Sunspot Solar Observatory

Sunspot Solar Observatory

The origins of Sunspot, south of Cloudcroft, as a Solar Observatory date back to the sudden increased interest of solar physics to the US military during World War II. In 1940, the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) was established in 1940 in Climax, Colorado. It was associated with both Harvard College Observatory and the University of Colorado and was incorporated in 1946. At the time it was the world's highest permanent observatory for astronomy, at an elevation of over 11,000 feet, and was designed purely for studying the Sun.  It was established for forecasting radio conditions on the basis of solar observations.  Such studies of the sun were critical for predicting conditions for radio communication, guided missiles, and supersonic aircraft.  With the advances in technology, solar observations became critical to our country and solar astronomy became an important goal for both astronomers and our government.

The Sacramento Peak Observatory was conceived as a complementary telescope to the existing facilities in Climax, but in Colorado there were long periods of cloudiness during the winter and a second dedicated solar observatory needed to be established.

The practical applications for solar research, as discovered by the military during World War II, regarding the impact solar activity had on radio communication spurred the US Congress to provide for a military-funded observatory. In September 1947, the USAF issued a contract to HAO and Harvard University to conduct a survey and thereby identify an appropriate site for a new solar observatory and to determine which instruments to install at the new site.

Any seasonal cloud cover at the new site needed to arrive in the opposite season to that at Climax, in order to provide for year-round coverage of the Sun. Similar to Climax, the atmosphere above the new site should be exceptionally free from haze and dust in order to permit for the best possible observing. The government concluded that the section of the Sacramento Mountains in which Sacramento Peak is located would be especially promising for a solar research site.

Sacramento Peak at 9200 feet was low enough to be more accessible to researchers than Climax at 11,000 feet and the thickly forested setting blocked interference from rising air currents up the mountain.

To this day, Sunspot, now operated by NMSU, remains critical to the operations of our modern technology by observing and predicting what effects the cycles of our Sun may have on our little 3rd rock from the Sun.