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Photo by Tira Howard.
By Kelsey Sinclair
Winter creates ideal conditions for stargazing in New Mexico. Here’s when — and where — to experience the highlights of the cosmos.
Our connection with the stars above is as old as humankind itself. Thousands of years ago, our distant ancestors marveled at nearly the same night sky as rural New Mexicans do today. Catching a glimpse of eternity while camping in the isolated desert might be the perfect family escape from the stresses of our modern COVID-19 lives. If you think your summer camping trip under the stars was mind-blowing, wait until you see what the winter has to offer! Winter is the ideal season for stargazers, as the stars appear brighter and sharper than they do in other seasons.
New Mexico is among the best places on Earth for stargazing. This is due to our low population density, clean air and isolated deserts untouched by light pollution. Santa Fe is especially dedicated to protecting our connection with the stars through the Dark Skies program of the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. This project educates the community on the importance of seeing the stars in our night sky and the steps we can take to protect New Mexico’s skies against the tremendous threat of light pollution. In fact, according to the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, just one unshielded streetlamp can affect the star visibility of a person up to 125 miles away!
Our state houses several gold-tier and silver-tier certified Dark Sky Parks. In these parks, there is no artificial light for many miles around, allowing visitors to see the stars as they would have looked to our ancestors hundreds of years ago before wide-spread light pollution. As much of the world remains on COVID-19 shutdown, now is the best time to experience the stars in their primitive beauty, as it is a socially distanced activity for families to safely enjoy together.
The chilly winter season often creates the best conditions for stargazing, as the decreased moisture in the atmosphere means that the stars seem brighter.
“In the winter, the atmosphere holds less moisture than in the summer,” said Heidi Morris, president of the Pajarito Astronomers Club in Los Alamos. “This means the starlight can travel from the star to your eye with less scattering or absorption, and the stars will appear relatively brighter in the winter. If the stars aren’t twinkling much, you can also expect to see a crisp image for any object you want to view. Density fluctuations, or turbulence, in the atmosphere from storms and cold or warm fronts causes starlight to refract, or change the direction it is travelling in, which results in twinkling stars and poor ‘seeing.’ So, on a cold still night in the winter you can expect to see a bright and crisp starry sky.”
Not only is the visibility better during this time of year, but there are plenty of events coming up with great cosmic importance. After just a short drive outside of Santa Fe, you and your family can have a front row seat to the astronomical oddities!
The star views immediately outside Santa Fe, while not perfect, are still awe-inspiring in their own right. Santa Fe stargazers often visit the Galisteo Basin Preserve, Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, and Fort Union National Monument.
If you’re willing to drive a little further to one of New Mexico’s remote Dark Sky Parks, there would be zero light pollution. Some of New Mexico’s Dark Sky Parks are Clayton Lake State Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary, and Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The Capulin Volcano National Monument is a gold-tier park with some of the best views in the state. From the base of the ancient volcano, visitors can look up to the night sky and gaze upon a seemingly endless sea of stars. While not a Dark Sky Park, El Malpais National Monument has wondrous skies at night and exciting lava tube caving during the day.
Whether you’re in your backyard or a hundred miles deep into the remote desert, viewing one of these amazing celestial phenomena is an experience you and your children will forever cherish