Jan 27, 2008

The Star Party at McDonald Observatory

January 27, 2008 -- Fort Davis, TX

I've always been fascinated by space and all the incomprehensible things about the universe in which we live. As I was going through my K-12 years in the late 50's and the 60's, the US Space Program was going all out to get a man on the moon before 1970. It was an amazing time in which most of the country was united behind this common goal and there was a "can-do" feeling that transcended the Space Program. There was a sense that we could do anything... that anything was possible. This was all very exciting for a kid, whose young mind was also influenced by TV shows like Star Trek or Lost in Space that added visual substance to a kid's dreams of space exploration and the wonders of what's out there.

We did reach the moon in 1969 and achieved the nation's goal. For a short time during the next few years going to the moon became almost routine. We launched 6 missions that successfully landed on the moon -- the last one in December of 1972. Think about this... if you're under the age of 35 you've never witnessed a trip to the moon by astronauts. Considering that the median age in the USA is about 36, that's almost half the country's population. What's become of our dreams and that sense of wonder about the universe?

At places like the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, TX. those dreams remain alive. It's a place where the glowing embers of knowledge about the cosmos are tested and grow.

McDonald came to life after a posthumous donation to the University of Texas at Austin of a considerable amount of money from someone named McDonald in the 50's. At the time, UTA didn't even have an astronomy program. So, in conjunction with the University of Chicago, the first telescope was built on Mt. Locke and the place became known as the McDonald Observatory. That 82" telescope was, at the time, the second largest telescope in the world. It's still in use today.

The selection of Mt. Locke as the location for the observatory was made for a number of reasons. First, it's remote and far from the lights of metropolitan areas. Dar and I can attest to the remoteness of West Texas. Second, it's on a mountain top and higher than almost a third of the earth's atmosphere. This means less air, haze, and pollution to view through to get a clear image. And thirdly, the area has good weather with almost 250 crystal clear nights each year on average.

During our visit we got into the dome and onto the floor with the second telescope built here at McDonald -- the 107" Harlan J. Smith telescope, finished in 1968. It's a huge instrument and we had the opportunity to play with it some... moving it around, turning the dome structure, and opening the big door in the dome from which the telescope looks into space.

There's a staff of about 70 people that are employed full-time to keep the facility operating. They're the people that keep the equipment operating, the grounds and buildings in good shape, the visitor center open, and the tours staffed. They live in a village on the side off the hill and one off the "perks" of the job is the great view from up there at 6,800 feet.

I found it interesting that they have their own light pollution police. That's right, someone who goes out and talks to some of those independent-minded West Texans who have bright outdoor lighting that can reduce the darkness needed for good space observation. It wasn't clear how exactly how they enforce the darkness, but I got the feeling it's more education and money rather than tickets and prison. Money -- now that's something a true West Texan can understand.

In 1997, they dedicated their third big telescope -- the 433" Hobby-Eberly telescope. Unique in design and limited in function, it's one of the biggest 3 or 4 telescopes in the world today. Instead of one big mirror like other telescopes, this one is made up of 91 smaller individually controlled mirrors that work in unison to provide the best focus. It's mission is primarily spectroscopy -- the observation and measurement of light at different wave-lengths to learn more about what makes up these distant stellar bodies.

One of the programs we attended was the evening Star Party. Only held three nights per week, the staff breaks out 5 or 6 smaller telescopes to allow participants the opportunity to see and understand various stars, planets, and nebula (huge stellar gas clouds that glow). It had been a little cloudy earlier in the day but the sky cleared up right on time for the party.

We spent almost 8 hours at the Observatory that day and neither of us felt it was anything but a great experience.


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