instruments in the dunn telescope

Sunspot Solar Observatory

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History of the Sunspot Solar Observatory

The site was selected in 1947 after World War II as “Solar Weather” interfered with radio and radar communications during the war.  The premier solar observatory at the time was located near Climax, Colorado at 11,000 feet.  During winter months it could not be reached, and it was frequently cloudy.

As a result, scientist Jack Evans who worked at the High Altitude Observatory in Climax along with two others was tasked with finding a new site which would be funded by the newly formed United State Air Force.

The site, which overlooks the Tularosa Basin and White Sands Missile Range, is isolated from major air pollution and enjoys many sunny days in the dry, arid climate.  Consequently, it is an excellent place to observe solar flares.

Originally, there were no roads to the site and scientists took daily observations from telescopes outside that were covered with tarps at night.  The first building placed at the Sunspot Solar Observatory came from the Sears & Roebuck Catalog in 1952.

Grain Bin Dome

It was a modified grain bin!  A shutter fitted to the roof allowed the dome enclosure to open to the sun.  The grain bin was also mounted to a track so that it could be rotated toward the sun.  Aptly named the Grain Bin Dome, scientists took daily flare images from this structure from 1951 to 1963. 

grain bin dome at Sunspot Solar Observatory

Jack Evans Solar Facility

The first constructed building on site (not prefabricated) was the Jack Evans Solar Facility, previously called the Big Dome.  It was completed in 1952 and housed a coronagraph three times the size of the one in the Grain Bin Dome.  The coronagraph blocks the sun, creating a solar eclipse, in order to study the upper atmosphere of the sun.

Jack Evans Solar Facility at Sunspot Solar Observatory

The Sunspot Solar Observatory also features the other domes, a machine shop, lab, and the Dunn Solar Telescope which is currently the only telescope in use.

The Dunn Solar Telescope

The Dunn Solar Telescope is very unique as it is on a vertical axis and hangs like a pendulum.  It extends 136-feet above ground and is protected by a concrete tower.  It continues 228 feet underground. The freely rotating platform weighs 350 tons and is supported by 120-gallon liquid mercury ball. The mirror at its base is 5 feet wide.  It has the power to spot a quarter 17 miles away in Cloudcroft.

The US Airforce completed the construction of the telescope in 1969 and operated it for the next 8 years before transferring it to the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in 1976.  The NSO took daily observations of the sun until 2017. Now the University of New Mexico operates the facility, and the observation research varies from the night sky, to the sun, to planets.

dunn solar telescope at Sunspot Solar Observatory

Tour of Sunspot Solar Observatory

When I arrived for my 10am private tour, scientists were observing Mercury.  Thus, inside the building was pitch black as the multiple camera mounts took hundreds of pictures every minute.  The good news was I got to watch them observe.

The bad news was, I couldn’t see any of the instruments in the dark.  Apparently, Mercury is difficult to observe, and October is the best time to see it since it is closer to the sun.  That said, they lost the tracking of it, so they turned on all the lights, and I got to see all the instruments!

The tour guide said, at least for Mercury, that they observe in the morning and wrap everything up in the afternoon, so schedule your tour for what you want to see accordingly.

For me, I thought I was going to look through the telescope.  I also thought I’d see colorful monitors.  Instead, they were black and white, and clearly, I wasn’t looking through a 350-foot telescope that went underground!  Shows how much I know.  Apparently, the colorful photos only come from NASA outside the earth’s atmosphere.  While it wasn’t what I expected, it was still interesting.

After visiting the Dunn Solar Telescope, I looped past the other buildings and returned to the visitor center which also houses a small museum. I would recommend arriving early enough to wander through the museum for 15 minutes prior to going on the free 20-minute tour.  The only fee to visit the Sunspot Solar Observatory is a $5 parking fee.

Sunspot visitor center

While driving to the Sunspot Solar Observatory, I saw signs posted along the way naming different planets.  I didn’t understand it at first, but the sign outside the visitor center explained that they represent the solar system shrunk down between Cloudcroft and Sunspot Solar Observatory.  The visitor center represents the sun and Pluto is in Cloudcroft.  The rest of the signs were spaced as the planets appear in the solar system.  It was kind of fun.  Going the speed limit, I was traveling 4 times the speed of light!

sunspot solar system model

Overall, the Sunspot Solar Observatory was an interesting place to visit, and I left with a few fun facts:

  • The sun’s diameter is 864,950 miles, 109 times larger than earth. 
  • And the earth’s mass is only 3 millionths of the mass of the sun. 

Remarkable! ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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