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Star Gazing in New Mexico

See the Stars at New Mexico's Astronomy Retreat

by Linda Aksomitis

The dark was absolute-not the dark of cities and small towns, not even the dark of back road trails and forest paths. It was the dark mysteries of millennia, punctuated by the eerie howl of a coyote and the strong smell of wild sage. I whispered to reassure myself I was not alone, as did the other dozen stargazers gathered to begin a journey through a time and place unfamiliar to us all.

Only 6,000 stars are visible to the naked eye, but even many of them blur into the far away reaches of space in the presence of the light pollution produced by urban and rural societies. However, where I was at Star Hill, in Sapello, New Mexico, each of them shone brilliantly against the black canvas overhead. Situated at 7200 feet elevation, Star Hill is one of the darkest night sky locations in the United States. My hosts, Phil and Rae Ann at the Star Hill Inn, had provided everything I needed to begin an adventure of the imagination.

Star Hill Inn premiered as the first astronomy retreat in the country in

24" Richey-Chretien Telescope
24" Richey-Chretien telescope & owner Phil. Courtesy of Star Hill.

June of 1988. Open four seasons of the year, the facility offers the rugged beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as a backdrop for luxurious cabins and top quality telescopes to explore the night skies. Ten telescopes are available including the 24-inch domed Richey-Chretien Cassegrain, formerly located atop Mount Evans in Colorado. Serious stargazers often bring their own equipment as well.

The lure of the stars has drawn mankind's eyes toward the heavens since the beginning of recorded history-and likely long before. The ancient Babylonians, in the 3rd millennium BC, invented the beginnings of geometry as they studied the sky. The circle, symbolic of the annual motion of the sun, is the basis for the 360 degrees (and days of a year) still used, with each degree being further subdivided into 60 seconds. In fact the symbol for the sun-a tiny circle-is still used as shorthand for a degree.

Before you step up to the telescope to get closer to the stars, you can get an idea of their locations by using degrees, with your hand as a basic tool for measurement. Your thumb equals about 2°, while your closed fist is about 10° and the distance from the thumb to little finger on a spread hand is about 25°. If you imagine the point straight over your head, or the zenith as astronomers call it, as 90° like a right angle, you can easily tell one another how to move across the sky to locate numerous star patterns using an almanac for specific locations.

I soon discovered humans have better night vision than we give ourselves credit for, as I became comfortable on the large deck that held the telescopes. While it may take up to 30 minutes, the human eye dilates, and chemical changes take place in the retina that allow us to see reasonably well in the dark. The more experienced star gazers around me used flashlights sold specifically for astronomy (for reading those star charts and notebooks) using red LEDs that don't produce the glare of light we've become used to in our daily lives, so our eyes stay adapted to the dark.

The best nights of viewing happen when the air is free of image-blurring turbulence and heat waves, so the Star Hill Inn location was ideal. I was pleased to find the night was moonless, another plus, since moonlight can wash out faint objects as effectively as streetlight. I was ready to step up to the telescope and get closer to the stars.

Stargazer Setting Up
Stargazer getting his telescope set up in the viewing area at Star Hill Inn. Photo by Linda Aksomitis.

One of the most fascinating aspects of gazing into space is the realization that what we see is much more than streetlights in the sky-we view the history of stars in glorious visual detail paralleling special effects technology. The Cygnus Loop (also called the Veil Nebula) was situated 2500 light years from where I stood on earth. However, through the telescope it appeared as a lacy bit of fabric, which was in reality the blastwave from a 15,000 year-old exploding supernova.

The most exciting moment of stargazing was yet to come.

Phil Mahon, my guide to the night sky at Star Hill, had saved the best for last. While my vision was certainly better than expected, it was still tough to negotiate the path to the Observadome. What waited inside was worth the struggle! Mounted in the middle of a rotating floor, the giant telescope promised to shrink the space between the heavens and earth.

As a storyteller I often told a North American legend, which included a man whose sleigh had runners that were the Milky Way, so I was hoping for a view that could take me into that magical realm. Our Earth is part of the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy of more than 400 billion stars, which stretch 100,000 light years from side to side-but to me, a tiny speck of life on terra, it was just a small bright segment of my night sky outside.

The whir of machinery, as well as the slight disorienting feeling that the walls were solid behind me, but I was moving, let me know when Phil started lining us up. In a few seconds we'd moved far enough and he utilized his charts to set the azimuth and altitude motions.

Messier Stars in the Milky Way
Photo from NASA of the Messier stars in the Milky Way.

I slid into position behind the telescope's eyepiece to view the starcluster Phil lined up for me in the Milky Way: Messier 22. Discovered by Abraham Ihle in 1665, but named by the astronomer Messier June 5, 1764, it lay between the head and bow in the constellation Sagittarius. Early astronomers described it as, "consisting of very minute and thickly condensed particles of light, with a group of small stars preceding by 3m, somewhat in a crucial form," but to me it was simply amazing.

I felt like Captain Janeway on the Starship Voyager, plotting my course across the galaxy.

My weekend on Star Hill also had time for recreation that could readily have been designed by the best holodeck experts for Voyager's 2371 launch. The cabin was superb, with more comforts than I'd expected in a mountain chalet. And the outdoor activities were right in line with my mood of exploration and discovery: the Mountain Meadow Labyrinth, the Meditation Garden, and the mountain hiking trails.

While I was certainly earth-bound, my adventure at Star Hill showed me it could be easy to touch the stars.


Star Hill Inn
Contact: Phil Mahon or Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon
Phone: (505) 425-5605
P.O. Box 707
Sapello, New Mexico 87745

Star image is from NASA: