Cloudcroft is at elevation 8668 feet in the Sacramento Mountains, 14 miles east of Alamogordo (elevation 4334 feet). East of
Cloudcroft, the mountain descends gently all the way to Texas, without any abrupt ridge like the one between Cloudcroft and Alamogordo. Because of the
elevation difference, when it is 94 degrees in Alamogordo, it is a cool 70 degrees in Cloudcroft. The village is inside the National Lincoln Forest.|
17 miles to the east, the elevation is down to 7300 feet. The wind is predominantly coming from the west and south west. When it gets to the top of the
ridge in Cloudcroft, the wind can be turbulent and the temperature difference can create some haze or clouds. By the time it gets to that location 17
miles east, the flow of the wind has changed to laminar and the clouds have disappeared.
That is where Mike and Lynn Rice decided to put their private amateur observatory, New Mexico Skies. They had searched the best place for 5 years and
went from Alaska to New Mexico, North Carolina to California to find it.
The observatory is a heaven for amateur astronomers. The weather is absolutely beautiful, 10% humidity, 300 clear nights a year, not much wind. There
are absolutely no lights around so the horizon is absolutely dark. Being at 7300 feet elevation, most of the atmosphere is cut off, the transparency
is very good as the dust and pollens donít go up that high.
With all those positive natural factors, the sky is very dark and very transparent most of the time. How dark? Well, the visual limiting magnitude is
7.7, which means that very faint stars can be seen with the naked eye. In summer, the Milky Way is very bright and runs across the sky. It is so bright
that it can actually cast a shadow of objects on the ground. Some objects in the sky can be seen with the naked eye that would not be seen elsewhere.
The typical limiting magnitude on the Blue Ridge Parkway is 6, in suburban Charlotte is around 4.5.
US 82 runs east from Cloudcroft towards Texas at the bottom of James Canyon. A gravel road branches off and climbs 400 feet on the top of the ridge to
the observatory. The highway is not visible from the ridge as many trees block the view. The gravel road ends up at the office, a big wooden cabin, and
another smaller gravel path leads to the telescopes. Around and hidden in the forest are a handful of cabins for visitors.
The cabins are very comfortable and correctly spacious. The wood keeps the coolness from the night during the early day and keeps the warmth of the day
during the early night. The cabins are equipped with all the necessary amenities: private bath, living room, fully equipped kitchen (fridge, freezer,
microwave, silverware, plates), satellite TV, air conditioning, wireless internet. The observatory is run like a special hotel where the guests are
taking care of their own meals. Every astronomer has different eating habits and daytime sleeping habits, the cabins are there to fulfill those special
needs at a custom time of the day.
The cabins are very close to the telescopes so that the astronomers can be in bed just a few minutes after ending their observations. Nobody or nothing
is disturbing the quietness of the place, the only animals passing by once in a while are a herd of deer, some rabbits and wild turkeys.
The gravel road to the observatories splits the viewing area in two. On the north side are the telescopes that the guests can rent or the pads where
they can set up their own equipment.
On the south side are the internet telescopes. There are 2 internet buildings and 9 domes. The internet buildings are as big as a garage for a big car,
but not much higher than a man. The roof rolls off at night to the side to let the telescopes gather the light. There are around 10 telescopes in each
building. The domes are half spheres with a small portion that opens at night. Inside is a single telescope. The people who are controlling all those
telescopes are doing it over the internet from their homes.
The internet telescopes are a big part of New Mexico Skies business. The owners are providing the support and the maintenance for the set up. They had
to hire 3 people for the maintenance jobs. In order to be remote controlled, the telescope is hooked to a computer that is doing all the tasks required:
polar aligning, opening and turning the dome, pointing the telescope to the target, acquiring and tracking a guide star, taking the pictures,
communicating with the operator at home. The set up requires a working computer, a working internet connection, working wire connections.
Anything can go wrong at anytime so it is necessary to have somebody on site all the time. For example, the wires are plugged in the mount with regular
telephone connections (donít ask me why). Because those connections are by design relatively loose, in that environment, they get oxidized rather
frequently and require cleaning.
The astronomer has to provide the telescope, the mount, the camera, the filters, the wires and the computer equipment. New Mexico Skies will then lease
the physical space and provide the maintenance, the internet support and some software programs. The rent is not cheap: to have oneís telescope inside
one of the internet buildings, one has to pay $1000/month. To have oneís telescope inside one of the individual domes, one has to pay $2000/month.
At that price, it is better to have good equipment. Itís usually the case, the average price of a telescope/mount/camera system currently in place goes
from $25000 to $80000. Thereís no space left, all domes are full as well as the 2 internet buildings.
The other solution is then to spend a few nights at the place, rent a telescope, or, like me, bring your own equipment.
They have some very nice and big telescopes to rent by the hour, comfortably placed inside domes shielding them from the occasional wind. The telescopes
can be used for astrophotography, or for some people just for visual work. At the end of the space there are two concrete pads with electrical outlets
for people to set up their own equipment.
On their website, they have a page giving all the useful weather information: temperature (current, min, max), precipitation, wind, pressure, graphs
giving the evolution of temperature, clouds (a cloud sensor is able to detect if the sky is clear, cloudy, overcast or wet), winds, seeing (astronomical
term) humidity and daylight over the last 24 hours. There is also the forecast (clouds, transparency, seeing), infrared satellite image, real-time
The minimum stay is 2 nights, but itís really too short to enjoy anything. Everything happens at night and the guest has to switch from a daytime life
to a night time one. The other things to consider are the Moon and the time of the year. The light from the Moon is too bright to see anything, so the
observatory is closed around full Moon. A typical week sees 5 good nights out of 7, but July and August get the most rain of the year. Some months can
have more wind than others. Of course, winter can be particularly cold, especially at that elevation. In summer, the temperature can go down to around
45 degrees, but itís usually warmer.
Thereís no need to know anything about astronomy or astrophotography to spend a few nights at New Mexico Skies and enjoy the sky. Itís possible for anyone
to take good pictures as support and help comes with the rent of the telescopes. It makes a really wonderful experience, out of the ordinary. The sky is
so dark and the objects so easy to find and see that a night spent outside feels like a night floating around with the stars, traveling effortlessly from
a nebula inside the Milky Way to a very distant galaxy.