Astronomy

A creek runs through a wide grassy valley. It is nighttime with stars filling the clear sky. A silhouette of mountains defines the far away horizon. The night sky is reflected in the calm water.
The night sky of Valles Caldera is both culturally and naturally an invaluable resource.

Photo: Courtesy Jim Stein

View the Night Sky of Valles Caldera

Attend an Astronomy Event:

Laser wielding rangers and volunteers will have high powered telescopes, talks, activities, and more during these amazing events! These public events will be posted on the calendar and via social media, and typically take place monthly from May-September. Follow us @VallesCaldera so that you can keep up to date on the latest at your preserve. When attending an astronomy event, please come well prepared with extra layers for warmth, a camp chair if you like, bring light with a red mode, and put your smart devices into the amber/night mode. There is no running water on the preserve, but the information center sells bottled water, souvenirs, hot beverages, and astronomical educational items. Lastly, please considering volunteering! We welcome astronomers, traffic control, greeters, and much more! Email us to join the volunteer team!

Observe on Your Own:

Currently the only nighttime access points are the pullouts along Highway 4, however as a newer member of the National Park Service, Valles Caldera is working hard to improve access. As we move forward into the important stages of planning and responsible development to improve visitor access, our goal is to protect the cultural and natural resources that make this place so special, such as the night sky. Your input on these efforts, including night sky observation access is critical and will be solicited on the National Park Service Planning Page.

 
The entrance sign for Valles Caldera National Preserve under a night sky full of stars.
Milky Way over Valles Caldera

Photo: Courtesy Marc Bailey

Saving Your Vanishing Resource,...the Naturally Dark Sky

The National Park Service, established in 1916, manages American national parks, preserves, and monuments in order to “...conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (NPS Organic Act, 1916). This mandate includes the preservation of natural night sky conditions, and several park units around the world incorporate dark sky preservation into their management and interpretation.

Here at Valles Caldera, we are fortunate to have one of the darkest night skies in the world. It is a fundamental value that we are determined to protect. We are currently working toward earning certification as an International Dark Sky Park from the International Dark Sky Association. An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. To become certified, we are working on management plans that specify which types of lighting will be used on facilities in the preserve, where and when artificial light will be used, we will offer public astronomy events at least four times per year, and we will partner with local organizations to help preserve the night sky.

Valles Caldera Night Sky Partners

Valles Caldera's pristine night sky is partly due to its remoteness and the lack of significant artificial light in the area. Local communities have also helped preserve the night sky by supporting educational outreach and adopting lighting ordinances that prohibit lights that shine up into the sky, higher than a ninety degree angle, overlighting, and lights that are too bright. Current partners include Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, Pajarito Astronomy Club, the Jemez Mountains Night Sky Consortium, the Village of Jemez Springs, the Pajarito Environmental Education Center, Hidden Valley Sporting Goods, New Mexico State Parks, Los Alamos County, and many dedicated individual community members. Please e-mail us if you are interested in becomming a Valles Caldera night sky partner.

 
A drawing showing proper night sky lighting. Two houses with lights are shown. The top with bad lighting which shines outward and above the horizon. The bottom with lights that are shielded and only shine down, therefore preserving the view of the sky.
Visit https://www.darksky.org/ for tips on how you can save the night sky!

Image courtesy of the International Dark Sky Association

You CAN Help!

Every light makes a difference. You can help preserve the night sky in your community, while increasing nighttime safety and security, while saving money by following the simple guidelines from the International Dark Sky Association.

How are the lights around your home or neighborhood? Do they shine up at the clouds, or above a ninety degree angle? If so, please consider a retrofit. A few inexpensive tweaks could help you preserve the night sky for future generations. Light pollution is the easiest pollution to reverse, just turn off a light, or even better, use light only when, where, and as long as necessary.

 

Why Protect It?

Go Back in Time

Taking a break from the artificial lights of our screens and communities is proven to be beneficial to our health. When we look to the night sky, we step back in time in a scientific sense, because light can travel millions of years to reach us. When we look upon the night sky we are seeing old light. Light that may no longer exist at its source. One way to think about it, is to remember a time when you have heard a plane flying. You look up to where the sound seemed to be coming from, the plane is no longer there. That’s because sound moves in waves, and it takes time for the sound waves to reach you. Light also moves in waves, but much faster. It’s the fastest thing we know of. The light from our sun takes only eight minutes to reach us.

We also travel back in time in a cultural sense. As we gaze upon the planets, moons, and stars, we see objects and patterns that our ancestors contemplated, appreciated, and even utilized. Every human ever born, with the exception of those born in cities in the past hundred years or so, has had a view of the night sky very similar to this. From the hunter gatherers who mined obsidian and set up camps, to the American Indian tribes and pueblos who have traditional use, to the Spanish colonials, to the Mexican sheepherders, to the American cowboys this is the same night sky that they saw every single night. Now it is here for you!

Human Health

Artificial light at night can negatively affect human health, increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer and more. Our biological clocks are driven by day and night which influence the production of melatonin, a hormone which helps us sleep, lowers cholesterol, and boosts the immune system. Humans evolved to live in the day AND at night. In fact, we have night vision! That is, unless we look at artificial light on the bright white or blue spectrum, so it's best to use red lights for observation and amber lights around your homes. They protect your night vision. The size of our iris changes when it is dark. It opens up to let in light, but real dark sight adaptation happens on a chemical level. The backs of our eyes “the retina” are packed with two types of photo detectors, rods and cones. Cones are most useful in daytime vision and collect both color and brightness. Rods help us at night while capturing shades of gray. Unfortunately it can take about 30 minutes for the rods to become fully operational after being exposed to white light. During this time, your rods are building up a protein called Rhodopsin. Any exposure to bright lights can reset the clock down to zero. So how do we combat this? Rods cannot detect red light, so by using red light we can see while preserving our night vision. This includes your smartphones, so when observing, either avoid using them, or at least put them into night mode.

Wildlife

Humans are not the only ones who depend on natural darkness. For all of time, life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It has become encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals as we have evolved over time. Life depends on the opportunity to experience natural daylight and natural darkness.

Light is a driving force in hormone production. For wildlife, hormones determine life sustaining behaviors such as mating (elk), migrating (birds), navigating (sea turtles & birds), and finding food (nocturnal & crepuscular predators). In elk and deer it can also influence antler growth. So, by preserving a naturally dark sky, we not only help protect ourselves, we also help protect these important resources that we all love. If we change this cycle by introducing day into the night by adding artificial light, we can only guess at some of the consequences that may occur, but we really don't know. Insects are a prime example. We all know that moths are attracted to porch lights, but think about it on a city wide scale, were the glow of the city is the light. Think about how many moths that brings to the city. These important members of our ecosystem, these pollinators are being affected in ways yet to be determined.

 

Last updated: April 23, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 359
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

Phone:

(575) 829-4100 x3

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