A revolutionary observing opportunity — and more

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, July 23, 2010
Chris Eicher visits Astronomy magazine’s observatory, which stands at Rancho Hidalgo, near Granite Gap, Animas, New Mexico. Clyde Tombaugh’s telescope appears in the background. David J. Eicher photo
As amateur astronomers, we spend most of our lives away from dark skies. Because of our jobs and more and more encroachment by light pollution, we rarely get to bask under the splendor of a spectacularly dark sky, let alone with a telescope at the ready. A new concept in dark-sky observing is about to change all that, however, and will make access to a dark sky easier and more affordable than ever.

Astronomy promoter and developer Gene Turner is unveiling Granite Gap as his latest mecca for amateur astronomy. Before this, Turner created the Arizona Sky Village and then Rancho Hidalgo, and the land at those ventures quickly sold out. This time, Turner is offering low-cost land for RV owners, for those who simply want an observatory under
Beautiful vistas of the Chihuahuan Desert will soon transform into many observatory sites at Gene Turner’s Granite Gap development. David J. Eicher photo
a dark-sky site they can operate robotically, or for those who want to purchase an inexpensive park model (like a small, nicely furnished cabin) with their scope beside it. The cost is amazingly low: A one-time fee of $2,500 will lease a one-third acre plot for 99 years, which includes a telescope pad, electricity, water, septic, and high-speed Internet. Cell phone service works nicely at the site. I spent the first full week of July in Tucson, Arizona, and then down at the site, which is located just south of I-10 and north of Animas, New Mexico. It’s about 2 1/2 hours from Tucson and roughly the same distance from El Paso, and southwest of Lordsburg, New Mexico, a famous old mining and railroad town.

Dave Eicher, Gene Turner, and Lynda Eicher visit an ancient Native American location near Granite Gap. David J. Eicher photo
Turner is offering what he says will be a “yearlong star party” at the site, which gives the location the possibility of becoming a unique and important gathering place for astronomy enthusiasts who have dreamed for years of the ultimate, inky black sky. As I stood under the summer Milky Way at Granite Gap, I was simply amazed. I’ve been there several times before and the sky is world-class dark, with a “three-dimensional” Milky Way etched with dark lanes and with bright naked-eye visibility of many Messier objects. The telescopic views are fantastic: We saw bright objects like the Lagoon, Trifid, and Omega nebulae as “photographic” views minus the color, and challenging objects like the famous galaxy-quasar pair NGC 4319 and Markarian 205 clearly and with direct vision. It is a stunning and amazingly transparent sky.

At Old Hachita, near Granite Gap, a mining ghost town stands in ruins, reminding us of the boom days of silver, copper, and lead mining in the area. David J. Eicher photo
And Turner’s plans include far more than astronomy in the area. He is creating a large lake at the Granite Gap site for fishing and recreating. This autumn, he will commence a planned planetarium and mineral and meteorite museum. Horseback riding and birding are huge interests in the area and also part of the Granite Gap agenda. Archeology is a big part of the area as far more people lived in the region 1,500 years ago than do now; in walking the grounds 2 weeks ago, I found a Native American stone ax head measuring about 6 inches across that I gave to Turner. He will make it a part of the welcome center and history/cultural museum at the site. 

We get ready for a night of big time deep-sky observing at Rancho Hidalgo, near Granite Gap. David J. Eicher photo
In addition, nearby Native American sites include cave pictographs. Mining history and lore is a staple of the area, too, and Turner owns several defunct silver and copper mines that will be opened up for education. The region is steeped in western history, with Billy the Kid, the Clantons and Earps (of the nearby O.K. Corral drama), Cochise, Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, and many others frequenting the area in the old days. As if that weren’t enough, plans are afoot for adding a golf course to the site down the line.

With the enthusiastic endorsement of world-famous planetary scientist Carolyn Shoemaker, Turner is also putting together Shoemaker Discovery Park at
Cave Creek Canyon, near Portal, Arizona (a short distance from Granite Gap) offers spectacular scenery and birding. David J. Eicher photo
Granite Gap, which will feature big-scale model rocketry, a huge simulated impact crater to explore and learn about (along with meteorites that kids can dig up), and other features that will pay tribute to Carolyn’s husband, Gene Shoemaker (1928–1997), the father of impact geology and, along with Carolyn and Astronomy Contributing Editor David H. Levy, co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The nearby Rancho Hidalgo site also holds Clyde Tombaugh’s 16-inch telescope. In 1930, he discovered Pluto; Pluto Park now holds his telescope — a great planetary instrument — and pays homage to Tombaugh.

For more on this remarkable development, see http://www.granitegap.com/.

Archeology is everywhere in the region: I found this Native American stone ax head, perhaps 1,500 years old, which I turned over to Turner for his onsite cultural museum. David J. Eicher photo
A background story by Senior Editor Michael Bakich also appears in the September 2010 issue of Astronomy on page 60, “A night at Granite Gap.”

Stay tuned for more reports on this development, which promises to deliver what we all dream about — a supremely dark sky — in a reasonably easy way, for the first time ever.

The Granite Gap area is steeped in history: Inside this kitchen in the Grant Hotel at Shakespeare Ghost Town, Billy the Kid worked as a dishwasher and floor sweeper after his family moved to nearby Silver City. Here, Chris and Lynda Eicher inspect the property. David J. Eicher photo










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