Greetings from Palmia Observatory
Well are bags were packed and we hoped on the plane to El Paso, TX to begin our road trip in search of the billionaire rocketeers launch sites.
We elected to use El Paso as sort of a home base from which the two launch sites are each within a 4-hour round trip drive. The flights into El Paso were very full and a huge increase in rates of COVID resulted in an increase call for mask use indoors, and driving in the city was confusing for us newbies, but in general everything went ok.
Richard Branson launched out of the Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, NM and Jeff Bezos launched out of a facility near Van Horn, TX. You can check the rest of that story in the July 31, 2021 blog post which can be found on the website or directly here: http://www.palmiaobservatory.com/2021/07/commercial-tourists-venture-into-space.html
On previous trips to New Mexico, I had visited White Sands Missile Range and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in Apache Point, NM, and of course the VLA near Socorro, NM. Other points of interest still on the calendar include places like Roswell, NM and Carlsbad Caverns, but for now we were after two rocket launch test facilities.
|Rocket test facilities near Truth or Consequences, NM, and Van Horn, TX (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
One of the places we hoped to visit while in El Paso was the museum at Fort Bliss, the home of the 1st Armored Division. But our hopes there were frustrated in that public tours of the museum had been cancelled due we assume COVID spiking and possible arrival of refugees from Afghanistan. This is were we encountered one of many guard gates that restricted our travel plans. In fact on our first attempt to visit the museum we thought we were in the right line to get a pass to enter the army base, but then discovered we were in a line where we were already supposed to have a pass. Well, the military policemen just halted traffic and escorted us back off the base. It was only later that we found out that no tours were available anyway.
So, we drive out of El Paso on the way to Spaceport America and our first stop is the visitor center in Truth or Consequences, NM.
|Resident Astronomers at Spaceport Visitor Center in Truth of Consequences (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
|Always enjoy playing with the gyroscope demonstrators (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
So, after talking to the visitor center volunteers we learned that there were no tours of the Spaceport, because it is an active test site for many research groups, not just Virgin Galactic. Sometimes a public tour can be arranged on the weekend, but none were available when we were there. So, it is off to lunch before we continue on our journey from Truth or Consequences down to the Spaceport. which is about a 40 minute drive away. But first, we have to stop for lunch and sample one of the famous pastries that New Mexico is known for: the Sopaipilla. Here Resident Astronomer Peggy, with honey dispenser in hand, displays one of the largest sopaipillas we had ever seen. Yum, it and everything else was delicious!
|Lunch in Truth or Consequences includes margaritas and sopaipillas (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
We were initially encouraged when we got to the Spaceport because there was a sign on the road directly us how to get there.
|Arriving at the Spaceport America entrance (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
We even saw one of the early prototypes of the Virgin Galactic space plane off the side of the road. In the background, you can see the main research building with its very futuristic design.
|Virgin Galactic space plane on display on the road to Spaceport (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
But as we made a turn on the road we are faced with the guard gate at the Spaceport entry. So, we are not going to see any more of the facility than this. There was no parking spaces available and if you want to plan to visit the area for any future tests you will probably have to just park off the road.
|The guard gate at Spaceport America (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
So, no visiting the facilities there, so we are off to the next portion of our journey and that is to head south from El Paso to Van Horn, TX, from which we have about another 40 minute drive up highway 54 to the Blue Origin Launch Facility. Van Horn is another one of those small Texas towns, with about 2000 residents, much like Boca Chica, but larger, who experience a lot of growth and uncertainty about what the future will bring when the rocket billionaires come to town. On our drive through town, we saw one restaurant with a Blue Origin Feather on its windows. This symbol is used by Blue Origin as a symbol to represent the perfection of flight. We would have liked to have lunch there, to sample the food and get an idea of what the locals thought about all of the rocket activity, but it didn't look like it was open.
The clouds along the way in west Texas were very beautiful and we did not get any rain but there were many dips in the road that had been flooded recently.
|Driving on highway 54 from Van Horn to Blue Origin Launch site (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
But again, here we didn't see much of a sign indicating where we were, although the GPS said we had arrived at our destination, and we could could see some facilities off in the distance, but again here we are faced with another guard gate.
|Guard gate at the Blue Origin Launch Facility (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
So, this is kind of what we expected, but it was neat to see the area and how remote and isolated each of the test locations are.
When we arrived back in Van Horn for lunch, Resident Astronomer Peggy noticed a sign saying something about the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center. Wow, now this could be a piece of good luck because the McDonald Observatory has some big telescopes, including four large ones with apertures of 0.8, 2.1, 2.7 and 10 meters. The observatory is located at approximately 6,800 feet elevation, which I guess for Texas is pretty high.
So, we had not planned on seeing this observatory, but since it was only a little over an hour drive away we elected to go for it. Visitor passes must be pre-arranged and this can be done on line, so we booked one of the last entries to the visitor center that day.
|The McDonald Observatory is located outside Van Horn, TX (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
So, it was an easy drive with only a couple of sections where the speed limit dipped to 30-40 mph. The traffic was very light and during the final stretch of highway we got pretty good view of the the two mountains that make up the observatory location.
|Driving to McDonald Observatory, Mt. Fowlkes (left) and Mt. Locke (right) Source: Palmia Observatory)|
The visitor center website says you need pre-arranged tickets and it is easy to purchase them online. The only complication we had was that the observatory is located in a different time zone (Central Time) from Van Horn (Mountain Time) so we had to do some time calculations to adjust when to leave and what time to buy tickets for the visitor center. Sadly, no tours were being offered for the observatories.
|The visitor center at McDonald Observatory (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
We learned that the observatory was founded by William J. McDonald, back in 1926. McDonald was a lifelong bachelor and (therefor?) wealthy, and he had a very dedicated interest in astronomy and when he died he willed his entire estate to build the observatory on some gifted land. The observatory opened in 1933.
The observatory also is doing some work using this radio dish antenna as part of a geodesic survey to generate a much more accurate coordinate system of maps showing all the deviations of the Earth from a perfect sphere.
It is kind of hard to say, for an astronomer wannabe, that we really enjoyed the beautiful clouds, but it is true. One of the visitor center docents said that yes the clouds do come at this time of year but the areas really offers a lot of cloudless nights for great observing. They even offer telescope viewing nights and star parties for the public.
|Resident Astronomer Peggy and radio antenna and beautiful clouds (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
We also learned that the observatory offers many virtual YouTube tours and events. For instance we viewed on virtual tour that showed viewers around inside the domes. You can check out one of the 2019 tours at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihd3V0XkNFo
|One of the observatory domes (Source: McDonald Observatory)|
Finally, on our last night in El Paso, there were plenty of opportunities to sample more local cuisine and of course various flavors of margaritas. So, we weren't able to tour the rocket launch facilities and only saw the visitor center at the McDonald Observatory, we had a great time on this little fly and drive adventure.
|What road trip can be better than rockets, observatories and margaritas? (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
Until next time,