Blue People, Red State - Winter 2010 travel blog

McDonald Observatory

from afar

newest telescope

view from the top

viewing the moon

peering up

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107 inch telescope

Every so often NPR airs a short program called "Star Date," sharing some interesting facts about outer space. The program is produced by the McDonald Observatory, which for some reason I thought was in Colorado. I'm actually not all that interested in astronomy. I get bogged down in looking for constellations. I see lots of shapes in the nights sky; they just aren't the same ones that the ancient Greeks and Romans or whoever first started these constellations saw. But the McDonald Observatory is just a few miles from our campground and offers some terrific programs for astronomical nitwits like me.

At the beginning of the Depression, a banker from Paris, Texas named McDonald left $1 million in his will to the University of Texas at Austin to build an observatory. This was a surprise to the university since they did not even have an astronomy department. It was also a surprise to McDonald's heirs, who contested the will in court. A few years and a few hundred thousand dollars later the university got the money and contacted the astronomy department at the University of Chicago to ask for their help. They selected a location here in Jeff Davis County, because it was on a mountain top a few miles from a newly built road. This county has 250 days of sunshine a year and little light pollution, since less than 3,000 people live in the entire county. To this day it's known as the darkest spot in the lower 48. The third largest telescope in the world at that time was built here and the folks from Chicago kept things humming until the 1960's, when UT was ready to assume total responsibility.

Since astronomers do their work at night, the facility is open and available for visitors during the day. The day tour started with a lecture and observation about the sun. We saw sun flares occurring at that moment (actually eight minutes earlier since the sun is 93 million miles away). The flares were six to eight times as large as the planet earth and they were relatively small ones. The universe is just so darn big, I have trouble wrapping my mind around it all.

Then we saw the 107 inch optical telescope, the third largest when it was built in 1969. It’s still in use every clear night. It contains one mirror 107 inches in diameter. There is a limit to how big a mirror can be made. Its weight makes it begin to bend, rendering it useless as a precise reflective device. So the newest telescope here has 91 one meter mirrors that are joined together in a way that reminded me of the complex eyes of insects. It seems really hard to align 107 mirrors into one smooth surface, but they have figured out how. Fiber optical cables are attached to it and the images are sent to monitors as well as distant locations. This means that astronomers do not have to come here to do their work. They request the part of the sky they want to examine and are sent an e-mail when the results have been stored on a server. We would think that they would be glad not to have to travel to this remote spot, but the astronomers seemed to regret no longer having the hands on experience. This is also true for the telescopes mounted on satellites like the Hubble. I would have thought that they would have rendered telescopes mounted on land obsolete, but there is so much exploration that needs to be done, that astronomers are lined up six months out just to use the telescopes here.

In the evening we were lucky to be here on the one night a month when the observatory hosts a dinner and viewing with the 107 telescope. An astronomer gave a presentation illustrating that little of the viewing that astronomers do results in the pretty pictures that we have seen from the Hubble. Rather they learn much more using spectroscopy. Each element in the periodic table gives off a unique spectrum when gasified. When the light from a star is viewed in this manner, it gives off a unique footprint of colors and bands that reminded us of DNA. After we viewed a few pure gas’s spectra, we were able to identify the gases inside a mystery tube.

Because the moon is almost full, it was too bright to view distant stars with the 107. Instead we were shown the moon and Mars. After the patient astronomers gave us all a chance to have multiple views, we all went home and they went to work for the night on their projects. We were very impressed by all the outreach programs this observatory does.

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