Frequently Asked Questions
WHAT IS THE ALTITUDE OF THE SITE?
9,800 feet/2,800 meters above sea level. At this altitude, air pressure is only 72% of what it is at sea level, and the effective oxygen concentration (how much oxygen you can get in a breath) is also only about 70% of what it is at sea level. Water will boil at 195º F/ 90.6º C. It is most certainly a noticeable difference.
HOW MUCH SNOW DOES THE SITE GET IN THE WINTER?
On average, about 72 inches/1.8 meters of snow over the course of a full winter. However, the last two years have been uncharacteristically dry, with very little snowfall. This dearth of snow has affected much of the Western and Southwestern United States.
WHEN WAS THE SITE ESTABLISHED?
1947. The site on Sacramento Peak began as a joint venture between Harvard University through the High Altitude Observatory in Climax, Colorado, and the United States Air Force. The Air Force was interested in having a station observing the Sun while they were launching rockets from White Sands Missile Proving Grounds, and monitoring the upper atmospheric conditions. The site was funded by the Air Force until 1976, when operations were turned over to the National Science Foundation. While the NSO is still in charge of site operations, as of October 2017, the Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium has taken over running the Dunn Solar Telescope and Sunspot Astronomy & Visitors Center, including science data acquisition at the DST.
IS THERE A BATHROOM ON SITE?
The only publicly-available bathrooms on site are located in the Visitors Center, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily.
CAN I TAKE PICTURES?
You are free and encouraged to take pictures anywhere on site. They ask that, when the Dunn Solar Telescope is operational, you refrain from flash photography in the observing room.
WHY CAN’T I TAKE A FLASH PHOTOGRAPH IN THE OBSERVING ROOM?
The cameras used to study the Sun operate on the same basic principles as the camera in your phone, but the observatory’s are far more sensitive. A camera flash has the potential to ruin the current set of observations – worse, it may not be obvious they’re ruined until much later when quite a lot of time has been wasted. Please be considerate.
SCENIC OVERLOOK? WHAT’S THAT?
There is an amazing view of the Tularosa Basin from the site of the Observatory.
CAN I GO INSIDE THE BUILDINGS?
Currently, only the Visitors Center and the Dunn Solar Telescope are open to the public. The Visitors Center is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.. The Dunn operates on a slightly different schedule that usually lines up with Visitors Center hours. Ask the attendant in the Visitors Center. When in the Dunn Solar Telescope Observing Room, it is asked that you remain behind the rope for your safety.
CAN I GO TO THE TOP OF THE TOWER?
This is not allowed, for a variety of reasons, most of them dealing with safety, visitors are not allowed to the top of the tower.
WHAT DO THE ASTRONOMERS DO HERE?
They study activity on the surface of the Sun – our nearest star, and a fairly active one. Solar weather can affect life here on Earth. It can cause blackouts, radio outages, and even the loss of orbiting satellites if we aren’t careful.
I WAS TOLD I COULD SEE A LIVE IMAGE OF THE SUN – WHERE IS IT?
When they are observing from the Dunn, they will project a live image of the Sun into the telescope lobby. If you do not see it, the telescope is not observing or operating that day. This could be for several reasons but is most likely due to cloud cover.
CAN I LOOK THROUGH THE TELESCOPE?
Unfortunately no – it isn’t that kind of telescope. The Astronomers don’t even look through it. They do have digital cameras that route the image to monitors, however.
IS THERE ANOTHER WAY DOWN THE MOUNTAIN?
Not a faster way, no. The only other roads are unmaintained dirt roads. These routes are not recommended. They are frequently impassable, not paved, and extremely remote routes. Depending on your GPS, you may be routed through Karr Canyon Road. Karr Canyon is a nearly impassable dirt road. See our “Visit the Observatory” page for detailed directions. In general though, on your way to the visitor center, you’ll be on pavement the whole time.
TOURS AND FIELD TRIPS
The Observatory offers tours and field trips for all ages. Learn more.