By Jessica J. Savage
A lovely crescent Moon paired with a bright Venus were snuggling in the Western sky as the Sun set, while a loud voice alerted the gathering crowd that on the opposite horizon Mars was just rising over the long-cooled volcanic ash, erosion-carved into giant boulders. As the sky darkened, the constellations begin to reveal themselves. Sagittarius, the Hunter, framed the crescent Moon and Venus, looking more like a tipped teapot than a warrior; the steam from the "spout" was actually the Milky Way.
Some 65 stargazers had gathered to see these and other celestial delights through the new telescope at City of Rocks State Park, housed in a solar-powered observatory. The observatory's official grand opening, with state park and local officials, had been nearly a month before; although that was a successful party, as an astronomy outing it was a failure—all observing was cancelled by heavy clouds.
"Curiosity," replied Marie "Boots" Southworth when asked why she'd driven all the way from Las Cruces by herself to attend this Stars-N-Parks astronomy program and experience the view from the new telescope. "This looks like a nice operation."
She joined a long line to peer at Mars through the eyepiece of the 14-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain LX200 GPS telescope. The telescope is mounted on a robo-pier that moves it to the exact eye level of the observer while maintaining its position on a particular object. Capable of finding and tracking 145,000 celestial objects (whose exact coordinates are stored in the telescope's database), the 100-percent-made-in-USA LX200 series of telescopes are considered "the optical standard."
Earlier in the evening, amateur astronomer Matt Wilson of the National Public Observatory (NPO) gave park manager Ken Abalos a crash course in aligning the telescope. Each time it's powered up, the telescope has to be aligned using any two distinct stars; then the scope can automatically find its way to anything above the horizon that the user keys into the hand-held controller.
Attendees Lloyd and Maxx Wheat of Deming said the telescope would attract the area's large population of retired residents and snowbird visitors. "It's a tourist draw for retired people," Lloyd said. "You would have to go to Sunspot or some other public telescope, but this is accessible."
While many who came to look through the telescope were astronomy newcomers, others already participated in the increasingly popular hobby. "I've been watching Venus and Mars all month," said Lynn Hefele, who enjoys planet observing through her binoculars but was excited to see the planets through the telescope.
The skies of the rural area between Silver City and Deming inspired many newcomers. "I never saw skies like this in my life," said Philadelphia native John Murray.
"The night sky is a legacy we need to carry on. Big-city kids don't know what the dark sky looks like," said NPO member Sally Allen of Deming, who will be conducting astronomy programs at Rockhound and Pancho Villa State Parks for the nonprofit organization. Allen expects the large size of the telescope to bring people out to the park: "Big is beautiful to a lot of people. It excites them and sparks their interest."
The idea to place an observatory at City of Rocks State Park evolved on two fronts: the organization holding astronomy programs at the park and with state parks management. NPO President John Gilkison had been talking up astronomy at City of Rocks to park employees and officials in Deming as early as the late 1980s.
"I've always thought it was a good place for astronomy," Gilkison said. The remoteness of the park, 30 miles away from even the nearest small population centers, makes for exceptional dark skies, he explained.
Several years ago, the NPO started holding a semi-annual three-to-four-day camping event at the park called the Southern New Mexico Star Party. In 2002, the astronomy group added Stars-N-Parks astronomy outreach programs at City of Rocks about four times a year.
Then-park manager Aaron Martinez noticed the enthusiastic response to these programs. The idea of an observatory began to gel. Martinez presented his ideas to Steve Cary, natural resources planner and chief naturalist for the state parks. When Gov. Bill Richardson came to Las Cruces in 2004, Gilkison stood in line and gave the governor a five-minute oral presentation, emphasizing the millions of tourism dollars spent in Arizona on astronomy, and then handed him a written proposal.
"Statewide the demand (for astronomy programs) is high," said Cary. "We've had programs where 50 people have been standing in line to see Jupiter." Similar observatories are now planned in each of the other three state-park regions. "It's a big step towards bringing the night sky to New Mexico citizens and park visitors."
As the parks officials got the go-ahead for this first observatory, Gilkison served as a consultant, collaborating with architect Rob Vadduro of Santa Fe during the design phase.
One of the unique features of the observatory is its roll-off roof. The entire roof of the metal observatory rolls backward onto a metal supporting frame, essentially leaving the telescope completely outdoors. "Domes aren't what you want," Gilkison said. "You want the public under the sky."
A solar photovoltaic panel juices up a 110-volt battery that powers everything in the observatory including the telescope, the robo-pier and the lighting.
Now that the observatory is in place, park manager Abalos said he wants to create an astronomy-park theme, with ideas such as naming campsites after constellations and bright stars.
During his remarks at the grand opening ceremony, Director of State Parks Dave Simon recalled a fictional character who leads children in looking at the night sky: Professor Sinistra, the astronomy teacher at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter book series. "It's an inspiration for kids," he said. "They're not just becoming junior rangers. They're becoming junior astronomers, physicists and doctors."
Science interest helps everyone be a better citizen, he said. "They perceive life on planet Earth, floating through space, and they find out about building a better society."
Whether the observatory can achieve that ideal remains to be seen, but tourism officials believe it will siphon off some of the $20 million currently spent in the Tucson area on astronomy tourism.
Last year tourism officials in Grant County began targeting visitors vacationing in the area because of its dark skies. "We have some of the darkest sky places in the county," said Lanny Olson, tourism committee member of the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce. "Really, this whole part of the state is dark."
An ad in Sky & Telescope magazine generated a big response in reader cards requesting more information, according to Laurie Pankey of the chamber. Now the chamber will help promote the observatory through its Web site (www.silvercity.org), newsletter, calendars and other activities. "It's a good investment by the state," Pankey said. "It will be utilized and we will outgrow it."
Area communities are working to keep the skies dark for those tourists. During his remarks at the grand opening, Tom Nupp of the Silver Town Council mentioned the town's dark-sky ordinance and said Grant County is working on its own version.
Deming tourism officials have been working with Wes Light, owner of a home observatory in the Sunshine area and a planned astronomy development, to develop and pass a city lighting ordinance, according to Bridget Kelly, director of the Deming-Luna County Chamber of Commerce. "Luna County is committed to dark skies," she said.
Perhaps the dark, starry night sky is the one thing that can bring all humans on the planet together in awe. On the night before the cloudy grand opening, City of Rocks was blessed with a pristine cloud-free night that was perfect for stargazers attending the fall Southern New Mexico Star Party. Attendees and astronomy veterans Rob McConnell and Karen Russell of Zephyr, Ontario, said the site was unbelievable. "Last night was the best night of astronomy I've ever had," Russell said. "I saw things I've never seen."
"It's a ritual that's gone on for eons," Cary said in his remarks at the grand opening. "It's something that crosses time, distance and all cultures. There's a good chance that on another planet they're doing the same thing—gathering at a bunch of rocks, drinking wine and considering the heavens."