Comments, Questions, and Internet Links
We've tried to include practically any information you might need to plan your visit to McDonald Observatory in the other pages of our site. But, hey, we're not perfect (as much as some of us like to think so ... ). So here are some questions that people frequently ask. Before e-mailing us with your question, check the list below to see if it already has been answered here. If you still can't find the information you need, please contact us.
This address works for delivery purposes, but may not be available for various mapping services.
Here's a list of internet links that we use frequently.
- What are your recommendations for places to stay while visiting McDonald Observatory?
- Are Star Parties canceled on cloudy or rainy nights?
- How do I get to McDonald Observatory?
- What can I do if I visit McDonald Observatory?
- Is the Observatory handicap-accessible?
- Will the Observatory/Visitors Center be open on (holidays, special dates, etc.)?
- Can you mail me some/all of this information?
- Can I get a nighttime tour of the Observatory?
- Do your public programs require reservations?
- What is the best time to visit the Observatory?
- I'm traveling with young children. Why do the Star Parties have to start so late in the Summer?
- I don't have a telescope, can I still join a Star Party?
- I have my own telescope, can I set up during the Star Party?
- What is your policy on pets at your programs?
- Are there waiting lists for your Special Viewing Nights programs?
- What is the nearest airport and car rental to the Observatory?
- Are there places to eat at the Observatory?
- Are there RV hook-ups and/or camping facilities at the Observatory?
- How far in advance do I need to make reservations for a private program?
- Can large groups join the regular public programs?
- I'm interested is seeing the Aurora Borealis, when can I come to the Observatory to see them?
- How many people typically attend one of the Star Party programs?
- Do you offer a discount for students/faculty/staff of the University of Texas?
- Why don't you show us live views from the research telescopes?
- Why don't you use cameras and video displays to show objects being viewed at the Star Parties?
Answers to the FAQs
An up-to-date listing of all accommodations in the Fort Davis area is available through the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce web site.
No, Star Parties are held rain or shi ... er ... well ... clear skies. If it's too cloudy/rainy/windy/dusty/humid (we get strange weather up here sometimes) to do our observing, we conduct indoor programs instead. These can include, but are not limited to, "virtual" Sky tours, spectroscopy demonstrations (an activity designed to give our visitors a better understanding of how astronomers learn about the universe), presentations on satellite viewing, etc. Occasionally, research astronomers will join us to provide talks on their current research programs. Because we have such a wide array of interesting, educational programs to present on these nights, many visitors who've joined both clear-night and cloudy-night programs tell us that they feel like they learned even more about astronomy on the cloudy-night. We do understand that some folks, for whatever reason, may not want to stay for these indoor programs. For those who decide NOT to participate in any of our indoor activities, rain-checks are typically offered to those who purchased passes at the door and reschedules are offered to those who made online reservations. Refunds, minus a small processing fee, are typically also made available on completely cloudy/rainy nights. The rain-checks, reschedules, and refunds process will be discussed at the beginning of the program or at whatever time it is deemed that a nominal Star Party program cannot be offered. Rain-checks, reschedules, and refunds are typically only offered at the beginning of the program ... after the talks, demos, etc., have begun, we assume those remaining plan to stay. For more on what happens at our Star Parties, be sure to read the "Learn more about what happens at the Star Parties ..." drop-down text available on the Star Party & Twilight Program page.
Directions to the Observatory from the major highways in the area are available in the Visiting section of our site.
Descriptions and schedules for all of our programs are available in the various programs sections of our site. We offer twice daily Daytime Programs and thrice-weekly Star Party programs throughout the year as well as occasional Special Viewing programs on some of the research telescopes. While access to the research telescopes outside of the twice daily guided tours is limited, self guided tours are also available between 10:00a and 5:00p everyday. We highly recommend purchasing the $3 informational booklet at the Information Desk if arrive during operating hours. Also available free upon request is our new accordian folded color self-guided tour map (also available as a PDF download here.)
Generally speaking, yes ... but please spend a little more time making your plans. For visiting our research areas, your best plan is to join us for one of our twice-daily guided tours. During the tour, you'll have access to an elevator at the 107-inch dome that would otherwise be unavailable. If you need to drive your own vehicle to the top, ask the staff at the Visitors Center Information Desk for a special parking permit to be able to park right next to the dome.
For the most part, our other activities are accessible without special preparations. Solar Viewings are conducted in our multimedia theater at the Visitors Center using remote telescopes and video equipment. Most visitors find that getting to the eyepieces of our telescopes during Star Parties requires only moderate assistance (the possible exception being our 22-inch and 24-inch telescopes which sometimes require the ability to climb several steps).
Our 36" Special Viewing Night and 82" Special Viewing Night are NOT wheelchair accessible. If you're considering joining this program and have accessibility concerns, please call our Visitors Center at (432) 426-3640.
In late summer of 2010, we unveiled a spectacular new telescope at our Visitors Center which is specifically designed for wheelchair access.
Officially the Observatory/Visitors Center is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years' Day, and we don't conduct Star Party programs on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve. The Gift Shop is closed one day each year near the end of August in order to conduct an annual inventory. If you are wondering if this may happen on the day you're planning to visit, feel free to call us (432-426-3640). Other than these times, the Center is open 10:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. every day.
Our web site is designed to provide the most current information in the most timely way. We have little printed information which is much more generic than what appears on these pages. What we do have printed can be obtained by calling the Visitors Center at 432-426-3640.
Tours of our facility are conducted every day at 11:00 A.M.. and 2:00 P.M. which is the best way to see the research areas. Nighttime access is generally restricted to our Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the Frank Bash Visitors Center where our thrice-week evening Star Parties are conducted.
All programs are subject to capacity limits. All programs are subject to selling out so advance reservations are STRONGLY encouraged. To ensure program participation, make advance reservations using our online reservations system for our regular weekly programs, the Guided Tours, Solar Viewings, Twilight Programs, and Star Parties. Occasionally, passes for these programs may be available at the door at a higher price but availability will be strictly limited. Do yourself a favor and make reservations online if you plan to participate in ANY of our programs. Reservations are also required (typically months in advance) for our Special Viewing Nights on the 107", 82", and 36" research telescopes.
There's no easy way to answer that one ... it depends on what you want to do or see. To see the research areas, you'll want to visit between 10:00 A.M.. and 4:30 P.M. daily (particularly, the Guided Tours.) For nighttime telescope viewing, our Star Parties are your best bet. If you're asking for the best time of year to visit us, typically Autumn brings us our most consistently clear skies. Over the next few years, Spring/Summer will be the best time for seeing Saturn and Jupiter. If you plan on attending a Star Party, consider the phase of the Moon. With the Moon at any phase between several days before First Quarter and 3 or 4 days past Full, bright moonlight limits our ability to observe faint objects but, of course, gives us great views of the Moon itself. You can see a calendar of Moon phases at StarDate Online to help you make your plans.
As much as we'd like to start the Star Parties in the Summer at an earlier time, it is just not dark enough to do so until nearly 10:00 P.M. The Observatory is located very far west in the Central Time zone, so while we are in the same time zone as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the times of sunrise and sunset are very different. In fact, the Sun sets at the Observatory almost an hour later than it does in Houston.
Having a telescope is not necessary ... we've got quite a few. Come on up and join us. All you really need is a desire to learn about the night sky. Binoculars can help as well (but, once again, they aren't necessary.)
The Observatory welcomes volunteers. However, University policy requires volunteers to have a current background check on file with the Observatory before volunteering with the public. If you plan to be in our area and would like to volunteer either with your telescope or using one of ours, please email our volunteer coordinator to find out more about volunteering and the background check process. If, after the background check process, you do plan to set up your own telescope, understand that the public Star Parties frequently accommodate 300-500 attendees. If you would rather not have that many people around your expensive equipment, volunteering to use one of our telescopes is more than appreciated and welcome.
You are also welcome set up your telescope on non-Star Party nights and/or well away from the public telescope park facility. Do note that the Observatory is not a campground or park. If you’re observing, you’re welcome to be on-site. Please do not plan to over-night either with a camper/trailer, RV, or tent.
As much as most of us would love to welcome our four-legged furry friends, UT policy does not allow pets in Observatory buildings or in public program venues.
Our online reservation system gives an up-to-date status on the availability of all of our programs. If the status is showing in red, it means the program is sold out .. green means there are passes available. If the program in which you're interested is showing as sold out, either pick a different date or enter yourself onto an automated waiting list by clicking on the "Waiting List" link. However, the waiting list does not guarantee you a place on the program in the event of a cancellation. All the waiting list does is notify you via email in the event of a cancellation. Once you receive such an email, you'll still need to sign up for the program before anyone else does to secure your spot(s). You might also find our regular Star Party programs to be quite enjoyable. While we do occasionally receive requests for cancellations, such requests are rare .. particularly for the various Special Viewing Nights. We do not maintain call-back lists for our programs.
There isn't a "nearby" airport. For private aviation there are airstrips in Marfa and Alpine (both about 40 miles from the Observatory). Both have car rental services. For commercial flights, the nearest airports are in El Paso (185 miles) and Midland-Odessa (170 miles). Although you can count on roughly 2.5 to 3 hour drives from either, when driving from El Paso you'll lose an hour going from Mountain time (El Paso) to Central time (McDonald).
The StarDate Cafe offers various freshly prepared hot & cold sandwiches as well as various snacks, cold drinks, coffee, hot chocolate, etc. Please see the linked page for a current menu and range of prices. While the Café staff will make every effort to accommodate you, please be aware that limited resources at our very small kitchen facility may prevent us from meeting your specific dietary needs. The StarDate Café has vegetarian menu choices, and staff can advise you about options to meet your specific requirements. If you have special dietary needs, please plan ahead by checking the Café menu and/or contacting the Café ahead of your visit to discuss your needs. Please notify the Café staff of any food allergies when placing your order. Note that the Café does sell packaged snacks that contain peanuts.
There are many restaurants in Fort Davis offering a reasonably wide variety of food. There are several roadside picnic tables nearby on Hwy 118 (two towards Fort Davis, about 1/2 mile and 2 miles, and another about 1/2 mile towards Kent.) A very nice picnic area, called the Lawrence E. Wood Roadside Rest Area, is about 8 miles northwest of McDonald towards Kent along Hwy 118.
No, the Observatory is a University of Texas research facility and is not associated with the State/National Park systems. Overnight camping/RVing on Observatory grounds is NOT permitted. The are a number of places in and around Fort Davis that do offer camping/RVing. Please check the official Fort Davis website for a list of area accommodations.
Private programs, when on rare occasions when they're available, must be arranged at least 40 days prior to the date you are requesting. Availability for private programs is strictly limited.
Groups are more than welcome to join us for any of our programs. Making online reservations is the best way to ensure your group's participation. On occasion, we can offer private activities that may better suit your group's needs. If you have any questions concerning your group's visit, please feel free to contact us.
The Aurora Borealis is only rarely seen at latitudes below 35 degrees. The Observatory is at 30 degrees north, so seeing the aurorae here is quite rare ... happening perhaps only a half of a dozen times every solar cycle (approx. 11 years.) Typically, solar and geomagnetic activity must be at an extreme maximum for us to see any activity at all and is difficult to predict at best. An excellent resource for learning more about such activity is the NASA supported site called SpaceWeather.com.
Star Party attendance varies throughout the year. Please see the Star Party averages page for more information on this subject.
The Visitors Center operations do not receive direct funding from either the Observatory or the University but we do offer a small discount to our UT colleagues with a current valid UT ID. To receive this discount, simply enter any passes for CURRENT UT students, staff, or faculty under the "Military/Senior(65+)" category in the reservations section of your program of interest.
When an astronomer does research with a large telescope, the majority of the time, they're not using cameras to produce a pretty picture that would be suitable for displaying on a screen at the Visitors Center or on your computer at home. 70-80% of the time, astronomers at McDonald (and most observatories) are using the technique of spectroscopy ... splitting the light of an astronomical object up into its component colors and carefully analyzing that spectrum. There is a tremendous wealth of information packed in the light from these objects that spectroscopy and other techniques allow the astronomers to access. Unfortunately, that information is not readily accessible in its raw, unprocessed, and unanalyzed form. So, it's not the sort of information from which any conclusions can be drawn. There would be essentially nothing to be gained from sending a raw feed of information to the Center from the research telescopes for the purposes of viewing at a Star Party or online.
There are several problems with this idea. First, if you want to see views of astronomical objects on a screen, there are any number of websites (Astronomy Picture of the Day would be a great place to start) you can browse from the comfort of your own home to see great images and read explanations of what the image is about. The point of coming all the way out to a Star Party at the Visitors Center is to have the opportunity to actually view through large telescopes under clear skies. There aren't that many places where that's possible .. particularly where one can have access to some of the darkest skies in the country. Producing a live image of an astronomical object on a screen is also a LOT harder than it may sound. It takes highly sensitive (expensive) cameras to capture the faint light of, say, a distant galaxy. While there are cameras that can do this ... albeit with exposure times of many seconds so the view is not, technically, "live" ... the images that are produced with such devices are generally nowhere near the quality of the images that are produced by cameras that take many minutes to hours of exposure time and a great deal of image-processing work. And, again, we're back to the question of why drive all the way out to the Observatory to see an image on a screen that you could see at home? The human eye, under dark conditions and allowed to fully dark-adapted, is exquisitely sensitive to light and is capable of seeing subtleties of intensity and structure that are lost in video images. We find that most of our visitors want to view directly through our telescopes, so that's what we do. Additionally, if we ask our visitors to look at an illuminated screen for, say, 15 or 20 minutes while we discuss various objects on the screen, even turning the display to low intensity levels would be enough to severely impact their dark-adaptation and would potentially ruin their views of objects through other telescopes.