Mining both earthly and deep-sky treasures in New Mexico

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, February 15, 2010

Saturday morning we awoke after a great night of observing to an azure blue sky and a community breakfast before heading off with Gene Turner, John Eicher, Rocky Alvey (director of Vanderbilt University’s Dyer Observatory), and Nashville astroimager Mark Manner. We set a course for Old Hachita, New Mexico, over the Grant County line. Our objective? Mining.

Gene knows the lay of the land and the owners in this region, so we explored Hachita, a mining town that thrived in the days of silver and gold exploration of the 1850s and 1860s, before the railroad came along and moved Hachita to its present location. The ruins of Old Hachita are spectacular: Old as they are, adobe brick building ruins still stand, with plentiful wooden and metallic debris scattered here and there. Wide-open shafts are scattered around the landscape, with accompanying tailing piles where ore was dumped. We explored the remains of an old stamping mill, of various accessory buildings such as hoist houses, and of settlement buildings where miners lived and died looking for a big strike.

Apparent high-grade ore lay scattered around the main shaft house, inky black with sulfides. It was a rich lode of interesting stuff for mineral buffs to examine, and then we topped it off by exploring some turquoise diggings on the perilous road that leads to Old Hachita.

After a spectacular dinner prepared by Loy Guzman and her friends, at which we had 28 guests from the region, Gene rolled the 30-inch scope for 4 hours of observing before we petered out. The sky darkness and transparency tonight were world-class, much better than last night. You could see a sugary sprinkling of hundreds of minute stars you don’t normally see.

Not surprisingly, then, I had some of the finest views I’ve ever seen of many objects I’ve looked at lots of times. The Orion Nebula looked sculpted in phosphorescent green; the Andromeda Galaxy was a blazing nucleus with its broad dust band looking 3-dimensional; and the Crab Nebula appeared like a weakly colored photograph. We checked out lots of galaxies — M109, NGC 2841, NGC 4319 and the quasar Mrk 205, NGC 2403, NGC 4565, NGC 4631 and NGC 4627, M65 and M66, and lots more. We observed spectacular planetary nebulae, ranging from NGC 2438 in the rich open cluster M46 to the obscure NGC 1501 in Camelopardalis. We raved over open clusters as seen with the naked eye, such as the Hyades, Pleiades, Ursa Major Moving Group, and Alpha Persei Moving Group (not to mention the Double Cluster), a study in clusters of many distances.

Amazingly, several of us clearly saw M101 with ease using the eyes alone and also M81 and M82 in Ursa Major, a staggering feat (although the last wasn’t easy).

We observed many other objects during this run and enjoyed the company of many amateur astronomers from around the country. It was truly a world-class night. Sunday we look forward to welcoming Liz Kruesi and Rich and Evelyn Talcott, whose trips here were delayed by weather.

Visit our gallery of images of the Astronomy Magazine Observatory as well as from the 2010 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. And follow Dave's trip updates on our Twitter (@AstronomyMag) and Facebook pages. 

Previous: So long, Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Hello, Rancho Hidalgo

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