Yet for a growing number, the state’s star power is much more literal and, at the same time, ethereal. The stars over our heads aren’t based on popular film and TV characters. They are real. There are billions of them. They hold the secrets of the universe. And you can see them very well from most places in New Mexico.
One reason we’ve got such remarkable night skies is because of the whole lot of nothing else going on. Absent big industry and transit, rural New Mexico is especially rare in its emptiness. Take the ancient lake bed that makes up the plains of the San Agustin Valley, for example. It’s here that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory built its Very Large Array telescope, used by scientists across the globe to study deep space.
But New Mexico’s skies aren’t just for those with advanced degrees. Their secrets are free for the taking, for anyone who cares to look up. What’s more, the low-cost, low-impact activity has state and local officials looking to the stars to draw visitors and their money.
That’s how I ended up in Star City on a brisk night earlier this month. The New Mexico Department of Tourism teamed up with the Magdalena Chamber of Commerce to throw the annual Enchanted Skies Star Party fewer than 20 miles from the array. Although the party has been going on for more than two decades each October, this year marks its expansion to a second round in the spring.
As I sit on a blanket with notebook in hand after making the three-hour drive from Santa Fe, the sky begins to lose its final streaks of blue, and only ribbons of pale light remain around the horizon. Red orbs, from flashlights covered with tape, bob toward the gathering. As Venus bursts into view in all her shining glory, the murmur of the crowd picks up.
"It connects me to the universe, to the people who have come before me and who will come after me."
“There’s another one,” comes an excited voice. “They are popping out everywhere.”
Before too long, all attention is focused on Judy Stanley, the cruise director at this shindig and the educational officer for the Very Large Array.
“For thousands of years, people on this planet have looked into the night sky and wondered, have put their concerns into the night sky, have made stories, connected the dots if you will,” Stanley says. “So the reason I like astronomy is because it connects me to the universe, to the people who have come before me and who will come after me.”
Her speech is short, delivered with a practiced tongue, since she’s been a presence at the party every year since 1999. She introduces John Briggs, a local astronomer who recently bought an old building in Magdalena to house his collection of antique telescopes.
Briggs uses a green laser pointer to guide the crowd across the heavens, pointing to constellations and noting in his booming voice where telescopes will help garner better views of things like the gas cloud in Orion’s belt and the colliding Whirlpool galaxies hidden in the corner of the Big Dipper.
When he points out a more subtle feature called the zodiacal cone, Briggs gets to the heart of it. The cone is an area where the background sky appears brighter along the plane of the solar system.
“That glow is not Las Vegas, man. It sure ain’t Pie Town,” Briggs says. “It’s something that I couldn’t enjoy very easily growing up, even in rather dark rural Massachusetts. You’ve got something here in New Mexico, and its natural beauty far transcends, skywise, what you get in Massachusetts nowadays. You only see that true natural glow when you are in a very dark environment.”
While simple darkness might not seem like a natural resource, pursuit of its preservation is something astronomers do with gusto.
Santa Fe’s Peter Lipscomb can talk about it for hours. It’s not hard at all to imagine him in his early twenties, working as a tour guide in New York City, leading visitors around places like Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. Lipscomb ended up moving to New Mexico after living in the Big Apple for long enough to realize that he wanted a better connection with the night sky and the natural world in general.
One of his early activities here was working as a volunteer at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, where he began to see how he could connect people to the night time environment. Holding various jobs since then with state parks, Lipscomb is now the acting manager of Cerrillos Hills State Park. While he would love to offer more stargazing programs at the park, low staffing levels make it difficult to schedule one.
Even so, for the last 14 years, he’s given night sky tours in Cerrillos, just south of Santa Fe, and he’s become one of the state’s leading advocates for dark sky protection.
New Mexico was actually forward thinking when in 1999, lawmakers adopted the Night Sky Protection Act, Lipscomb says, but now, “the awareness is wearing off, the amnesia is setting in, people [are] complacent. And, until they get their grandchildren outside and they say, ‘I want to show you the stars just like they were when I was a kid,’ and they look up and it’s not there.”
Lipscomb avoids the term “light pollution,” because he says it’s polarizing. He wants people rather to understand terms like “light trespass,” where light escapes the boundaries of your own property, and he hopes to help the city and county of Santa Fe beef up local rules in the near future.
Manufacturers of outdoor light bulbs and fixtures are getting better about making products that don’t cast unnecessary upward glow, he says, which means that newer construction, while adding more light overall, is less invasive than older buildings. Since the state law and a 2011 city ordinance have a grandfather clause, there’s still a lot of light coming from places with old fixtures, such as a number of car lots along Cerrillos Road and the State Penitentiary on Hwy. 14, Lipscomb notes.
A proposed local rule, he says, would be based on what’s already working elsewhere.
“We should have safe lighting that enhances the public health and safety and conserves our natural resources and saves us money and preserves the view of the sky of our ancestors; that is a winning combination right there.”
Between 2006 and 2009, he served as director of the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance’s Night Sky Program, where he worked on ordinances for night sky conservation and night sky-friendly living in places like Clayton and Taos, Rio Arriba and Union counties. He spearheaded an effort to get Clayton Lake State Park in northeastern New Mexico an International Dark Sky designation, the first of its kind in the state.
Recognizing the importance of that dark sky can come in many forms, and when it came to securing the designation in Clayton, he says he relied on economic arguments as well as visual ones.
The demand for astronomy-related tourism is high. Tickets to a two-hour star party lecture planned at Tent Rocks National Monument during the same new moon as the Magdalena event were sold out within days of being available, says Angie Rizzo, visual arts program director for the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. While the center doesn’t have immediate plans for another star event, the programs are always popular, Rizzo says.
“I just get emails all the time, and from all over the country, people who have found a listing and are asking me if there is another one and how they can make reservations,” Rizzo says. “I know that people are very interested.”
Al and Annie Grauer feel the same the way. The couple met at the Kit Peak Observatory in Arizona. When Al is not watching for asteroids with a University of Arizona team, the two are spending their time now, in what some consider their golden years, developing the Cosmic Campground in the Gila National Forest, just north of the town of Alma. Even though it’s not quite finished or equipped with all the planned facilities, Annie says she gets lots of calls and emails, too.
“The good thing about it is that little area down there, Alma and Reserve and Glenwood, they don’t have a lot of things to bring in money, and so this is a way so that people can come there and stop in a restaurant and get gas. It’s a clean, ecological tourist attraction,” she says.
Yet appreciation of the night view has deeper meaning than economic development, and it can become an all-consuming pastime.
For Los Alamos physicist Glen Wurden, stargazing has evolved into a high-tech hobby. His telescope has a computerized tracking system, rigged up with a camera that moves along with Earth for long, steady exposures. He can precisely locate an object in the sky by plugging in its coordinates.
While his wife, Nancy, was happy to join him at the overnight star party, she was tucked in to bed before Venus set.
“I get called out in the middle of the night. ‘You’ve got to come and look at this!’ I enjoy it, but I’m not going to stay up all night,” she says.
Kathleene Gygi says she’s tried to get into local birding yet finds astronomy more accessible. That’s partly because of patient stargazing hospitality like that offered by Jonathan Schuchardt, who brought his telescope from Rio Rancho to the party and shared the view.
“It’s like Jon said,” she notes: “Birds move. The stars don’t really move. It’s easier to find the stars.”
And can Schuchardt ever find the stars.
Rather than using computer coordinates, he keeps a laminated star atlas nearby when he’s observing. He uses bright stars and constellations as markers, narrowing in on the location of his target; he speaks as though he’s a space traveler.
“Let’s go to the Sombrero galaxy,” he says, spinning the scope roughly to the spot where he’ll find the celestial object. “I haven’t been there lately.”
Schuchardt says he prefers the manual searching because of the thrill of the hunt.
“Some people would much rather spend their time looking at things than hunting for things,” he says, “but hunting for things is fun. In my opinion, you are taking away at least half the fun, maybe more than that, of actually tracking things down and saying, ‘Aha, I found you.’”
He’s working his way down a series of lists that are issued by the Astronomical League. When you complete a checklist, the group issues a certificate and a pin that’s something like a Boy Scout merit badge.
During the two weeks or so each month when the light from the moon doesn’t obscure the stars, he’ll be out there, star-hopping and then reporting back to members of the Albuquerque Astronomy Club. On Friday night at the star party, he locates just three of the galaxies on his list.
Then after a cloudy and windy day Saturday, the skies clear, he stays up until 3 am and ticks another 22 galaxies off the list.
That kind of commitment has to say something about night’s draw. Most of the stars we can see with the naked eye are hundreds or thousands of light-years away, part of our own galaxy. But the Very Large Array, which is made of 27 dishes that are each 82 feet wide, can gaze at objects millions of light-years away.
For Briggs, observing the sky isn’t just personal. It’s a connection to all time and space.
As his voice carries into the night and people begin to shuffle in the chill, he gets deep.
“The fact is, when you look at it, this light coming from an object like that, it is touching you. That we sense it, it’s coming into our eyes, maybe with the help of a telescope to gather enough of it, it’s making a chemical reaction in your eyes that in some level involves some force acting upon our retina,” he says. “And so all the celestial objects, in their way, we are in physical contact with them. Otherwise, we couldn’t sense them. Vision can be thought of as an energy transfer. It is pretty cool to think about. It’s not so far away. Yeah, it’s cosmic, but when we are out here, we are literally in contact.”
It’s probably something like 3 am when my eyes pop open. Even though temperatures were predicted to dip into the low 30s, I’ve removed the rain fly on my tent so that I can see the sky. It’s why I’m here, after all. Even though I can make out many of the bright orbs with myopic, sleepy eyes, I grope in the darkness for my eyeglasses. As I slip them on, I gasp out loud. The glowing white swath of the Milky Way brilliantly holds up the dome above me. I grin, there alone in the dark.
More than half the world’s population lives in cities where the stars are barely visible. I think about who else is looking into the night sky and who is not. And I thank my lucky stars.