Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trip Report: McDonald Observatory

Sitting atop Mt. Locke, a 6,791 foot tall peak in the Davis Mountains a few miles northwest of Ft. Davis, is McDonald Observatory, a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin. Three domes sit at or near the top of Mount Locke while another observatory sits atop nearby Mount Fowlkes. To learn more about the telescopes used at McDonald Observatory, click here.

Donna and I arrived at the Frank N. Bash Visitors' Center -- at the base of Mount Locke -- a few minutes prior to 11:00 AM one morning.

Frank N. Bash Visitors' Center, with domes atop Mt. Locke in background.
What a stroke of luck! We were just in time for the Solar Viewing tour. We started with a program in the theater. An employee spent almost one hour showing live shots of the sun and explaining about sun spots, solar flares, and prominences. Only 2 other people were in the theater, so Donna and I were able to ask questions and interact with the presenter on a personal level.

Next, the presenter loaded Donna and me (the other two people did not join us for this part of the tour) in a bus and drove us to the top of Mt. Locke where we had some wonderful views to the south.

View from atop Mt. Locke. Pointed spire in center is Mitre Peak, about 25 miles or so to the south. Between the two flat-topped mountains is Cathedral Mountain, probably 50 or more miles to the south.
We then entered the dome housing the Harlan J. Smith 2.7 meter telescope. At the time of construction (1966-68), this was the third largest telescope in the world. Since this telescope is only used at night, we were shown how the telescope moves, how the doors to the dome opened, and other mechanical operations.

Harlan J. Smith Telescope

We finished our tour on Mt. Fowlkes, which is home to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world's largest optical telescopes with a 9.2 meter mirror. This is the newest addition to the telescopes at McDonald Observatory, and it was dedicated in 1997.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope (dome) atop Mount Fowlkes

Mirror of Hobby-Eberly Telescope. It is difficult to actually see the mirror -- look for reflections of poles. We had a difficult time seeing the mirror in person, and we were only about 10 yards from it.

Approaching the Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mount Fowlkes from the taller Mount Locke.

Otto Struve and Harlan J. Smith telescopes atop Mount Locke (center) and Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mount Fowlkes (right)

I believe this is the Otto Struve Telescope, which is very close to the Harlan J. Smith Telescope atop Mount Locke.

This is a smaller telescope on a ledge of Mount Locke below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope.
This was a fascinating tour, and well worth the $8 per person admission. It began at 11:00 AM (promptly) and finished about 1:30 PM. I was actually able to man the controls in the Harlan J. Smith Telescope and not only manipulate the telescope but to rotate the dome.

McDonald Observatory is a different world. A small community exists at Mount Locke. Employees are housed on site. The scientists work at night. After all, the observatory is located there due to the dark, clear skies, a result of being so far removed from population areas. Also, the land was donated, so the price was right.

The University of Texas partners with many other institutes around the world, and scientists from non-partner insitutes can reserve time on the telescopes -- at a price, of course. There are also many opportunities for regular folks to enjoy the observatory, including regularly scheduled "star parties".

This is a  must-see site for anyone passing through this area of West Texas.

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