The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


April Night Sky


If the Moon looks to be a bit higher in the sky this month, you are not going loony tunes. Spring officially arrived on March 19 at 11:26 p.m. MST. That was when the Sun was directly over the equator. The four seasons are caused by the 23-1/2-degree tilt of the Earth's axis, and during the course of a year we see the Sun cycle between declination 23-1/2 degrees north and 23-1/2 degrees south as it circles around the sky along the ecliptic. The Sun's changing declination is what determines where the Sun sets. From my house, the Sun sets south of Mt. Taylor at the winter solstice and just north of Cabezon at the summer solstice.
The Moon goes through these up-and-down motions, too, but its cycles occur once a month. In fact, the Moon can range even farther to the north and south than the Sun because its orbit is inclined about 5 degrees to the ecliptic. In special years this tilt adds to the ecliptic's own inclination and as a result the Moon can be unusually high or low in our sky. Such is the case in 2006.

Because the Moon's orbit slowly wobbles about the Earth, the two points where the Moon's orbit intersects the ecliptic are not stationary. The nodes advance very slowly westward each month, completing one full circuit of the sky in 18.6 years.

Because we are in the right place in this wobble cycle, each month of 2006 the Moon will appear to be unusually high in the sky as it is near the Taurus-Gemini area. Conversely, when the Moon is moving through Sagittarius it will be unusually low. The Moon's most southerly position occurred on March 22. A somewhat similar circumstance will accompany the Full Moon on the night of June 11-12. Look due south around 1:30 a.m. and again on September 30 due south about 45 minutes after sunset.

In contrast, on September 14, the Moon will soar to its highest northern position. Even to a casual observer that morning, its location will appear unusual. It will climb so very high up in the sky that from central Florida and southernmost Texas it will be seen directly overhead. And for watchers in Miami or Brownsville the Moon will actually go north of straight up!

Between 1969 and 1972, Apollo astronauts placed seismometers at their landing sites around the Moon. The Apollo 12, 14, 15, and 16 instruments faithfully radioed data back to Earth until they were switched off, in 1977. So, what did they reveal? Moonquakes where there should not have been quakes at all.

If NASA astronauts are going back to the moon, they may need quake-proof housing. The expected moonquakes are caused by vibrations from the impact of meteorites or by thermal expansion caused when the frigid crust is first illuminated by the morning sun after two weeks of deep-freeze lunar night. The third type of expected quake is probably caused by tides from the Earth and Sun pulling on the Moon. However, shallow moonquakes only 10 or 20 miles below the surface were not only unexpected, but also powerful.

Between 1972 and 1977, the Apollo seismic network saw 28 shallow quakes; a few registered up to 5.5 on the Richter scale. A magnitude 5 quake on Earth is strong enough to move heavy furniture and crack plaster. Furthermore, shallow moonquakes lasted a remarkably long time. Once they got going, they caused the Moon to ring like a bell. Many continued for more than 10 minutes.

• Mercury will be hugging the eastern horizon before sunrise. It will be tough to spot.
• Venus is an early morning object. Look before sunrise low in the east. On the 24th, the Moon and Venus will form a very tight grouping.
• Look for Mars mid-way up in the western sky after sunset. Look for the Moon to be close to Mars on the 4th.
• Saturn will be high in sky, almost overhead, after sunset. Saturn cozies up to the Moon on the 6th.
• Jupiter will be rising well after sunset, so look low in the east after 8:30 p.m.; it will be the brightest “star” in the sky. Early morning on the 15th, look for the Moon and Jupiter to be side-by-side.
• The Moon will be full for the first day of Passover on the 13th. The new moon is on the 27th.
• Don't forget Daylight Savings Time begins on the 2nd.


There are two upcoming conferences geared toward keeping New Mexico's skies dark.

In Rio Rancho:

• Reaching for the Stars in Rural New Mexico
REDTT Annual Conference on Tourism
Tuesday, April 25, at 9:00 a.m.
Best Western Rio Rancho Inn and Conference Center
Lazlo Lazowska, director of the Night Sky Program, will present a session on New Mexico State Parks' initiative Reaching for the Stars. For information on the conference, visit

And this two-day event in Gallup:

• New Mexico's Night Sky—A Most Endangered Asset
New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance
Conference 2006: A New Century of Preservation
Thursday, May 25, at 9:10 a.m.
Gallup Holiday Inn
Designated as a “most endangered place” in 1999, New Mexico's pristine night sky can be seen as one of the state's great assets.

• Enhancing New Mexico's Communities through Quality
Outdoor Lighting
New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance
Conference 2006: A New Century of Preservation
Thursday, May 25 at 1:45 p.m.
Gallup Holiday Inn
The key to protecting New Mexico's night skies and sustaining this natural and cultural resource in New Mexico is enactment and enforcement of lighting ordinances and codes in New Mexico's municipalities and counties.

• Reach for the Stars
New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance
Conference 2006: A New Century of Preservation
Friday, May 26, at 9:10 a.m.
Gallup Holiday Inn
Thirty-four New Mexico State Parks protect New Mexico's heritage of rich, dark night skies through light pollution abatement, public education, public observatories, and outreach to communities seeking assistance with lighting issues. For information on this conference and registration information, visit

The Southwest Regional Spaceport, near Upham, New Mexico, will be a major departure site for commercial space launches, including proposed passenger-carrying rockets offering suborbital and orbital treks. —From, August 25, 2005.

Spaceport will bring the world to New Mexico's "pier"

Boston, New York, Venice, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Athens, and Rome. These cities, some of which at various times dominated the world, prospered because of their ports—places where worlds meet, trade occurs, and discovery begins.

In the past, all a port required was a safe harbor from the sea. Merchants, citizens, and city governments would join together to invest fortunes in breakwaters, moorings, and piers, secure that their investment would pay off.

New Mexico has no access to the sea. We've never had a port or the wealth that it can bring. But now we have a chance to change that. The Southwest Regional Spaceport, and the technology it represents, makes it possible for New Mexico to take a place on the world stage, to be the leader of a revolution in the world economy.

The Spaceport costs money. Progress always does. Thomas Edison spent a fortune inventing the light bulb. Teddy Roosevelt spent millions for the Panama Canal. President Dwight Eisenhower spent billions of dollars creating the Interstate Highway System. These visionary investments created the world we have today. The state of New Mexico, in turn, will invest $25 million for road improvements and $33 million a year for three years for infrastructure for the Spaceport project. That may sound like a lot of money, but it is a small price to pay for the future.

That future is bright. A New Mexico State University study predicts that within five years the Southwest Regional Spaceport will generate over $1 billion in new revenue and $350 million in new jobs. The Futron Corporation, a technology management consulting firm, predicts construction alone will create 2,460 jobs by 2007. These studies show only the beginning of the possibilities the Spaceport will bring.

One need only look back to the ports of the past to see what wealth they provided. One can then look to the future and see supersonic ships from all over the world and beyond carrying the wealth of the planet to New Mexico.

Benjamin Woods, senior vice president for planning, physical resources and university relations at New Mexico State University, has been appointed by Governor Bill Richardson to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.


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