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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Gypsum Mine Observatory

We are always on the lookout for good places to observe in the desert. The floor of Machtesh Ramon is off limits at night, so it was with great excitement that we discovered the old gypsum mine in the crater, the entire basin of which is open to over night camping.

Machtesh Ramon is rich in mineral deposits, and there used to be open pit mining and even factories to process the minerals on the floor of the crater. Thankfully, these have all been closed down. But the gypsum mine has left a huge hole in the desert floor from the days of its open pit operations. The mine backs onto a large ridge which forms the main wall, surrounded by lesser walls and a slope on the other sides. Once you enter the large pit, you are shielded from the noise and light of road traffic on nearby Route 40, and most of the light from Mitzpe Ramon to the north is blocked by the deep, vertical mine wall and cliff face to the rear.

The old gypsum mine, looking west towards Mitzpe Ramon. (Click for full size image.)

There are fire rings scattered around the base of the wall, so it is possible to cook a nice hot dinner while out observing, if so desired. The sky is very dark and area serene from this pocket in the floor of the crater. Only the northern sky up to about 30 degrees is blocked by the mine face.

Standing in the northeast corner of the mine, looking southwest.

In this northeast corner of the mine we are standing on a bed of white gypsum crystals, which collect when the bottom of the mine fills with water during the winter. Only a small portion of the floor near the mine wall appears to collect water, but it still conjured up images of Godzilla rising out of the blackness of the watery night to eat astronomers unawares. (Sometimes my imagination is too active for my own good.)

The mine wall looking south.

The mine wall looking north. See if you can find the hajib covered Bedouin woman sitting on the mine floor near the wall, about 7/10ths of the way down.

When I was here there was a Bedouin man, probably the husband of the above-mentioned woman, saying his afternoon prayers, and a large number of back packs that had been dumped near the shallow southern wall, probably of day hikers who were out in the Machtesh.

A Bedouin worker says his evening prayers by the southern wall of the gypsum mine, while backpacks await their owners' return from a day hike.

The mine is only about 8 miles from Mitzpe Ramon, and is just a short distance off road from its entrance on Route 40. It's always exciting to find new places to observe in the desert, and I look forward to seeing you here.

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