Home > Science, Travel > A Visit to APO

A Visit to APO

Apache Point Observatory's 3.5-meter telescope

Apache Point Observatory’s 3.5-meter telescope

[All photos by me on my iPhone, alas. Not the greatest detail (but click on the photos for more).]

Two weeks ago tonight I was packing for a short trip to New Mexico to join in the celebration of Apache Point Observatory‘s twentieth anniversary, as well as the overlapping thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the university consortium (the Astrophysical Research Consortium) that runs the observatory. I departed the next morning, spending most of the day getting there.

It turns out to take a while to get to telescopes, even relatively nearby ones. No surprise, once one thinks about it, given the benefits of remote siting. But it wouldn’t have been such a long trip if there were non-stop flights from Seattle to El Paso. Instead, I flew to Phoenix, changed planes, then on to El Paso, then drove 90 or so miles north through the Tularosa Basin, from Texas into southern New Mexico, until I reached Alamogordo, then 16 winding miles east into the Sacramento Mountains to the tiny historic resort town of Cloudcroft, about 8700 feet up.

There’s an alternative: fly non-stop into Albuquerque on a Southwest flight that leaves Seattle at 6:30 am, then drive 225 miles south and east to Alamogordo before climbing to Cloudcroft. The main problem with this route is staying awake during the drive, after getting up 3:30 am to get to the airport. Gail and I took this approach in April 2008. I was fading before the town of Tularosa, a few miles north of Alamogordo. On the other hand, this route brings you through San Antonio, New Mexico, home of Owl Bar and Cafe and its green chile cheeseburgers, about which Michael Stern wrote,

the unique New Mexico hamburger is what has put this out-of-the-way watering hole on the good eats map. Since at least the early days of atomic bomb tests at nearby White Sands, when scientists used to come here for an explosive meal, The Owl Bar has built such an exalted a reputation that aficionados drive from Texas and Colorado to eat ’em two by two. It is so popular at lunch in the summertime, you may have to wait for a place to sit.

Crusty, gnarled patties of beef are covered with chopped hot green chilies and the chilies are in turn topped with a slice of cheese that melts into them and the crevices of the hamburger. The green chile itself is a flavor revelation; in concert with beef, it’s magic. Customary condiments include raw onion, chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, and pickle chips. This is one glorious package, and while we have never compared it side-by-side to the excellent green chile cheeseburger up at Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, there can be no doubt that the Owl Bar’s version is among the state’s best. Green chile cheese fries are also available on the side.

Nearby is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which Gail and I didn’t have time for in our 2008 trip. Some day. It’s supposed to be extraordinary. But not this time. This time, I went alone, flew into El Paso, and came from the south.

The place to stay in Cloudcroft is The Lodge. On our 2008 visit, the sudden change in elevation left me breathless as I carried our bags up the stairs to our third floor room. This time I was on the third floor again, just down the hall from our 2008 room, but the climb up wasn’t such a struggle.

After a quick dinner at Rebecca’s, the Lodge’s restaurant, I got back in the car for the 16-mile drive to the observatory. A mile out of town, one turns onto State Road 6563, that number being something of an inside joke. If you’ve studied physics, you may know that one of the wavelengths of light emitted by a hydrogen atom is 6563 ångstroms. Hence the road number.

The road ends at Sunspot, New Mexico, home of the National Solar Observatory‘s Sacramento Peak site and the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope. Apache Point Observatory was built nearby.

The road takes you up to about 9200 feet. It’s slow going, with lots of curves, but that’s the least of it, as one must be on the lookout for deer and elk, which hang out along the side. I got to APO for the opening festivities: dessert, non-alcoholic beverages (telescope sites can be dangerous; drinking in the dark and wandering into a telescope isn’t a good idea) and, once it got dark, viewing through the 3.5-meter telescope’s eyepiece.

It’s a rare rare day when an eyepiece is attached to a working research telescope. The light gathered by a telescope is normally directed into instruments that can capture the light and convert it into useful data, such as spectrographs. (See here for a list of the instruments available for this particular telescope.) Thus, this was a special treat, befitting a celebration.

I signed up for the first viewing. This would allow me to turn in early. But it also meant I wouldn’t view in full darkness. For our session, the telescope started with Mars, then was turned to Jupiter, then the moon. And since it was still early in the evening, the telescope mirrors were still adjusting to the outdoor temperatures, so the images were a bit blurry. Still, they were dramatic. Two of Jupiter’s moons were in the field of vision. The moon details were spectacular. Mind you, through a telescope of that size, the moon is pretty darn bright. One had to avoid looking directly into the center of the eyepiece.

Looking down into the 3.5-meter mirror, which you don't realize you're looking at because, you know, it's a mirror, an extremely well polished one at that.

Looking down into the 3.5-meter mirror, which you don’t realize you’re looking at because, you know, it’s a mirror, an extremely well polished one at that.

I headed back to the Lodge shortly after coming down from the telescope. The next morning, after a green chile and egg breakfast at Rebecca’s, I drove back for a day of talks at the National Solar Observatory’s visitor center. The morning talks featured history, the afternoon’s astronomy, with a two-hour break for lunch, walks, and conversation. I’ve been involved with the observatory for eleven years, but much of the early history was news to me. The lunch break allowed me to revisit the solar telescopes. Then it was back to the Lodge, for rest, a reception, and the festive dinner. The next day, I retraced my route–down to Alamogordo, into El Paso (with some time to kill driving around downtown, along the Rio Grande, and fighting through some closed roads and detours to get to the airport), then flights to Phoenix and Seattle.

I wouldn’t have minded a little extra time. In 2005, on my first trip to APO, I took a later flight out of El Paso. That gave me enough time to head west into the heart of the Tularosa Basin from Alamogordo for a stop at White Sands National Monument before driving to El Paso, and enough time in El Paso to park at a McDonald’s a few blocks north of the border and go through a small outdoor market next door to the McDonald’s. Some day we’ll go down for a more leisurely visit.

I’ll close with more photos.

In the one below, you see the “secondary” mirror of the 3.5-meter telescope. Light is collected by the huge 3.5-meter mirror at the bottom, reflected back up to the smaller secondary mirror at the top, then focused more narrowly and sent to the tertiary mirror below, which diverts the light into one of the attached instruments.

Secondary mirror

Secondary mirror

In the next photo, we look out through the opening of the building housing the 3.5-meter telescope, with other telescopes in view down the hill. The unusual-looking telescope to the right, partially obscured by a tree, is our famous 2.5-meter Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope.

The view from the 3.5-meter

The view from the 3.5-meter

Next is a view from a lookout point on Sacramento Peak, just to the side of the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope. It was a little too hazy, so you can’t get that good a look at the Tularosa Basin and white sands below.

Tularosa Basin from Sacramento Peak

Tularosa Basin from Sacramento Peak

Finally, here is the Dunn solar telescope. Most of it is below ground. Solar telescopes are a whole different beast from ordinary optical telescopes.

Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at the National Solar Observatory

Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at the National Solar Observatory

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