McDonald Observatory – Daytime Tour
Location: Davis Mountains, West Texas
Hours: Open 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM, tours 11:00 AM & 2:00 PM
Cost: $8 for a 90-minute tour and solar presentation
Season: Year round
Date Visited: January 18, 2019
Description: The University of Texas, Austin’s research observatory, with daily tours open to the the public.
Deborah and I checked out the McDonald Observatory last month, attending the daytime solar presentation and tour of the telescopes. This tour was a good deal, and we loved it. They started us out with an excellent presentation on the sun, with all kinds of cool facts about about our giant star. We learned about the complicated magnetic field on the sun, how solar flares are formed, and all kinds of interesting stuff. The sun is amazing, and Deborah and I geeked out pretty hard on all the science, but then then took us up to the telescopes…
After the talk, they took us up to the two largest telescopes on the campus, taking us inside the domes, and showing us all the equipment. The Harlen J. Smith telescope was my favorite. This telescope was built in the 1960’s, and had all kinds of mechanical systems controlling it. The tour guide showed us all the different ways it moved around, from large sweeps to precise tracking. He also talked about various configurations that astronomers use with the lenses, and the maintenance procedures needed to keep the mirror clean. It was an awesome telescope and very fun to see.
We also checked out the Hobby-Eberly telescope, built in the 1990’s, and primarily designed to confirm, (as well as disprove), the habitability of distant planets. This one used more modern techniques to look at the sky, relying heavily on spectrum analysis to find out what various things in the sky were made out of. More recently, the Hobby-Eberly was recently upgraded to study very distant stars, with light nearly as old as the big bang. Scientists are hoping these old stars will provide clues about the nature of dark matter and the expanding size of the universe. Cool stuff!
The McDonald Observatory also hosts star parties onsite throughout the week. They set up telescopes for the public to use, and staff are there to help people out, and answer questions. We were super excited about checking one of these out, but got weathered out twice, (it was winter time). Still these looked awesome, and we wished we could have attended one.
More information for the McDonald Observatory can be found on the McDonald Observatory Website:
McDonald Observatory – General Information