years ago, and I am looking forward to visiting you there in Magdalena as soon as the pandemic subsides.

I’ve visited Socorro, Magdalena, the VLA, and Pie Town, and I love the area. It is also a big plus that Socorro is home to New Mexico Tech and Socorro General Hospital.

I think we should definitely consider locating Mirador Astronomy Village along the Route 60 corridor. It makes good sense to locate Mirador in an area where there is already a significant infrastructure and interest in astronomy. Two other areas we are currently looking at are the Big Bend region of West Texas (home of the McDonald Observatory), and the Hwy 9 corridor in SW New Mexico.

Another, much less expensive, way to create Mirador or something similar to it that I’ve been considering would be to “adopt” an existing small town if they would be willing to adopt us. This could really help the local economy, but the existing residents would have to be on board with the idea and be willing to make some changes such as enacting a lighting ordinance. And we would need to be truly engaged with the existing community and their needs and desires so that it is a win-win situation. It looks like you have already made a lot of progress towards this in Magdalena, so I'm really looking forward to my visit there soon.

You bring up an excellent point about observatory communities at all the remote professional observatories. We could learn a great deal from them. I am somewhat familiar with the McDonald Observatory community. I thoroughly enjoyed helping with star parties (volunteer) and conducting special viewing nights (for pay) on the 36” and the 82” Struve telescopes. Oh, do I miss that!

Wow, there aren’t very many people on this planet that can say that they’ve spent a winter at the South Pole! I’d love to hear about your experience and what you learned about remote living in an inhospitable environment sometime! Though the desert southwest is far more hospitable (even in mid-summer) than Antarctica was, I’m sure much of what you learned would apply to Mirador or any other remote community.

Thanks for mentioning Stellafane and the Springfield Telescope Makers. We should probably contact them to get their insights about Mirador.

Thanks for including the photo of the FOAH Observatory and environs. To those of you who are interested in learning more about this observatory and are curious about what FOAH stands for (as I was), see here:

https://stellafane.org/misc/activities/publications/Magdalena-Briggs.pdf

You’ll also learn a little more about John and his interesting pursuits!

Dave



--
 

David Oesper
 

John,

I'm so glad you mentioned the importance of astronomical seeing in choosing a site. It certainly must be a key consideration. Is there a DIMM that is commercially available? If not, we may need to borrow one of yours (or make one ourselves) when we are ready to evaluate a site.

Thanks for the link to your poster paper!

To the group, here's some more information about astronomical seeing. Perhaps an oversimplification (John?), but it does give you a good introduction. For starters, you want to be on the prevailing-wind side of any mountains or hills to avoid being on the receiving end of any topography-induced turbulence.

http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/~meech/a281/handouts/seeing.pdf

Dave

Steve Taylor
 

Hi John,
That would be very nice. I've only ever stopped in Magdalena once, and that was by a cop.....
Ironically, the only place my son has ever been stopped....is also in Magdalena.....
Steve


On Mon, 1 Jun 2020 at 18:49, John W Briggs <john.w.briggs@...> wrote:
Steve, if during your visit to Socorro you can swing up to Magdalena to see some of the stuff here, that will be wonderful, and we'll look forward to it.  Just let me know as the time approaches!   --John. 

On Mon, Jun 1, 2020 at 4:02 PM Steve Taylor <steveastrouk@...> wrote:
My younger offspring is/will be a final year civil engineer at NMT next semester. We are hoping to go out in late September/October to see him and steal his car, before we head down to Animas to our property on the abandoned Rancho Hidalgo development.

On Mon, 1 Jun 2020 at 17:51, David Oesper via groups.io <oesper=mac.com@groups.io> wrote:

Thanks for your note, John. I think we met at Yerkes many years ago, and I am looking forward to visiting you there in Magdalena as soon as the pandemic subsides.

I’ve visited Socorro, Magdalena, the VLA, and Pie Town, and I love the area. It is also a big plus that Socorro is home to New Mexico Tech and Socorro General Hospital.

I think we should definitely consider locating Mirador Astronomy Village along the Route 60 corridor. It makes good sense to locate Mirador in an area where there is already a significant infrastructure and interest in astronomy. Two other areas we are currently looking at are the Big Bend region of West Texas (home of the McDonald Observatory), and the Hwy 9 corridor in SW New Mexico.

Another, much less expensive, way to create Mirador or something similar to it that I’ve been considering would be to “adopt” an existing small town if they would be willing to adopt us. This could really help the local economy, but the existing residents would have to be on board with the idea and be willing to make some changes such as enacting a lighting ordinance. And we would need to be truly engaged with the existing community and their needs and desires so that it is a win-win situation. It looks like you have already made a lot of progress towards this in Magdalena, so I'm really looking forward to my visit there soon.

You bring up an excellent point about observatory communities at all the remote professional observatories. We could learn a great deal from them. I am somewhat familiar with the McDonald Observatory community. I thoroughly enjoyed helping with star parties (volunteer) and conducting special viewing nights (for pay) on the 36” and the 82” Struve telescopes. Oh, do I miss that!

Wow, there aren’t very many people on this planet that can say that they’ve spent a winter at the South Pole! I’d love to hear about your experience and what you learned about remote living in an inhospitable environment sometime! Though the desert southwest is far more hospitable (even in mid-summer) than Antarctica was, I’m sure much of what you learned would apply to Mirador or any other remote community.

Thanks for mentioning Stellafane and the Springfield Telescope Makers. We should probably contact them to get their insights about Mirador.

Thanks for including the photo of the FOAH Observatory and environs. To those of you who are interested in learning more about this observatory and are curious about what FOAH stands for (as I was), see here:

https://stellafane.org/misc/activities/publications/Magdalena-Briggs.pdf

You’ll also learn a little more about John and his interesting pursuits!

Dave



--
 



--
 

maxeem
 

Then this may be another argument for why it may be better not to establish in Southwest NM. I watch the dust column index (personal health reasons) and SW New Mexico all the way up to Silver City gets hit when the winds blow it North. The forested area might be a breaker, leading to less obfuscation if you can get above the tree lines.

According to the measurements given anyway, dust will also get up to Albuquerque or further at times, but not as thick or as often? Haven't paid much attention to Texas but the times I've seen it it's largely in West TX blowing West-Southwest.

Just a fun and useful tool for gathering data from weather.gov

Maxeem


On 6/1/20 4:15 PM, David Oesper via groups.io wrote:

John,

I'm so glad you mentioned the importance of astronomical seeing in choosing a site. It certainly must be a key consideration. Is there a DIMM that is commercially available? If not, we may need to borrow one of yours (or make one ourselves) when we are ready to evaluate a site.

Thanks for the link to your poster paper!

To the group, here's some more information about astronomical seeing. Perhaps an oversimplification (John?), but it does give you a good introduction. For starters, you want to be on the prevailing-wind side of any mountains or hills to avoid being on the receiving end of any topography-induced turbulence.

http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/~meech/a281/handouts/seeing.pdf

Dave

John W Briggs
 

It's a good thing to bring up the general issue of wind and dust.  Until one has a chance to live in the Southwest, it's easy to underestimate how significant the spring windy season is.  I moved here (NM) as a native of Massachusetts.  Likely the first seasonal thing one learns about here is the monsoon season that normally runs through the summer.  At Sunspot (originally a site of National Solar Observatory), a local joke was that the monsoons started immediately after the July 4th holiday weekend.  But it was amazing how often this seemed exactly true, at least while my family and I were there!

The effect of the monsoons is for an afternoon buildup of thunderstorms that often last through at least the first half of the night.  The second half, however, can be wonderfully clear.  Nevertheless, professional observatories in the Southwest, like Apache Point, typically schedule major engineering projects and other observing shut-downs during the monsoon season.

In the spring, however, the problem is the wind, and as far as I've learned, it's a problem everywhere in the Southwest.  In our experience so far here in Magdalena, the worse month is April.  This year, it seemed to start early and end late.  My impressions are very subjective of course.  But what is certainly true is that there's a regular annual season of high wind that's very significant to astronomers.  Professional observatories often have dust monitors that can trigger quick closings during "dust events."  The most serious issue can be windblown pine pollen that's potentially sticky on optics.  In turns of housecleaning, windblown dust pushing through door frames and windows can be a bit obnoxious, no denying it.  

But lest I sound too negative describing these issues, I think most of us living here will agree that we're very grateful for the overall astronomical advantages of the Southwest.  One should just be prepared for the details that come with a particular environment.  For example, we're very sensitive to seasonal issues when we plan our annual Enchanted Skies Start Party that's begun to attract repeat participants coming from as far away as Switzerland.  We would naturally not schedule that in either the monsoon or the windy seasons.  An operation running short-term rentals is not likely to get many astronomers renting in those seasons.

At the high altitude of Sunspot (over 9,000 feet), one advantage was that often it seemed the gypsum dust of nearby White Sands National Monument would not reach all the way up to the observatory during the windy times.  (But sometimes, on the other hand, it sure would!)

A final class of environmental issues that may catch newcomers off-guard is how very serious moths and ladybugs can be getting into scientific equipment in huge clumps at some locations.  These insects were awful pests at Sunspot and Apache Point.  At the lower altitude of Magdalena (6,500 feet), they don't seem such a problem.  Not yet in my experience here, anyway!

Finally, I attach following right below another message I recently sent out to local astronomers and interested community friends.  In the last month or so, we've been making a particular effort here to get all-sky and weather information for FOAH Observatory on the Internet.  It's not hard.  But it took enough work that I was glad being able to brag a bit in sharing it, as follows:            (--JWB.)

###

Check out this link to the weather station now running on the FOAH Observatory hilltop:


The wind is typically much more severe at the hilltop than it is in the Village to our south or even at our house at the bottom of the little hill.  The altitude at the hilltop is exactly 6500 feet or 1981 meters, per Google Earth.

The weather instrument is an Ambient WS-2902B and cost about $170, not counting the hardware to mount it securely about 7 feet above ground on the hill.  (I've been up there at times it seemed my F-350 pickup was gonna blow off!)

Links to our all-sky camera, now running regularly pretty well, are here:


The Clear Sky Chart specifically for FOAH Observatory is here:


FOAH has an assigned IAU observatory code, V23.  This allows computations of JPL ephemerides specifically for FOAH and is thus especially useful for pointing to near-Earth objects that may have significant horizontal parallax.  Enter V23 as necessary to define the site:


--JWB.



On Tue, Jun 2, 2020 at 11:30 AM maxeem <maxeem@...> wrote:

Then this may be another argument for why it may be better not to establish in Southwest NM. I watch the dust column index (personal health reasons) and SW New Mexico all the way up to Silver City gets hit when the winds blow it North. The forested area might be a breaker, leading to less obfuscation if you can get above the tree lines.

According to the measurements given anyway, dust will also get up to Albuquerque or further at times, but not as thick or as often? Haven't paid much attention to Texas but the times I've seen it it's largely in West TX blowing West-Southwest.

Just a fun and useful tool for gathering data from weather.gov

Maxeem


On 6/1/20 4:15 PM, David Oesper via groups.io wrote:

John,

I'm so glad you mentioned the importance of astronomical seeing in choosing a site. It certainly must be a key consideration. Is there a DIMM that is commercially available? If not, we may need to borrow one of yours (or make one ourselves) when we are ready to evaluate a site.

Thanks for the link to your poster paper!

To the group, here's some more information about astronomical seeing. Perhaps an oversimplification (John?), but it does give you a good introduction. For starters, you want to be on the prevailing-wind side of any mountains or hills to avoid being on the receiving end of any topography-induced turbulence.

http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/~meech/a281/handouts/seeing.pdf

Dave