ANIMAS – The moon sets behind the Chiricahua Mountains, blackening the desert night.
It’s the kind of dark sky that is precious hard to find in the modern world, where city lights illuminate far beyond their urban limits and make it hard to see the stars. It’s a darkness that lures astrophotographers.
There is a collection of about 20 sheds just off Highway 9 in the Bootheel, among the cattle ranches and rocky mountain ranges. They don’t look like much.
But inside are high-powered telescopes, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, capable of taking pictures of the universe: moons, stars, comets and planets in galaxies far, far away.
This sort of astronomy ranch with remote observatories captures a growing market made possible by the digital age and astronomy equipment that has become commercially available, at least to affluent enthusiasts who can afford it.
At home in Ann Arbor, Mich., Stanley Watson remotely controls one of the sheds of Dark Sky New Mexico from his computer.
The University of Michigan professor of molecular and behavioral neuroscience – and amateur astrophotographer – presses a button and the weathertight roof of his shed in Animas begins to roll back on wheels, exposing three large telescopes to the sky. One begins to tilt up on its mount as Watson, 73, directs it to find the North Star.
“Animas is not so high that you are very cold or have fierce weather,” he said by phone. “The air has a nice, smooth flow and the stars don’t twinkle too much,” making for a crisp image.
A photographic art
Astrophotography is the art and science of taking photographs of the universe. The best locations for it boast true darkness, calm weather and some altitude.
The best astrophotographers know a lot about astronomy, sensitive telescopic equipment and the highly technical process of taking exposures over time that will be stacked and melded to create a single photograph.
And they tend to have patience.
“I’ve had pictures take over a year to acquire because I got half of the data I needed and then the Earth moved and I had to wait until the Earth swung back around,” said Bernard Miller, a Phoenix-based computer science engineer who keeps a telescope at Dark Sky New Mexico. “Usually it takes anywhere from a week to a month or two, just depending on the weather.”
“It’s incredible when you see what’s out there,” he said. “It never ceases to amaze me.”
The director of strategic initiatives at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Michael Hensley, and two Boston-based investors recently took over Dark Sky New Mexico from the previous owners, who began setting up the site several years ago.
About a dozen astrophotographers keep their telescopes on site for a monthly lease fee of $200 per “pier,” the concrete pads or block towers on which each telescope is mounted. Dark Sky owns the infrastructure; the astrophotographers own their telescopes and on-site computer equipment – the usual business model for remote observatories at astronomy ranches.
The astrophotographers themselves rarely visit, Hensley said, except for once or twice a year to calibrate their telescopes; occasionally one will handle the telescope maintenance for the others. Hensley and an on-site manager handle the building maintenance.
The ‘seeing’ is good in NM
It’s not clear how many commercial remote observatories exist in the U.S. or Southwest, although there are at least two others in New Mexico that advertise online: New Mexico Skies near Cloudcroft and Deep Sky West in Rowe.
Astrophotographers who locate their telescopes remotely fall somewhere on the spectrum between backyard hobbyists and professional astronomers whose observatories are located in the very best spots on Earth for sky viewing.
But the “seeing,” as astrophotographers say, is very good around New Mexico and attracts astrophotographers from all over the country and the world.
Astrophotographers from Korea have two telescopes at Dark Sky; others from England, Sweden, Qatar and Hong Kong keep telescopes at New Mexico Skies, a higher-end site in Mayhill near Cloudcroft.
Dennis diCicco, a Boston-based astrophotographer and former senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, shares three telescopes in Mayhill with friends. New Mexico Skies provides extensive on-site machine and software support services, and pricing starts at $1,200 per month, said owner Lynn Rice.
The telescopes mounted at Dark Sky New Mexico and New Mexico Skies can run anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000 apiece – well beyond the reach of many wallets.
Security has not been an issue, Hensley said. Remote as the spot is, the area is frequently patrolled by Border Patrol; the observatories are locked; and the telescopes themselves are mounted to concrete and not easy to move.
DiCicco, a lifelong enthusiast who still builds his own telescopes, said it’s possible to be an enthusiast even without deep pockets. Like diCicco, some amateur astrophotographers share telescopes cooperatively to ease costs. Then, there is always the joy of viewing the stars directly.
“You can still enjoy astronomy on the cheap,” he said. “Today you can have a very good telescope for a very modest price, and if you just want to put it in the car and drive out to a dark spot, you can have a ball.”
In New Mexico, the deepest dark sky is never far away.