BREAKING NEWS!! World-famous McDonald Observatory, known for its telescopes that study the stars above, has a new mission on the horizon! If plans go as scheduled, in the year 2022, McDonald Observatory will have the state of the art equipment installed to also be known as a Geodetic Observatory. (Since I had never heard of geodesy before, I was thankful to see the placard below, that explains it is the science of Earth's shape, gravity, and rotation--and how these change over time.)
Visitors to McDonald Observatory can see the most visible part of this project as soon as they enter the parking lot, because the 12-meter wide radio telescope is adjacent to the Visitor Center Entrance. When I picture "telescope" in my mind, an image of structural steel beams, sitting on a saucer, is not what pops up. However, the geodetic telescope will be using lasers and ultra-precise Global Positions System receivers, to compile data on minute changes in the earth's physical characteristics. The photo below shows how different the geodetic telescope set-up in the foreground, differs from the traditional telescope observatory, as seen by the silver dome in the background.www.mcdonaldobservatory.org ) was part of a long-anticipated trip to the Big Bend area of Texas, as part of a lifelong learning organization called Road Scholar ( www.roadscholar.org ). For weeks, I had been praying that there would be clear skies on the day our visit to the mountain was scheduled, as clouds and rain cause major limitations on what can be seen in the sky. The photo below of the crystal clear, azure skies that day, shows my prayers were answered!
Our tour included getting to go inside this silver observatory shown below, made up of hundreds of triangular structures. The rectangular "patch" on the side of the dome is the movable "window" that can be opened up (weather permitting), allowing the telescope inside to view the sky above.
The Texas historical marker in this photo tells some of the history of McDonald Observatory. It was originally endowed by Texas banker William Johnson McDonald, who left the bulk of his fortune (about one million dollars) to the University of Texas to endow an astronomical observatory. At the time it opened in 1939, it housed the 2nd largest telescope in the world.
Today, research going on at McDonald Observatory covers planetary systems, stars, stellar spectroscopy, and theoretical astronomy
This placard shows the location of other observatories around north America. What makes McDonald Observatory unique is the fact that it sits on the largest piece of land in the world, with its night sky darkness protected by ordinances.
A different side of the observatory is seen in this photo, and shows the viewer the projectiles that the sliding window of the observatory used, to open up a portion of its roof to the night sky.
One of the "off limits to visitors" area contains a large container of liquid nitrogen. The liquid nitrogen is used to cool the instruments on the telescopes, reducing "heat noise" in the data.
This photo of the valley below McDonald Observatory shows Texas State Highway 118, as it snakes between the mountains toward Fort Davis. It was along this road that some javolinas were seen, as our motorcoach was driving on it at twilight, headed for the star party. Since javolinas are not part of the "wildlife scene" in the Ozarks, this was a new "critter" for me to learn about!
From Spur 78, our guided tour took us via Spur 77 highway to the summit of Mount Fowlkes (6,659 feet), where we went inside the silver domed observatory (their staff refers to it as the HET dome) to see the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (abbreviated by staff as HET). The Hobby-Eberly Telescope was dedicated on October 8, 1997, and is operated by a consortium of four universities: The University of Texas at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University, and two universities in Germany. Five flagpoles in front of the HET dome are for the flags of the USA and the home states of the partners.
Seeing our astronomer guide in front of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope, should give you an idea of its immensity!! He demonstrated its mobility, by using the electronic control panels to open the roof, and "spin" the telescope at various heights, and pointing in various directions. It was an awesome sound to hear the motors operate to do all these actions with the flip of a switch! (Harlan Smith was McDonald Observatory director from 1963-1989.)
A native Alaskan from above the Arctic Circle might see this structure and be reminded of an igloo back in their native land. I can assure you, however, this this a much more "high tech" shelter than the most advanced igloo! The building houses the Otto Stuve telescope, constructed from 1933-1939. Otto was the first Director of McDonald Observatory, and served from 1932-1950.
One of the placards in the HET dome explains that this very sophisticated telescope was placed at this location for several reasons: It has a great view of the night sky, the beneficial high altitude, the dark sky, and the pure, dry air offer astronomers clear, sharp views of the universe.
I took this photograph of the inside of the HET dome, while standing in the George T. Abell Gallery. It was built in order to make this powerful telescope visible to the public. By stepping to the back of the gallery, one can see onto the dome floor to see the telescope through the viewing window. Likewise, one can see the ceiling of the dome.
The 30 foot aperture Hobby-Everly telescope is one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. HET was built in a revolutionary way that differed from more traditionally-designed telescopes. The new design, with its many mirrors, reduced the initial construction costs, as well as the cost to operate (i.e., move) the telescope into various viewing positions. The diagram below shows its "erector-set" design qualities, and its size relative to the HET dome that houses it.
After our Road Scholar group had completed the daytime tour of McDonald Observatory, we went back down the mountain to have a delicious supper in Fort Davis, at "The Porch". Some of our group can be seen enjoying the small-town ambience of "porch sitting and visiting"! Fort Davis is a small, unincorporated community of about 1,200 people, and is the location of Fort Davis National Historic Site, which was established in 1854. It was named after Jefferson Davis, who was then-Secretary of War, under President Franklin Pierce.
After our meal, and a stroll through the community, we boarded the motorcoach a little before dark, to travel the slow, windy road back up the mountain to attend the McDonald Observatory Star Party. This photo shows the sticker each of us were given to show that we had paid the required fee to sit in the outdoor amphitheater on a cold February evening, in complete darkness. With a description like that, I anticipated there our Road Scholar group would probably be the only ones there. WOW!! Was I wrong!! There were hundreds of people there, bundled up with only their eyes showing, from all across the USA, and some foreign countries! I was completely amazed that every spot in the 600-seat amphitheater was filled up!
Bright lights illuminating the Visitors Center had been turned off when we returned, and the only light was from this colored spectrum on the front of the building. This was a reminder that one of the research areas here, is for stellar spectroscopy, and the astronomer that gave our talk that evening taught us how to see the different colors of stars in the night sky. The Astronomer used his laser pointer and excellent commentary, to teach about the constellations in a way that even I could understand! It was an absolutely DIVINE evening!
Psalm 19:1-4 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." Considering so much of God's magnificent creation is visible in the darkness of an area remote from electricity, I think it is a worthwhile effort to protect that darkness, in the same way we protect other aspects of God's creation. There is an organization that has this goal as its mission, and that is the International Dark Sky Association ( www.darksky.org ). They have designated March 31-April 7, 2019, as International Dark Sky Week. This is a world-wide event drawing attention to the wonder of the night sky and the work being done to protect it. Many national parks will have nighttime, outdoor programs during that week, to help folks appreciate the beauty above their heads. In fact, at Buffalo River National Park near where I live, park rangers will be having a nighttime "Star Party" at Buffalo Point, on April 6, from 8 - 10 pm. You can check out the National Park website ( www.nps.gov ) to find an astronomy program location near you. It is an experience I can highly recommend, because the Star Party I attended at the McDonald Observatory gave me "MILES OF SMILES"!!! Tricia