Day 22 – Exploring the McDonald Observatory

Smith Telescope

Our morning walk up to John's "office" under bright blue skies. Click on any image to enlarge.

14 April 2011. It felt good to stay off my bike today. I did so partly because my legs needed a rest and partly because of the 40-50 mph winds. Oh, and there’s that little issue of wildfires in the area! The forecast is for much calmer winds tomorrow. I’ll try to get a relatively early start for Fort Davis and Alpine (as early as I comfortably can, with nighttime temperatures expected to be in the low 30s).

Kuehne house

John either walks or bikes the mile or so up to the Observatory each morning. His house is on the right and largely hidden by trees.

Back door and deck

The back of John's house and the deck where I slept. It might be too cold to sleep under the stars tonight with the summer-rated sleeping bag I have.

I slept out on the deck here last night. I think it only went down to about 45, and I did just fine in my summer sleeping bag. I’m not so sure about tonight. I’ll probably either sleep inside on the living room floor or borrow an extra blanket. When I got into my sleeping bag, the coyotes were howling all around, and javalinas were wandering around the yard. I was glad that the deck is fenced in!

I did some writing first thing in the morning (it gets light here around 7:30), then walked up to the Observatory with John. I wanted a chance to take a few photos in the 107-inch Smith telescope, which I couldn’t do the previous evening. The lights were on this morning, so no problem.

Boston University facility

On our walk up to the 82- and 107-inch telescopes, John had to stop at this facility owned by Boston University to see about re-booting a video camera that provides a sky image on the McDonald Observatory network (so scientists don't have to look outside).

Smith Telescope

The Harlan J. Smith Telescope was completed in 1968 after UT Austin took over management of the Observatory.

Smith telescope

Much of the contraption on the right is to direct captured light from the heavens down into a spectroscopy room that occupies much of the floor below.

I left John, who went to his office, and I headed back down to the house. I gathered things I would want for the day, loaded them into one of my panniers, and walked the quarter-mile to the Visitor’s Center. There, I signed up for the 11 am tour, starting in a half-hour, and went into the theater to watch a video about light pollution and the McDonald Observatory. Apparently, this is about the darkest place in the Continental United States—ideal for an observatory.

Interestingly, when Texas banker William J. McDonald died in 1926 he left his million-dollar estate to the University of Texas to build an observatory. After some legal expenses (other potential heirs challenged his leaving the estate to UT rather than them, apparently), the university was left with about $800,000. Unfortunately, UT didn’t have an astronomy department. They arranged for the University of Chicago to operate the observatory, which it did for the first 25 years. In the early years, scientists would come by train from Chicago to Alpine and spend weeks to a few months here.

The tour was preceded by a lecture on stars, our Sun, and such features as sunspots and solar flares. The docent, Rachel, did a great job, then most of us (a dozen by then) boarded a shuttle bus for the drive up the hill. I had seen the 107-inch Smith telescope, but it was great to learn a bit more about it. I was more interested in seeing the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), the McDonald Observatory’s newest member of the family—and the fifth largest telescope in the world today.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Looking over at the 9.2-meter (433-inch) Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which became operational in 1997, after a long period of commissioning.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Up close at the revolutionary Hobby-Eberly Telescope--built on a budget.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope mirrors

The 91 hexagonal mirrors of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope are visible--if you look carefully.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope mirrors

It turns out that photographing mirrors is tricky.

The HET is a quite different telescope than the others. It was designed by two engineers at Penn State University specifically for low-cost. Rather than a single, massive mirror, this has 91 smaller, meter-wide, hexagonal mirrors, all with identical curvature (for mass production), and weighing only about 100 pounds each. The structural framework was manufactured by a Texas company that builds bridges. The geodesic-dome housing was made by a company that makes radar domes. The mirror is swiveled using air bearings (like one of those air-hockey games). It’s high-tech, but low cost, and was built by a consortium of six universities: UT Austin, Penn State, Stanford, and two in Germany.

Distant fires still burning

Fires in the distance were still burning today--and no doubt fueled by the strong winds. Note the smoke near the center of the photo.

Texas Highways high-elevation point

Interesting bit of trivia. Though very dry, it usually stays relatively cool here in the summers.

Following the tour, I returned to the Visitor’s Center, had a great lunch, and spent much of the afternoon writing, reading brochures about the area, and—significantly—not bicycling! Periodically, I would glance out the window, where I could see smoke rising from wildfires that are still burning east of Fort Davis. I gather that in riding through Fort Davis tomorrow, I’ll see lots of evidence of the fires.

If all goes well, I’m hoping to spend a few hours at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, just south of Fort Davis, then bike on down to Alpine. In Alpine, I’ll be getting new tires for my bike and staying in the guest cottage of another WarmShowers host. From there I’ll decide whether and how to visit nearby towns of Marfa and Marathon and whether to try to get down to Big Bend National Park—which would involve a car rental.