Texas’ legendary wide-open spaces took a cosmic turn recently when my wife and I headed west on a 5-day road trip to the Fort Davis Mountains and the McDonald Observatory as well as surrounding sights. From New Braunfels we opted for highway 90 rather than I-10 to experience many of the small towns along the slower road’s route. We spent the night in Sanderson and were glad we had packed a cooler; there were almost no options to eating out. The next morning, we passed through Marathon, Alpine, Marfa and up route 17 north to Fort Davis and the magnificent Indian Lodge, about a mile above sea level and only 13 miles from the Observatory, which sat close to the highest peak in the state at 6,791 feet.
The McDonald’s Observatory is one of Texas’ greatest treasures and site of some of the most exciting space explorations taking place on the planet. We drove up to it the same afternoon we settled into Indian Lodge and bought tickets for the next morning’s tour at 10:30. Little did we know at the time that we were the only ones who would sign up, so we had the very competent and entertaining docent, Kelly, to ourselves from 10:30 to 1:45.
Now connected to and managed by the University of Texas at Austin science department, it was originally funded by banker and confederate soldier, William J. McDonald who gave a large sum of money to UT in 1926 to finance an observatory. Today there are no less than 10 telescopes on two mountain tops: Locke and Fowlkes We met our guide after watching a brief documentary on the history of the site and the current recent of galaxies in deep space continuing today. Many of the ten scopes are used every clear night of the year, which is substantial, since this part of the United States is one of the darkest and so more conducive to deep exploration of the stars and surrounding galaxies. Scientists from around the planet rent time on the telescopes and stay in comfortable living quarters on the ground.
Kelly then began tapping into other telescopes around the globe because cloud cover spoiled our morning by canceling our using the scopes on the property. He selected a telescope in South Africa and one in Chile; the images we saw were only minutes old. He also pulled into view a telescope circling the earth that gave us magnificent photos an hour old of explosions on the sun’s surface as well as black spots that revealed cooler terrain on the sun’s face. More collaboration with other countries sharing their data with one another has greatly accelerated research projects in many countries while controlling this costly research.
We were told that the kinds of research taking place at McDonalds include “the inner workings of stars, the birth of planets, the violent collisions between galaxies, as well as the fate of the universe.” Heavy stuff, but with the technology improving so rapidly, these arenas, once not even thought of, are now occurring from many vantage points globally.
Then Kelly fetched a small bus and the three of us headed up the mountain from the Frank Bash Research Center, containing a movie theater, bookstore and small restaurant. Our first stop was on Mount Locke and the Harlan J. Smith telescope, dedicated in 1968 and renamed in Smith’s honor in 1995. It was originally built in response to the space race that heated up in the 1960s. Here the fun began. The Smith telescope weighs 120 tons and is balanced by an equal weight. Its balance is so fine that it only requires a 1.5 horsepower motor to move it. I was given the hand-held controls with a toggle switch that could be moved in four directions and instructed to bring the telescope, with its 107” mirror, around to line up with where the roof would open to the skies. The telescope moved smoothly and effortlessly; over 200 tons gracefully gliding up and toward the ceiling.
Of the 2 dozen or so other places on the planet like McDonald’s in sophistication, McDonald’s is in the top 10. Of course, everything here is more sophisticated than the first sky gazer to watch the heavens through a crude telescope 400 years earlier, Galileo Galilei in Italy. Nonetheless, his charcoal drawings of sunspots are uncannily exact and similar in design to those photos the telescopes of today capture. Kelly’s explanation of what a telescope is–a light gatherer, so that the greater in diameter its mirrors, are the more light it is capable of capturing–was very helpful. The large diameter Smith telescope as well as the newest, the Hobby-Eberly, which we visited next on the adjoining hill to see being restored and updated, are world class scopes.
The latter, we learned, is actually a spectroscopic telescope, meaning it does not capture images so much as it splits light from an object into its component wave lengths by means of 91 identical six-sided sequins fitting together like floor tiles. Its target is objects in deep space; it pierces the light that makes up the object and its brightness, which tells its distance from the earth. Spectroscopy also reveals chemical compositions of an object and a star’s surface temperature from which its history and future can be measured. Built at an original cost of a mere $20 million, its renovation will be upwards of $42 million. It should be fully operational sometime in 2017.
After our close look at three of the scopes, Kelly ended by informing us that the Observatory has one of the most extensive outreach programs in the world. Astronomy is an area of study that pulls just about everyone’s interest into its orbit; here the hope is to increase all of our understandings of the greater complexity of the created universe than was ever imagined before. We found from what we learned and saw that our narrow vision looking at the stars with the naked eye actually opens out to a galactic panorama that continues to expand and excite all who study it through these deep eyes into the cosmos. What struck my wife and me was the perspective that a telescope can engender in the viewer, pulling us out of our small world view to consider a vastness that allows us to see our small world’s conflicts from a much larger lens; we found it liberating.
Dennis P. Slattery
Dennis Patrick Slattery Ph.D., has been teaching for more than 50 years, the last 26 of which has been in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California, where he is currently Emeritus Faculty.More Posts by Dennis P. Slattery