New Mexico has played a major role in the understanding and exploration of space. From ancient Native American observatories at Chaco Canyon to modern day facilities such as the Very Large Array astronomical radio observatory, New Mexico’s clear skies and high altitudes have provided an ideal location to study the skies. Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun’s experimental rocketry, NASA’s testing and space missions, and more recently Spaceport America, have all prospered in New Mexico’s open space and low population.
Rich with the thousand-year-old artifacts and architecture of the ancient Pueblo culture, this canyon is also home to a number of sites that are thought to be ancient observatories. At these sites, some as simple as a few circles carved on a rock face, shafts of sunlight align with human-made markers that were probably used to chart and celebrate cosmological patterns, in particular, the seasonal shifts of the sun.
We say “probably” because there’s no way to know exactly what the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon had in mind when they crafted the various sites that today we invest with astronomical significance. Still, the great number of possible sites constitutes a preponderance of evidence that, while circumstantial, is hard to ignore.
Pueblo Bonito is the largest and most fully excavated of the “great houses” at Chaco Canyon. Its D-shaped plan rose four to five stories high and enclosed almost seven hundred rooms and thirty-five kivas. Pueblo Bonito is bisected by a prominent wall that is precisely aligned with true north. As the sun traverses the sky each day, the shadow of this wall disappears at high noon.
The great Kiva Casa Rinconada is a circular structure, half-sunk into the earth on a hill.
Kivas are ceremonial places in Pueblo culture, as well as symbols of the cosmos. Aligned with the cardinal directions, the line connecting the north and south doors to Casa Rinconada is within one-third degree of true north. A compelling but contested alignment exists within Casa Rinconada. At sunrise on the summer solstice, a beam of light from a northeastern opening in the kiva precisely illuminates a niche in the far wall. The niche in question is one of many, however it is only one of several that are uniquely placed.
Many of the structures at Chaco Canyon are aligned with the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. A prominent example is the Great North Road, an ancient Chacoan road extending thirty-five miles north of Chaco Canyon. Speculations abound about the purpose of the thirty-foot-wide roadway. Some argue that the road was more ceremonial than functional, a reflection of Puebloan beliefs about the origins of their existence. Aspects of the road point to its symbolic (as opposed to functional) value. In some areas the road splits into four parallel segments. Meanwhile, it travels doggedly north without regard to the landscape, even scaling vertical cliffs.
New Mexico’s Space Triangle
If southern New Mexico has one thing in abundance, it’s wide, open spaces. But the plains and mesas of the Chihuahua Desert also hide a kind of space that extends beyond the horizon, the kind that inspires visionary rocket scientists, secret government research, conspiracy theories, and religious cult leaders. Roswell, Alamogordo, and Las Cruces all have earned a place in space history as centers for both cutting-edge technology and outer-space speculators.
Roswell’s connection with space began in 1930 when Robert Goddard moved to the city to conduct his liquid-fuel rocket experiments. By 1940 he had launched 56 rockets from a nearby ranch.
Goddard received patents for a liquid-fuel rocket and multi-stage, solid fuel rocket. He was to rocketry what the Wright brothers were to powered flight. NASA named the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland after the scientist who died in 1945, one month after the Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range, just 125 miles away.
Since the famous “Roswell UFO Incident,” the alleged recovery of extra-terrestrial debris, including alien corpses, from an object which crashed near Roswell in June or July 1947, this small farming town has been world headquarters for UFO believers and conspiracy theorists. About 260,000 curious visitors flock to the UFO Museum every year where the exhibits raise some unanswered questions that might indicate there was some kind of government cover up.
Alamogordo, 100 miles west of Roswell, adds to the area’s space legacy with the White Sands Missile Range. The large expanse of uninhabited land, level terrain, and predominantly clear skies met the Army’s requirement for year-round operation of a guided missile testing program, which was established as White Sands Proving Ground in 1945. Renamed White Sands Missile Range in 1958, today it supports NASA, Industry and Department of Defense projects. Holloman Air Force Base, adjacent to the missile range, has played a key role in space-related research also. It is home to the 46th Test Group, which operates the Air Force’s 9.5-mile high-speed test track to test missile components, guidance systems, aircraft escape systems, and human responses to acceleration and deceleration. Much of the equipment used in the Apollo moon mission was tested at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility, and its adjacent Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System ground terminal links scientists on earth with vehicles in space.
Las Cruces is the southern gateway for the Missile Range and NASA test facility. Long before a rocket blasts off with astronauts and payloads, NASA tests the launch systems at the missile range, so the road to outer space passes through Las Cruces. The town had been called “The Crossroads of History” since the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, which secured land from Mexico, was signed in Mesilla, now part of the city.
Spaceport America is located in a remote region of southern New Mexico.British billionaire Richard Branson’s vision is to have tourists paying around $200,000 to board “SpaceShip Two,” the six-seat reusable spacecraft developed by American engineer Burt Rutan. On March 22, 2010, VSS Enterprise, the world’s first commercial manned spaceship left Earth for the first time and performed a flawless maiden flight attached to the VMS Eve Mothership. The flight lasted just short of three hours and both vehicles climbed to an altitude of 45,000 feet.
Apache Point Observatory
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, undertaken at Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, NM, is one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy. Over the course of 10 years it carried out a survey of unprecedented depth over one quarter of the sky. Results from the telescope have benefitted almost every branch of astronomy, but of particular note was the discovery of many objects so distant that the light observed from them started its journey toward Earth when the Universe was only one tenth its present age.
Very Large Array (VLA)
The VLA is used primarily by astronomers from around the world. It is also occasionally used for atmospheric/weather studies, satellite tracking, and other miscellaneous science. The is an interferometer; this means that it operates by multiplying the data from each pair of telescopes together to form interference patterns. The structure of those interference patterns, and how they change with time as the earth rotates, reflect the structure of radio sources on the sky: they then can take these patterns and use a mathematical technique called the Fourier transform to make maps.
One of the world's premier astronomical radio observatories, the VLA consists of 27 radio antennas; each antenna is 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. Its Y-shaped configuration is located on the Plains of San Agustin west of Socorro.
Earth’s Space Caves
El Malpais, which spreads for miles around the city of Grants, NM is saturated with caves, called lava tubes, built from a few million to tens of thousands of years ago when hot magma shot through other rock and left empty pathways behind, reminiscent of the path an earthworm leaves when traveling through dirt. These caves are important to planetary scientists because there’s strong evidence that they also exist on the moon and on Mars, and studying them here can tell us a lot about the environments on other worlds.
The Spirit rover on Mars discovered what appears to be a collapsed lava tube. Larry Crumpler, a member of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Team and the space sciences research curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, and other scientists plan to move the rover toward a volcanic area that could have other tubes and caves.
In the 1960’s, Apollo astronauts used to train in New Mexico because areas of the state mimic the dry, rocky setting on the moon and Mars. One day in the not so far future, astronauts could very well train here again and use the caves to learn how to build lava tube habitats on other planets.
- New Mexico Museum of Space History
- New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science
- Chaco Canyon
- New Mexico Space Museum
- Very Large Array
- Las Cruces
- "Earth’s Space Caves"
Article by Sue Vorenberg – published by Santa Fe New Mexican on Sunday, September 28, 2008
- Observatories located in New Mexico