Las Vegas, N.M. – Celestial wonders like Saturn’s rings and craters on the Earth’s moon are visible through the telescope in the Highlands University observatory.
These and other night sky celestial objects not visible to the naked eye can be seen during free open observatory nights at Highlands on clear Friday evenings this winter from 6:30 – 9:30 p.m.
“We want to instill enthusiasm and knowledge in the community about science, and we’re using astronomy as the vehicle to expand scientific curiosity,” said Joe McCaffrey, a retired physicist who teaches the survey of astronomy class at Highlands. “People have a love for the stars that dates back thousands of years. We build on this love during the open observatory viewing sessions, which are lots of fun.”
Highlands has the only observatory in Northeastern New Mexico. It sits on the top of the Ivan Hilton Science Building at the northeast corner of National Avenue and 11th Street. McCaffrey leads open observatory nights.
The 16-inch computerized guided telescope housed in a rotating open dome shows views of planets, galaxies, star clusters, Earth’s moon and nebulas – colorful gaseous dust particles that swirl around stars.
While the Orion’s Belt asterism of the Orion constellation is a familiar sight in the night sky, the blue and pink nebula of Orion’s sword can only be seen through a telescope like the one at Highlands.
“The telescope is a rugged teaching tool for our Highlands astronomy students, and we’re also giving the public an opportunity to experience astronomy firsthand. I’m delighted that people of all ages are coming to enjoy our open observatory night, ranging from a 3-year-old to those in their eighties,” McCaffrey said.
He added that the children are very enthusiastic about what they see through the telescope.
“The children get to experience with their own eyes the same kind of astronomy images they might see on the Discovery Channel. They are so excited and joyful to see objects like the moons of Jupiter for the first time,” McCaffrey said.
He said one of the most popular aspects of open observatory nights is the ability to capture images for personal use.
“We help people interface their cell phones, as well as Canon and Nikon SLR cameras, with the telescope to take photographs,” McCaffrey said.
Ryan Rudolph, who will earn his BFA from Highlands in May, has been McCaffrey’s teaching assistant for four years for the survey of astronomy class.
“My fascination with astronomy dates back to my earliest days, and I incorporate what I’ve learned into my metal fabrication artwork and astrophotography,” Rudolph, 23, said. “In the observatory you get a taste of both modern astronomy and mythological stories about the stars.”
The number of people who come to open observatory night ranges from about 12 to the record-setting 200 who came Sept. 27, 2015, to see the blood moon lunar eclipse. According to astrophysicists’ computer-modelling predictions, the next blood moon won’t occur again until 2032.
“A blood moon lunar eclipse occurs when both our sunrise and sunset are cast onto the surface of the moon simultaneously, turning it red,” Rudolph said. “The moon is mesmerizing in its beauty and appeal to people. With the telescope you can see so many more features of the moon, especially during its crescent and half-moon phases when the craters are most visible.”
McCaffrey said Rudolph is a very knowledgeable and valued teaching assistant.
Access to the Highlands observatory Friday evenings is from Ivan Hilton’s west wing on 11th Street via the stairs and elevator, using the PH button. In the spring and summertime, the viewing hours will occur later in the day after dusk.