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Astronomy: It's not just for nighttime viewing

Crave's Nerdy New Mexico series crawls up to 9,200 feet and gawks at the massive Dunn Solar Telescope in the tiny community of Sunspot.

Dunn telescope interior
Inside the Dunn Solar Telescope.
Amanda Kooser/CNET

SUNSPOT, N.M.--Back in 1950, an order was placed for a grain bin from the Sears Catalog. That bin was delivered up to the far reaches of the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico, and after some modifications, it became the first solar telescope in Sunspot.

Nerdy New Mexico

Sunspot may be the geekiest town in America. It's an unincorporated community full of scientists and support staff for the National Solar Observatory. The road leading into town is State Highway 6563, named for a hydrogen emission line wavelength used in stellar astronomy.

Inside a solar telescope
We've come a long way from that original grain bin. Built in 1969, the Dunn Solar Telescope is a marvel of engineering and a destination spot for scientists from around the world. It's the largest of several solar telescopes on Sacramento Peak.

Grain bin telescope
This Sears Catalog grain bin became the first telescope in Sunspot. (Click to enlarge.) Amanda Kooser/CNET

An informational plaque inside the telescope building describes it as an iceberg. It rises 13 stories above the ground, but reaches even farther into the earth. The telescope's bottom part consists of 230 feet hidden in the ground. That must have been some dig. The whole thing weighs more than 250 tons.

Visitors are allowed inside the Dunn telescope. It's dim in the observation room, lit only by UFO-looking globes above that cast an orange light. There's a deep hum of instrumentation and a "quiet, scientists at work" vibe.

Massive piles of computers and equipment with colorful glowing lenses surround a lone scientist buried deep in his work. I feel like I've stepped inside a spaceship.

You can't see it from here, but the rotating part of the telescope (all 200 tons of it) is suspended at the top from a massive tank containing 10 tons of mercury. That makes it so easy to rotate, it can be done by hand.

Dunn Solar Telescope
The Dunn Solar Telescope hides most of itself underground. Amanda Kooser/CNET

Stay on the sunny side
We may take it for granted sometimes, but the sun is key to every moment of our existence. We geeks with our gadgets keep an eye on news of solar flares and storms and how they can potentially interfere with satellites, radio communications, and the efficiency of solar panels.

The solar telescopes at Sunspot are used to investigate solar flares, record what the sun looks like each day, and observe sunspots. This is how we learn about the sun's temperature, chemical composition, and magnetic field. If an alien ever pops out of the sun, the scientists at Sunspot will be among the first to know.

If you ever find yourself wandering about the mountains in Southern New Mexico, perhaps while you're on the trail of Billy the Kid or looking for a nice skiing spot, consider a side trip to Sunspot. Feeling the thrum of the Dunn telescope at work is worth the detour.

Programming note: Nerdy New Mexico picks up again next week with one more entry in the series, a tour of Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's home in the desert.