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McDonald Observatory 3 – Terrestrial Observations

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

2021.06.12 - There were only a few hours of darkness left by the time I finally retreated to bed. All too soon, the hot sun filled the valley with inescapable heat and the birds relentlessly beckoned me to consciousness. The day's plans were simple, head to the city of Alpine for the "At Night Symposium," return to the Observatory in the afternoon for a quick tour at the Visitor Center, and lastly, scout around the area for potential locations for the next night's astrophotography session.

The Milky Way Galaxy over Fort Davis State Park
The Hobby Eberly 10m Telescope nestled in the Chihuahuan Desert flora

When I was younger, I recall loving my Hennessy Hammock for camping trips. However, as I have grown older, I often find that it is primarily an open invitation for back pain. In addition, the radiant heat from the rocks beneath the hammock made me feel like a piece of meat cooking over a fire even though the temperature technically dipped into the high 60s. Sometime around 4:00 am, I gave up on the hammock and pitched my 3-person tent in the dark. The tent is much larger so I could spread out, and the ample mesh allowed for a great deal more wind to pass through. With nothing more than a light sheet over me, I finally fell asleep under the canopy of the Milky Way.

I find that setting up the rain fly during the day makes for a cooler tent at night

During the previous night on the top of Mount Locke, I talked to multiple members of the Texas Photographic Society about a symposium they were presenting at the next day. It seemed incredibly fortuitous that I would happen to be in West Texas on the same weekend as a photography symposium, so I happily accepted their invitation even though I knew that I would be exhausted the next day. The “At Night Symposium” started at 10:00 am about 35 minutes away in Alpine, so I woke up soon after sunrise to pack up and head Southeast on TX-118.

The drive South meandered gently through long miles of barren desert. The lone point of interest that caught my eye was the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. From the ragged edge of the asphalt shoulder, a long dirt road stretched over a small hill towards a beautifully cultivated desert landscape. The unique botanical garden is open to visitors, and I was actually very interested in visiting, but unfortunately, I was already late for the symposium so I had to save that for another trip.

Countless dust devils danced across the already hot desert basin, and layers of clouds dominated the sky

I arrived in Alpine to discover that I had actually driven through this town once before on my trip home from Big Bend Ranch State Park a year or so prior. It was nice to have the opportunity to stop this time around and experience this small, but unique college town. The symposium was being held at the beautiful Museum of The Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University Campus. It took a little bit of searching, but I finally found the building nestled into a beautiful, vegetative corner of the campus.

I arrived just in time to see most of a presentation by James Evens. He spent many years photographing the daily life of people and the expansive landscapes of West Texas and it was a joy to hear him share his experiences about this distinctive corner of the world which in many ways was similar to my own. I have spent my entire life loving West Texas in one way or another. When I was young, I loved it in passing as my family cut through the landscape a few times every year to see family in El Paso (where I was born) and New Mexico. However, as I grew older, I found myself purposely venturing out into the distant corners of the desert to experience all the incredible natural wonders hidden in its isolated oases.

The next feature was a round table hosted by one of our hosts from the night prior, Stephen Hummel. He moderated a panel with conservation experts from around the area discussing the importance of creating the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve. It was a very informative and interesting discussion about the importance of preserving our dark skies, especially in places as special as Greater Big Bend which is one of the largest and last remaining dark sky areas in the United States. I live in Houston, a part of the country where light pollution is so bad that even on a clear night the sky is often nothing more than a featureless blue/green gradient with a handful of pale dots barely visible. Only planets and the brightest stars can be seen, and the light pollution projects hundreds of miles in all directions. I specifically retreat to West Texas to get back the skies I remember seeing as a kid in the Central Texas Hill Country (where those skies largely no longer exist due to suburban sprawl in the San Antonio/Austin area).

I can’t overemphasize the importance of reducing light pollution. Not only for what it does to our view of the sky, but also how it affects the lives of everything that lives in light-polluted areas. Excess light wastes electricity by projecting unused light into the upper atmosphere which taxes our already vulnerable electrical grid. It causes glare which is dangerous for drivers and pilots. It confuses local wildlife and makes them more active at night which increases the potential for accidents with planes and vehicles. It disrupts the migration patterns and diurnal cycles for birds and bugs and millions of animals die unnecessarily. Humans are not immune to the side effects of excessive light either as it also affects the sleep cycles of the people living in these over-lit locations. One of the best things about light pollution mitigation efforts is that the results can be seen immediately. Life needs the dark to survive, and we owe it to our environment and ourselves to bring back the value that a dark night provides to all living things.

The uncomfortably empty, pandemic-era Frank N Bash Visitor Center

The symposium broke for a quick lunch break around noon, but even though I was very interested in the rest of the day's presentations, I had previously reserved a spot at the McDonald Observatory’s Visitor Center (COVID restrictions required online, time-specific reservations). Instead of defaulting to some generic fast food, I specifically went in search of some local food because West Texas Mexican food is often very good (based on my El Paso/New Mexico/Chihuahuan taste preferences from my childhood). Initially, my plans were thwarted by a stalled train that bisected the entire city of Alpine for over 20 minutes while I sat in 100F + heat tired and hungry, but it finally passed and I was able to make it to Alicia’s Mexican Restaurant. I ordered an absolutely fantastic breakfast burrito with everything you could possibly want in it (eggs, cheese, beans, bacon, chorizo, etc.). If you ever find yourself hungry in Alpine, TX, I highly recommend that you stop by.

I ate my burrito in the parking lot (COVID made them resort to drive-thru only for the time being), while I endeavored to download the drivers for the portable screen I had picked up on the way out of San Antonio to replace my failing laptop screen. It took a while to download the files to my computer from the hot spot on my phone, but I finally had the monitor up and running so I could be more prepared for the following night. I also downloaded drivers for the small guide camera that would help the star tracker to follow the stars more accurately, but little did I know that effort was a waste of time.

Foreground: The new 12m wide radio telescope of the Geodetic Observatory will begin operations in 2022 to study the variation of Earth's shape, gravity, and rotation over time

Full and quite happy, I headed back up TX-118 and through the winding mountain roads to the Observatory arriving on time for my tour reservation. On the walk from the parking lot, you can get a pretty good view of the facility as a whole. The shimmering silver geodesic dome to the left (NE) of the Visitor’s Center is the massive 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) sitting upon the rounded summit of Mt. Fowlkes. It is one of the largest optical telescopes and utilizes a segmented mirror design to reach a 10-meter (32 ft 10 in diameter) width. A solid mirror of the same diameter would cost considerably more than the honeycomb array developed for this telescope (the James Webb Telescope uses a similar design to reduce size, cost, and weight). I was able to visit the visitor's viewing area of the HET many years ago with my wife, but this time around the small viewing area was closed due to COVID concerns. The site also houses a laser ranging station (that I believe works with the 12m radio telescope pictured above), a 1m telescope, and a few additional instruments and buildings that are not open to the public.

The 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope (left) and the 2.7m Harlan J Smith Telescope (right)

On the adjacent mountain, Mt. Locke, the Harlan J Smith (HJS) 2.7m (107 in diameter) telescope presides over the summit. When it was constructed in 1968 it was one of the largest in the world, but it has since been eclipsed many times over in the ever-expanding endeavor to collect more light. In the past, it also used an extremely powerful laser to target a retroreflector on the moon and calculate the range (distance) of the moon from the Earth as the Moon moves in its elliptical orbit.

From left to right: Hobby-Eberly, Harlan J Smith, and Otto Struve

Next to the HJS telescope, is the original major telescope of the McDonald Observatory, the venerable Otto Struve Telescope (see a larger photo in my first post here). With its 2.1m mirror, it was the second largest optical telescope in the world in 1939. The difference in age is obvious, especially given the classic architecture of the building reminiscent of government buildings of the time, but the Otto Struve Telescope is still in operation as its imaging detectors have been updated over time.

An open, circular amphitheater makes perfect sense when the sky is the attraction

If you follow the arcing pathway to the left of the Visitor Center’s entry doors, a narrow ramp leads up to a spiraling assortment of small telescopes and ends at a series of concentric rock benches set in a circular field of gravel. During the almost always sold-out Star Parties that the Observatory holds throughout the year, people from all over the world gather to experience the universe through a guided tour. An experienced astronomer leads the group through the night sky using a powerful green laser to point out constellations, planets, and even galaxies. My wife and I visited well over a decade ago, and it was the first time I saw the Andromeda Galaxy with my own eyes (no equipment needed). After the presentation, the group spreads out to visit the many small telescopes that are focused on a series of stellar objects visible at the time of the event. I recall seeing the Cat’s Eye Nebula through one of the larger scopes. If you ever get the chance, the drive out to the Observatory is well worth it, especially if you reserve a spot for a Star Party.

My reserved time expired as the Visitor’s Center shut down for the day. I walked back to my car to see towering clouds and ample upper-atmospheric haze to the South. The obscured sky was definitely not what I was hoping for, but weather changes quickly in the desert, so I decided to head North on TX-118 anyway to see if I could find an optimal location to take photos of the Observatory under the stars. The narrow two-lane road snaked through the dry, mountain countryside making for a beautiful scenic drive. The view from the basin North of the observatory is considerably different from the mountainous South, so it was much easier to view the entire facility from a distance.

I drove up until I reached TX-118’s intersection with TX-166, but the view I was looking for was hidden by hills and trees. I would have loved to complete the scenic drive all the way around, but my mission for the day was to prepare for the night, so I didn't have the time to explore. I flipped around and drove back down to a picnic area I had seen on the way up. I stopped for a short while at L.E. Wood Picnic Area where Madera Canyon intersected TX-118. The trees provided some protection for the sun, and I had a nice hike towards a small canyon in the adjacent mountain.

Having stretched my legs, I headed back the way I had come. I caught a brief glimpse of the Hobby-Eberly between the trees so I stopped again to contemplate how I would spend my evening. I figured that a photo of the Observatory from the road just North would be optimal, but the logistics of coming out this far in the middle of the night and setting up gear on the side of the road was going to be both a risk and a challenge. I kept my options open and headed back to Davis Mountain State Park for a rest, to prepare my gear, and to make a final decision on where I would spend the night.

© 2017-2021 Shaun C Tarpley

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