FARMINGTON — Beautiful dark night skies over New Mexico make this corner of the country an ideal place for stargazing.
Case in point: in April, Chaco Culture National Historical Park received the designation of an International Dark Sky Park. Areas that preserve the night sky and educate the public on its importance earn the label.
But there's also another place closer to home where you can immerse yourself in astronomy. San Juan College offers free astronomy programs at its planetarium several times a month.
"We have a treasure with our desert sky out here," said David Mayeux, the college's planetarium director. "We have a high elevation and thinner, dryer air, which generally means clearer skies. It's a good place to learn about the stars, and I consider the planetarium as the gateway to learn about the mysteries of the universe."
San Juan College's planetarium has been around since 1978, and the college has offered public shows since it opened.
The planetarium has a 24-foot permanent planetarium dome, as well as a digital star projector. The college hosts free public shows, including stargazing and sun gazing several times a month. The programs include a short film, a digital projection show of the stars in their current state and, weather permitting, a live viewing of the sky via the college's telescopes in the courtyard.
Mayeux has been the program coordinator of the planetarium for 17 years. Since he was a young boy, astronomy has been his passion, Mayeux said. He got his first telescope at the age of 10 and began keeping a journal of his observations.
"There was something about the stars that always spoke to me, I guess," Mayeux said. "I really, truly believe this: I think in the heart of every individual there is a sense of lost connectedness that you reconnect to when we look at the night sky."
Mayeux's lifelong love of astronomy makes him want to share the beauty of night sky with others.
AstroFriday: Through July, AstroFriday programs are at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., with a live night sky viewing at 9:30 p.m. in the courtyard. In August, programs begin at 6:30. Come early as seating can be limited.
Schedule: Flight of Apollo 11: The Eagle Has Landed on June 6, Field Trip to the Moon on July 25, The Astronomy of Harry Potter on Aug. 22 and On Robot Wings on Sept. 19.
Planetarium Sungaze: Programs are from 10 to 11 a.m. on Fridays. See sunspots, prominences and solar flares. Programs are on June 27, July 18, Aug. 15 and Sept. 12.
Starry Days: Shows are from 10 to 11 a.m. on Wednesdays from June 11 to June 25. Shows are for small groups and families.
Schedule: Windows on Mars: Art and Architecture on June 11, Windows on Mars: Music on June 18 and Windows on Mars: Storytelling and Folk Art on June 25.
Location: Events are at the planetarium, 4601 College Blvd.
"There is a chord it strikes, and it's something that makes you feel simultaneously at peace and also immeasurably small as part of the vast universe," he said. "It's awe inspiring and jaw dropping when you think of the implications, and you can just lose yourself in the nights sky."
Ed Kriegshauser, of Farmington, has been attending programs at the college's planetarium for about 15 years because he finds the night sky fascinating.
"We are fortunate to have the planetarium in a city our size," Kriegshauser said. "If you want to learn about space and the night's sky, that is the place to go."
Kriegshauser says one of his favorite parts of attending the program is seeing young people look through the telescope at a planet and become inspired.
The next Astro Friday program is this Friday. There will be two presentations at 7:30 p.m. and at 8:30 p.m., and live stargazing with the college's telescopes begins at 9:30 p.m. in the courtyard outside of the planetarium, weather permitting. Seating can be limited, so come early to ensure you get a spot.
Mayeux says a nice string of planets is visible now. Jupiter can be seen brightly in the west, as well as Mars and Saturn. They will be the focus of the live stargazing for the next program, along with the moon.