Enchanted Skies delights partygoers

Moonless nights and a variety of activities characterize this gem of a star party.
By | Published: September 28, 2006
The radio-antenna dishes at the Very Large Array are 82 feet wide and stand even taller. Radio astronomers use the VLA to image celestial objects in radio wavelengths.
Laura Layton
September 28, 2006
New Mexico is called the land of enchantment because of its unique combination of striking physical beauty, ancient culture, and diverse landscapes ranging from rugged, red-rock mountains to sparse desert. Its dry climate, high elevation, and dark-sky nights also make New Mexico an astronomical playground. This is where you’ll find the Enchanted Skies Star Party.

Held each September in Socorro, this year’s event took place September 20–23. Attendees met at Etscorn Observatory on the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology campus. the gathering offered partygoers an assortment of activities. Observing sessions, informative lectures, tours of the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope and the U.S. Air Force deep-space surveillance facility at White Sands Missile Range, and a chuck wagon dinner were just a few of the items on the star-party menu.

Etscorn Observatory
The refracting telescope inside one of the domes at Etscorn Observatory boasts a Software Bisque mount and an optical spotter scope that’s nearly equal in aperture.
Laura Layton
Observers were welcome to observe at Etscorn Observatory, using the facility’s scopes or their own. Other observing opportunities included a trip to Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) on South Baldy peak at an elevation of 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). MRO is the future site of a near 8-foot-wide (2.4m) reflecting telescope and an optical/infrared telescope array called an interferometer.

The lectures given were as varied as the backgrounds of the researchers and presenters. Debra Shepherd, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), gave a talk about her studies of molecular outflows and accretion disks around massive, young stellar objects. The topic captured the imaginations of many attendees, and Shepherd graciously answered a bevy of questions following her talk.

Daniel Klinglesmith, Magdalena Ridge Observatory’s Public Education and Outreach Coordinator, had the group construct a small-scale model of the universe and spoke about the observatory’s public education and outreach activities. Larry Crumpler of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science gave the keynote lecture. Crumpler gave a field report on the status of the Mars exploration rovers. The lecture showcased a plethora of images of the martian surface from the rovers’ perspective.

Solar system display
Daniel Klinglesmith demonstrates how to construct a small-scale model of the solar system at Etscorn Observatory.
Laura Layton
Tours and trips were also on the Enchanted Skies agenda. About 50 miles (80 km) west of Socorro lies the Very Large Array. The VLA consists of 27 radio antennae configured in a Y shape. Each 82-foot-wide (25 meters) dish received radio signals from space objects. Electronically combining the antennae’s signals yields a higher-resolution signal, giving the telescope array the resolving power of a single 22-mile-wide (36 km) antenna.

Popularized in the movie Contact, the VLA is more impressive in person than on-screen. Bill Spargo, who worked at the VLA facility for more than 30 years, led our group on an insider’s tour of the site, including the control room. Spargo also spoke about learning the constellations.

The star party’s last night included a chuck-wagon dinner and observing session at the Pound Ranch, a dark-sky site located a dozen miles west of Socorro. Replete with guitar and violin entertainment, a campfire, and good southwestern barbeque, the experience concluded what was one of the most interesting and informative star parties I’ve yet attended.