Wednesday, February 6, 2013

McDonald Observatory

I arrived for the Twilight Program and Star Party at McDonald Observatory last night before sundown.  This bluebird appeared and perched on my rearview mirror for the longest time.  I think he was admiring his reflection in my window tinting!  Who can blame him?

I can think of few happier ways to spend an evening than staring at the universe.  At the end of the night, I didn’t want to leave!  This is an event I would go out of my way to do over and over again.  The weather was ideal – a moonless, clear sky, with temps in the 40s.  The altitude up on Mount Locke is just shy of 7,000 ft.
Visitor's Center from above
After relieving the irresistibly gift shop of much of its inventory, I attended the twilight program in the visitor center auditorium. 
Shannon, a staff astronomer, entertained us for an hour explaining how our solar system moves about.  He did a great job of illustrating why we see certain constellations at certain times of the year.
By then it was dark and we moved out to the amphitheater for the star party.  The amphitheater is dimly lit with low red lights that allow one’s eyes to accommodate to the darkness.  The presenter spent some time pointing with a laser at some, shall we say, high points. 

The first was the International Space Station!  As if on cue, it came into view in the southwest sky and we were able to track it for a while until it disappeared from view.  The ISS orbits the earth every 90 minutes and what you see is actually the sun reflecting off the ISS. 
Web Photo
Amazing in any case, but especially when you consider that the Wright Brothers first got off the ground just over 100 years ago!
Next the presenter talked about some of the many constellations on view and pointed out the objects we would see in the 5 awaiting telescopes.  I’ve never seen such a rich field of stars!   Even the stars on the horizon were plainly visible.     

The 5 telescope stations, manned by knowledgeable staff and volunteers, revealed the following sights.  I’ll try to use web photos that faithfully reproduce what I saw.

Andromeda Galaxy
Crab Nebula
Jupiter and 4 of its Moons.  The ones that got Galileo into so much trouble.
Double clusters in Perseus
Orion Nebula

My favorite was the Orion Nebulae located close to the middle star in Orion’s sword .  I returned to the 18” telescope several times to see the “star nursery” with a pocket in the middle of the gas that contained 4 very young stars.  It was magnificent.

Later, I was chatting with Shannon and mentioned how thrilling it was to see the Orion Nebulae.  He surprised me by abruptly swinging his 22” telescope around to give me a wide-field view!  I saw the Nebula again, only this time enlarged even further and with a richer deeper backdrop.  A thrill ran through me, it was so beautiful. 
Shannon remarked that he’s not easily impressed, but this particularly sight always did that for him.  I was so grateful he gave me another look at that amazing sight.
Later, as I reluctantly walked back to the GDB to leave, I heard a singular sound in the quiet night.  I listened for it again.  There it was!  Coyotes barking and howling from within the surrounding hills and canyons.  I listened for a long time.

What a sound! 
What a night!

Here are some photos I took on the previous day’s self-guided tour of the Observatory. 
The Hobby-Ebberly Telescope - largest mirror in the world at 3-stories tall.  It uses spectroscopy to tells us about the distance, age, and fate of stars.

The 107" telescope.

Great views on the drive up, up, up.

Oh, the  places we'll go!


  1. I'm sooooo jealous! What a great day (& night)!

    If you love observatories and star parties, you must go on the Stargazing Tour on the Big Island in Hawaii. I got to do that the last year we lived in Hawaii. Wow! There are so many observatories up there. The tour drives you to the top of the mountain for sunset and you get a chance to see all the observatories. They you go to a lower elevation for the star-viewing party. (They used red lighting and laser pointers as well.) Awesome.

    Next time we are in Ft. Davis I will not miss the Star Party!!!

    1. If I ever get to HI (and I DO have a plan), I will most definitely do that.

  2. And, I was so close. dang m'hide. so glad you went.


    1. Well, you and Homer just need to go back!

  3. Bluebirds are supposed to be signs of good luck. Looks like it's working in your case!

    I was surprised to learn that the ISS orbits the earth every 90 minutes. And how amazing to get such a view of such wonders! It would give me goosebumps, too! :)

    What an adventure you are on!

    1. I was wondering at the time if bluebirds were a good omen. Seriously. I felt that it was, anyway.

      BTW, you can probably glimpse the ISS from your backyard given a clear night and dark skies. There is a website (sorry I don't remember the address) that enables you to track it. Who knew?

  4. Wow, it must have been an amazing evening! Did you have to reserve a ticket way in advance to go? I had tried to do the night viewing at Kitt in Tucson last year, but there was too long a wait for tickets.

    I'm really wanting to learn more about astronomy this year, and one of my photo goals is to get some good shots of the Milky Way. From my research so far, it sounds like southwest Texas and the Big Bend area is a great place for it with their dark skies.

    So glad you had a perfect weather night to see the stars (and coyote serenades too)!

  5. Hi Lynne,

    I toured the facility the day before the star party fully expecting to buy my tickets at that time. (McDonald has a website that posts availability of the programs). But the lady there told me not to worry, there was plenty of room the next night. She recommended I wait and see about the weather. Although the programs go on as scheduled, rain or nightshine.

    It was full though! Lots of people showed up. Next time, I will buy tickets in advance.

  6. What can I say ? WOW WOW WOW WOW !!

  7. You are really making the most of your trip! So glad you had such a wonderful evening. Must have been a night to remember! :)

  8. SO happy happy happy for you that you got that experience. And happy for us that you shared it! What a trip!

  9. I went to their evening program a few years ago, and it was something I will never forget. I had no idea there were sooooo many stars in the sky!

  10. You are doing a wonderful job of enjoying your trip. I have not been to this place, but will now. Thanks for the tour.

  11. You are doing a wonderful job of enjoying your trip. I have not been to this place, but will now. Thanks for the tour.


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