The sun may be setting on Sunspot…

Sunspot visitor center, with Chester ready to chase resident chipmunks and squirrels

My wife and our dog Chester traveled to Sunspot in the Sacramento Mountains this weekend, hoping to catch some turning aspen leaves. The drive was spectacular but the leaves were not quite ready to show their fall brilliance.

It was a good trip, but a bit sad as well.

Sunspot, which I mentioned in an earlier blog, was established in the late 1940s to observe the sun and in particular to spot massive solar flares which could disrupt communications worldwide. At one point, I was told it had the authority to shut down air transportation around the world if it detected a flare of such magnitude that could temporarily black out radio and navigational instruments. I have not been able to confirm that, but I suspect it did command a lot of authority.

I remember going to Sunspot with my family at the age of about 10 and learning about this high tech facility on our doorstep. We went on a day that was mostly cloudy, so when the sun broke through the clouds, we thought we might get a glimpse of the sun through one of the telescopes. The scientists operating the telescope, however, announced rather huffily that with the brief break in the clouds, he was “very busy” and didn’t have time to allow tourists to peek at the mysteries of the solar surface.

Sadly, only one of the four original solar telescopes is still being used, and much of the work there seems to be for minor research projects under the auspices of New Mexico State University. At its peak, there were almost 150 people stationed at the mountaintop research facility. Now, more powerful and sophisticated telescopes are doing the work, including a new one in Hawaii. Much of Sunspot now seems to be in a state of moderate disrepair.

It’s still worth a trip there to drive through the beautiful forest and view the vast Tularosa Basin from the crest of the Sacramentos. There is a very well done visitor center, with interactive displays and a nice gift shop.

The blog I wrote earlier about Sunspot concerned a mysterious shutdown of the facility, which turned out to be an investigation into unauthorized use of the site’s computers for searches for pornographic materials.  The story briefly stirred a series of conspiracy theories about how some aliens had been spotted by a telescope at the site. I’m sure it was a disappointing ending of the story for conspiracy theorists.

I’m attaching a link to a story which appeared recently in Wired magazine, which discusses both the porn incident and the future options for the facility. One of those options sadly includes complete dismantling of Sunspot and restoration of the area to natural habitat. Returning the site to natural habitat is okay, but I wish there could continue to be research done at this facility.


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