(above) Visitors line up to see the moon and some of the visible planets
at a Chaco Canyon star party.
A view of the Milky Way above Fajada Butte in Chaco.
Our jaw-dropping night skies are worth a closer look, and star parties make it simple.
FOR MILLENNIA, humans lived in a world of darkened nights with skies so clear they could see the gleam of a million stars. Nowadays? Not so much. Most people live in cities and towns where artificial light obscures our overhead views. Yet here in New Mexico, with a relatively low population and vast open spaces, we can still gaze upward to see the luminous ribbon of the Milky Way arcing across the nighttime sky.
These favorable conditions have brought international distinction to two of New Mexico’s parks. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in the northwest corner of the state, and Clayton Lake State Park, in the far northeast, are both designated as International Dark Sky Parks through the Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Just 26 parks worldwide are certified IDA parks.
“We are fortunate here in New Mexico,” says Peter Lipscomb, Cerrillos Hills State Park acting manager, who helped with Clayton Lake’s IDA nomination. “We can go out under a dark sky and have a view that closely resembles what our grandparents and great-grandparents could see long ago.”
But a dark sky alone isn’t enough for an IDA listing. These parks must share their nighttime view with the public. “You make use of it,” says Chaco park ranger G.B. Cornucopia. Star parties, astronomy lessons, and storytelling—they’re all part of an IDA park’s efforts to educate.
Cornucopia first came to Chaco 30 years ago as a visitor. “I came for the dark sky,” he says. “I brought my telescope up here, I started camping.” He acquired a following that morphed into “a little star party every night.” By 1998 the park had opened an on-site observatory for public use. In 2013, Chaco was awarded its IDA designation.
Clayton Lake has had a public observatory since 2006 and received its IDA designation in 2010. The park sits at the edge of the Great Plains in a region of rolling prairie, volcanic rock, and sandstone bluffs. It is also famous for its dinosaur trail, more than 500 footprints long, constituting one of the world’s most extensive and best-preserved prehistoric trackways.
But at night, eyes gaze upward. “We’ve been staring at the stars and making up stories about them for thousands of years,” says Pat Walsh, a state parks ranger who conducts night-sky events at Clayton Lake. “Sometimes I’ll start off with a Native American story about the stars.” Then she tracks the planets and stars using a green laser pointer, talking about basic astronomy before giving visitors a look through the telescope. Star parties, she says, help “connect people to the sky and get them thinking about what a treasure we have here in New Mexico.”
All across the state, public stargazing events attract visitors of all kinds—professional, amateur, adult, and child. Typically, telescope owners congregate at a suitably dark parking lot, focus their instruments on various features of the firmament, and share their perspectives with viewers who make the rounds. Some star parties last a few hours, others a few days. While summer weather makes for some of the most popular night-sky events, the cold, crisp skies of fall and winter can offer clearer views overhead.
This fall, stargazers can expect to see the Taurid meteor showers (mid-October through mid-November, with maximum activity expected November 4) and the closest grouping of Venus, Jupiter, and Mars in many years (October 26).
A successful star party takes preparation, experts say. Safety is key, because “you’ve got a bunch of people milling about in the darkness,” notes John Barentine, International Dark-Sky Association program manager. Dim red ambient lights allow you to see your way through the darkness, but they don’t detract from the stargazing experience.
These gatherings spark the imagination and give participants’ consciousness a reboot. “Look up at a starry sky and wonder, ‘What’s out there? How do we fit into the bigger picture? How did it all begin?’ ” Lipscomb says. Curiosity and wonder are cultivated in the night. And these, he says, “are essential elements of what it means to be human.”
Visitors take in a night-sky presentation by a Chaco park ranger.
NEED TO KNOW: STAR PARTIES
CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK NIGHT SKY PROGRAM October 3, 10, 17, 24: Visitors gather at the Chaco Observatory just as sunset bathes the canyon in bluish light. The program begins with a presentation in astronomy and ancient culture, followed by hands-on telescope viewing. The Chacoans who occupied this land between AD 850 and 1150 followed the sun, moon, and stars, and astronomy was integral to their culture.
One by one, after sunset, visitors can peer through a large mounted telescope (a 25-inch f/4 Obsession) inside the observatory, and gaze toward the sky. Additional telescope viewing takes place in the parking lot. The events, which begin at sunset, are open to visitors of all ages, with all levels of astronomical knowledge. Info: mynm.us/chaconightsky
COSMIC CAMPGROUND STAR PARTY
October 9: Eight miles north of Alma and one mile off US 180 in the Gila National Forest sits a work in progress: a remote campground created specifically for stargazing. Local astronomers and supporters hope the site will one day gain IDA certification. Current facilities include restrooms, Internet and cell-phone connections (via Verizon), a telescope area, and, of course, a dark sky. “The site is ecologically friendly,” says Patricia A. Grauer, of Friends of the Cosmic Campground. “Those who use it take only photos and memories and leave a few tent-stake impressions and footprints behind. They also leave with plans to return.”
The star party is timed to coincide with the dark of the moon. “At that time of year we will be viewing many clusters, nebulae, and deep-sky objects,” Grauer says. “The sky should be really stunning.” The event will begin with a potluck dinner. Visitors should bring food or drinks to share and a flashlight to use in the early portion of the event. Info: mynm.us/cosmiccampground
ENCHANTED SKIES STAR PARTY
October 14–17: Magdalena’s four-day Enchanted Skies Star Party—one of the state’s biggest and longest—includes tours of the Very Large Array and the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, green laser tours of the night sky, solar viewing, day- time hikes, and the chance to mingle with a cluster of professional astronomers. This star party is geared toward the intermediate astronomer, although beginners are welcome. Camping is available. Fee: $50 for four-day pass. Info: enchantedskies.org
MORE STAR SIGHTINGS
ROSWELL ASTRONOMY CLUB STAR PARTY Oct. 10: Meet at Twist Flower Rd., 10 miles north of Roswell, arriving 30 minutes before sunset. Info: Peggy Bohlin, (575) 420-9955
AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS GROUP OF NEW MEXICO NIGHT SKY PROGRAMS
Oct. 10: At Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, tour the early-fall night sky from 7:30 to 9 p.m. On Nov. 14 the focus is the crescent moon, 5:30–7 p.m. Info: astronomersgroup.org
CLAYTON LAKE STATE PARK STAR PARTY Oct. 14: At Clayton Lake Observatory. Info: Charles Jordan, (575) 374-8808
THE ALBUQUERQUE ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
Oct. 17: Head to the Placitas Public Library for a star party that includes solar observing and night viewing of stars and planets, 6:30–10 p.m. On Nov. 7, a Cosmic Carnival features science exhibits and solar observing, noon–4 p.m.; star party starts at 6 p.m. Open Space Visitor Center, 6500 Coors Blvd. NW, north of Paseo del Norte. Info: taas.org
LAS CRUCES ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
Oct. 3: Enjoy “Music, the Milky Way, and the Stars” at the Leasburg Dam State Park Night Sky Event, near Radium Springs. Info: aslc-nm.org. Oct. 17: At the monthly Moongaze, observe la luna along with Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Venus outside the International Delights Café, 1245 El Paseo Rd.
PAJARITO ASTRONOMERS DARK NIGHTS
Members congregate monthly at Overlook Park’s Spirio Soccer Field, in White Rock. Oct. 17, event starts at 6:30 p.m.; Nov. 7, at 5 p.m. Info: email@example.com