Fort Davis, Texas Sunday April 23-and some from Saturday April 22
A fantastic experience! That describes the hours we spent at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. The Observatory began in 1939 due to an unexpected bequest from a Texas banker and lawyer, William Johnson McDonald, who left money to start an astronomy program at the University of Texas. At the time of his death in 1926, Texas had no astronomy department. The university began a collaborative program with the University of Chicago which had a premier department. A local woman donated the land on the mountain top where the observatory was built. The McDonald Observatory is now solely run by the University of Texas and has four major research telescopes (an 82″, a 30″, a 107″, and a 360″). on two mountain tops and a support community. Other instruments, some owned by UT and some belonging to partner organizations, are used for research into radio waves, infrared, etc. and to educate visitors.
Why did we decide to visit the observatory? Well, AAA rates it a GEM. Evergreeners have recommended it. We have enjoyed several night sky programs at national parks over the years. This part of Texas is high on the list of areas to observe bright stars and where better to follow-up on bright stars than an observatory? We went “whole hog” in scheduling activities. Our experience began Saturday evening, April 22 with a one hour educational presentation. That was followed by a 90 minute star-gazing adventure. Then we came back Sunday morning for a 2.5 hour talk and tour of two of the telescopes.
Every program was well-done. The initial 60 minute lecture was held indoors for about 100 people. Graphics were used well to illustrate the points the lecturer was making; generally about our solar system and the planets. A few of the points both Chris and I remembered; more of the points were new and understandable; some of the points were over our heads.
After a 30 minute wait to allow for the skies to darken, 336 of us went outdoors to an open-air amphitheater for a “Star Party”-a sky viewing presentation and telescope viewing. (Obviously additional people came just for the Star Party.) Chris and I did not line up to use one of the dozen or so telescopes set up. Instead we spent the 90 minutes listening to a guy just do a fantastic presentation. It was humorous, it was understandable, it was educational, and it was fun. He used some sort of laser pointer that enabled him to point out constellations, stars, planets, satellites, etc. using the sky as his chalkboard.
After the programs we better understood the concept of the solar ecliptical plane; the constellations and why there are 13, not 12; why you can not see all constellations or planets at one time, etc. At 10:06:36 he pointed out a satellite. We observed it crossing the sky and then for about 3 seconds it gained immensely in brightness. This satellite by Iridium Communications has reflective antennae that gather and reflect sunlight causing the brief burst in brightness.
Did I mention it was cold? The previous blog post discussed how the weather had changed from temperatures in the 90s to clouds and cool temps. When we arrived in Fort Davis on Saturday and as we toured other locations, the skies were dark. We were uncertain if the program would be canceled. However, around 6 PM the sites cleared up. The temperature remained in the 40s for the program but we were bundled up and had a blanket to place on the concrete bench.
Sunday morning after breakfast and Church, we returned to McDonald Observatory. This “Daytime Solar Viewing and Tour” began with another lecture, accompanied by video and graphics. Through filters and media hook-ups, we viewed live shots of today’s sun-well, delayed by 8 minutes for transmission time. The topic was the sun, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, sun spots, etc. There was some repetition of information that had been presented the previous evening, probably helpful to us in remembering data.
After the lecture, we drove up to see first-hand the 107″ telescope. We stood right next to it; young girls were given the controls and made the telescope turn, the building’s opening rotate, and the curtains that shield the telescope move up and down. The floor by the telescope can also be raised to allow for maintenance. The operation and history of the telescope were covered. The telescope area is kept chilled to 46 degrees. Some of the other tour-takers were quite chilled by the end of our time in there.
After the 107″ scope, we drove over to the next mountain (also donated land) to view the 402″ scope. Actually this telescope, the Hobby-Eberly, is a prismatic scope that utilizes a series of 91 hexagonal prism segments rather than one large mirror to collect the light. By use of the prisms, it actually does not have to be 402″ across to have as much capability as a 402″ mirror telescope. It is currently being upgraded to work on a Dark Energy Experiment and while we could view it, we could not get as close to it as we did with the 107″ scope. The people here were quite proud of the construction design which allowed the telescope to be constructed in 1997 at well below expected cost due to using “off-the-shelf” components. It is currently tied for second largest telescope in the world.
All in all, an excellent time; interesting, illuminating, enlightening.
Ed and Chris. Monday April 23 in Odessa Texas