The McDonald Observatory, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin, offers the traveler a fine antidote to any disenchantment they may experience with the dust, heat and endlessly flat landscape of West Texas. This astronomical viewing point, perched on a cold hill outside Fort Davis, has been around for a while.
Upon his death in 1926, banker William Johnson McDonald bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to the University of Texas for the observatory. Although officially founded in 1933, it wasn’t until 1939 that the McDonald installed its first telescope, at that time the second-largest in the world.
The Observatory is, first and foremost, a research center. Its team of astronomers work with more than a dozen telescopes of various sizes, ranging from the vast 433-inch Hobby-Eberly Telescope, to the eight-inch commercially available reflectors.
As the Observatory’s guides explain, all telescopes work by gathering and focusing light so that distant images can be studied in detail. The telescopes are suited to different tasks, and visitors have the chance to view a variety of phenomena, including black holes, passing planets, and distant galaxies, in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park.
Needless to say, the real fun begins after dark, but it’s worth going early and spending an afternoon learning a little more about the center, including the opportunity to visit its larger telescopes and research facilities, before the events begin. Modest refreshments are available at the StarDate Café, and the tours, exhibits and short films will keep you enthralled for a few hours.
Programs take place every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. The festivities kick off at dusk with the Observatory’s Twilight Program. The program is at its most enchanting when conditions are favorable to holding it in the outdoor amphitheater rather than the indoor auditorium.
Outside, small pinpricks of silver light start to emerge as the sky darkens around you. And what a sky it is, vast even to the seasoned Texas night sky viewer. From the amphitheater’s hilltop the sky forms a remarkable dome around you. You spend much of the night craning your neck to see the stars moving above and behind you — and move they do, surprisingly rapidly.
What begins as a lovely smattering of stars during the Twilight Program transforms in time for the Observatory’s apogee, the Star Party. During the brief intermission between the two events, search your car for any spare coats, blankets, and extra pairs of socks you have lying around. The nights can be shockingly cold, and I would advise visitors to bring more layers than they ever thought necessary. Even bundled up in three sweaters, a winter coat, and blanket, I found myself shivering for most of the event. It’s well worth the discomfort: Shivering does somewhat qualify the natural rapture evoked by the sight of the night sky.
By the time you return to the amphitheater, the sky is luminous with stars. Particularly on moonless nights, it’s challenging to pick out even the most commonly recognized constellations from the profusion of stars around them. The guides assist in this with the help of laser pointers that appear to reach the stars themselves, tracing shapes and indicating points of interest.
The Star Party leaders are always simultaneously engaging storytellers and knowledgeable scientists. Depending on the night, you might hear the story of Andromeda and Persius, Romulus and Remus, or Hercules, illustrated in constellations. You may learn that the Sun is in an unusually long Solar Minimum (with reduced solar activity), or see the two stars that used to be North Stars before the earth wobbled on its axis. You’ll hear that you are seeing the stars as they were around the time of the fall of Troy.
After the Star Party, you can move between the various high-powered telescopes, all focused on different planets or phenomena. You may see Saturn’s rings, a black hole, or the death of a star.
One warning: Beware of javelinas on the drive back down the mountain. It’s dark and winding, and best taken slowly.
One of the greatest delights offered by the Observatory is the chance to return. The sky is, naturally, ever-changing, and it is both fascinating and a little frightening to watch how dramatically the Earth moves through the Solar System. Visits offer a rare opportunity to reflect on the magnificent and the personal, the known and the hauntingly mysterious.
*Featured/top image: Visitors gather before a Star Party. Photo by Gretchen Greer.