After lunch I drove to the McDonald Observatory, where I had a most interesting and exciting visit. It happened that, at the time of my arrival at the visitor center, there was no one else to take the tour. Because I was a “tour group” of one, the guide took me into four of the telescopes instead of the usual two. What a treat! I felt very special. After my visit I went to Balmorhea State Park to spend the night.
McDonald Observatory, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin, is one of the world's leading centers for astronomical research, teaching, and public education and outreach. Observatory facilities are located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, which offer some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States. The Observatory's administrative offices are on the UT-Austin campus. The Observatory works with the University's Department of Astronomy on both research and teaching.
McDonald's principal research telescopes are:
HOBBY-EBERLY TELESCOPE – Constructed on Mount Fowlkes, it was dedicated in 1997. With its 433-inch mirror, it is one of the world's largest optical telescopes. It is optimized for spectroscopy, the decoding of light from stars and galaxies to study their properties. This makes it ideal for searching for planets around other stars and studying distant galaxies, exploding stars, black holes and more. The HET is a joint project of The University of Texas at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.
HARLAN J. SMITH TELESCOPE – It was constructed in 1966-68 on Mount Locke (6809 feet). It has a 107-inch)mirror, which was the third largest in the world when built. The telescope is used every clear night of the year.
OTTO STRUVE TELESCOPE – It was constructed in 1933-39 on Mount Locke (6809 feet). It was the first major telescope to be built at McDonald Observatory. Its 82-inch mirror was the second largest in the world at the time. The telescope is still in use today.
OTHER TELESCOPES - McDonald Observatory also operates a 30-inch telescope and a laser system that measures the distance between Earth and the Moon and tracks the drift of Earth's continents.