As I mentioned in our Frama post, we were given the absolutely excellent suggestion to visit the McDonald Observatory for a night. The observatory is part of the University of Texas at Austin, and located just north of Marfa, TX (Fort Davis is the closest town). Located in a region known for some of the darkest night skies in the United States, the surrounding area has special light ordinances (shaded street lights, red lights, etc.) that make for amazing star gazing!
We were able to reserve tickets for their Saturday night Star Party – and are so happy we did.
The drive up to the observatory is gorgeous, and makes it pretty clear why these are some of the darkest skies – there’s no one around!
As you wind through the hills on the way to the observatory, the telescopes come into view. I thought this Hobby-Eberly telescope was beautiful – and it’s one of the world’s largest optical telescopes. It’s used for spectroscopy – meaning that they use this telescope to study and decode the light from the stars to then learn the properties that make up each star and galaxy.
While the name of the event may sound raucous, a Star Party at the observatory is family-friendly. We started with a “tour” of the night sky. Our guide led us through the visible constellations, explaining the origin of the names of each constellation, and how they relate to each other. Because of the abundance of stars, we saw a few constellations more clearly than ever!
Red lights are everywhere to help preserve night vision, and we were encouraged to turn off camera screens (flash was obviously prohibited!).
Even with a nearly full moon, we could view a dazzling display of stars, planets, and constellations. Our night even started with the quick passage overhead of the International Space Station!
Lining up for a peek at the telescopes felt like something from a science fiction movie! We weren’t allowed access to the three massive telescope domes, but the several viewing stations we did have access to provided fantastic views.
We saw two views of the moon (one with the full moon, another close-up on curve and craters), Jupiter along with 4 of its moons, Mars, two star clusters, and the Orion Nebula (also known as M-42).
The Orion Nebula is one of the coolest sights I’ve seen! It looked like something from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day - we could see the colorful, gaseous vision
You can see a bit of my face in this picture!
I absolutely, definitely recommend the McDonald Observatory if you are anywhere near West Texas. We had such a great time, and all of the guides and astronomers were extremely helpful in helping us see the specific sights, as well as understand what we were seeing.
I’m now looking forward to visiting another observatory! We’ll have to start checking to see if there are some in the Northwest, as we head up to the Dakotas and Montana.
Writing, eating, loving, laughing, and enjoying where life takes me.
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