Sunday, May 3, 2015

McDonald Observatory - 05/03/15 - Fort Davis, TX

Sunday – May 3, 2015
McDonald Observatory
Fort Davis, Texas

We visited the McDonald Observatory today. We had planned to visit the observatory in October 2014, but severe storms at that time, throughout the south and southwest, forced us to alter our route to a northerly route to travel to the southwest.

The McDonald Observatory is an astronomical observatory located on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, (near Fort Davis) with additional facilities on Mount Fowlkes, approximately 1.3 miles to the northeast. The high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region and provide excellent conditions for astronomical research.

McDonald Observatory was operated under contract by the University of Chicago until the 1960s, when control was transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. The site is primarily funded through two special items in the Texas state budget: the McDonald Observatory line item and the CASA (Center for Advanced Studies in Astronomy) line item.

The McDonald Observatory was originally endowed by the Texas banker William Johnson McDonald (1844–1926). He left about $1,000,000 - the bulk of his fortune - to the University of Texas to endow an astronomical observatory. The provision of the will was challenged by McDonald's relatives, but after a long legal fight, the University received about $800,000 from the estate and construction began at Mount Locke.

The then-unnamed Otto Struve Telescope was the first large telescope built at the observatory and was dedicated on May 5, 1939, and at that time was the second largest telescope in the world. It is located on Mount Locke at an altitude of 6,790 feet.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), dedicated in late 1997, is located on the summit of Mount Fowlkes at an elevation of 6,660 feet. It is operated jointly by the University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, and Georg-August University of Göttingen. As of 2012, the HET is tied with the similar Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) as the fifth largest telescope in the world.

Currently, the observatory operates four research telescopes and one visitor telescope at its West Texas site:

  • 9.2 m (362 inch) Hobby-Eberly Telescope on Mount Fowlkes (1997)
  • 2.7 m (107 inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope on Mount Locke (1968)
  • 2.1 m (82 inch) Otto Struve Telescope on Mount Locke (1939)
  • 0.8 m (31 inch) large format imaging telescope on Mount Locke]
  • 0.9 m (35 inch) telescope used for visitor programs on Mount Locke

The observatory produces StarDate, a daily syndicated radio program consisting of short segments related to astronomy that airs on many National Public Radio affiliates.

Research at the McDonald Observatory encompasses a wide variety of topics and projects, including planetary systems, stars and stellar spectroscopy, the interstellar medium, extragalactic astronomy, and theoretical astronomy.

The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, located between Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes, includes a café, gift shop, and interactive exhibit hall. The Visitors Center conducts daily live solar viewings in a large theater and tours of the observatory's largest telescopes. It also hosts evening star parties, every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, which allow visitors to look through numerous telescopes of various sizes in the Telescope Park.

There are special viewing nights, during which visitors can stay on-site and view directly through eyepieces on the 0.9 m, Struve (2.1m), or Smith (2.7m) telescopes, are held on a reservation-only basis. – Wikipedia

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