Taft Armandroff, Director
Frank and Susan Bash Endowed Chair
In this SkyWord newsletter, we are sharing with you, the friends and supporters of McDonald Observatory, some of the Observatory’s most recent research results, outreach news, and a view of some of our team.
Our featured research result concerns an Earth-sized exoplanet revealed by the Kepler Space Telescope and aided by the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. The study of exoplanets is perhaps the fastest growing and most exciting area of astronomy today. October 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet. Before that, astronomers struggled without success to find unequivocal evidence of planets beyond our own solar system. Finding and studying exoplanets is a technical challenge because they are so much less massive and so much fainter than their parent stars, plus they are projected on the sky incredibly close to their parent stars. However, more than 1,800 exoplanets have now been confirmed, which is a tribute to advances in astronomical techniques and the passion of exoplanet hunters. McDonald Observatory is a major player in the field of exoplanets, with vital contributions coming from astronomers Bill Cochran and Mike Endl and their colleagues, using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, Harlan J. Smith Telescope, Kepler, and other facilities.
Through SkyWord and other means, we enjoy keeping you current with progress on the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which the University of Texas at Austin is developing in partnership with 10 other world-class educational and research institutions. GMT will be the largest telescope in the world when it comes online in 2021, and its revolutionary capabilities will enable observational data on astronomical targets that are completely inaccessible today. GMT has reached the critical milestone of its groundbreaking, which is taking place at the GMT site in Chile on November 11.
Also in this issue is a spotlight on Craig Nance, McDonald Observatory superintendent based in West Texas. Many of you may have met Craig on your visits to the Observatory. With Craig’s engineering rigor, deep experience in observatory operations, and love of the night sky, we are very fortunate to have his leadership in West Texas.
As a scientific field, astronomy benefits immensely from the interest of the public. This enables wonderful outreach opportunities to share broadly all that we are learning about the universe. In Texas, popular public outreach institutions include our own Frank N. Bash Visitors Center and StarDate radio, plus the Texas Star Party, the planetariums across Texas, and the many Texas astronomy clubs. There is a new force in Texas astronomy outreach: Astronomy On Tap, which features speakers and astronomy news alongside craft beer and cocktails monthly in Austin. This wholly new environment for scientific outreach is attracting a diverse crowd of astronomy enthusiasts. The event — and the two postdocs who are the creative force behind it, Rachael Livermore and Jeffrey Silverman — are featured here as well.
Lastly, this summer we were honored to host University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven at McDonald Observatory. The Chancellor toured the McDonald telescopes, saw the latest hardware for HETDEX, viewed the night sky, and interacted with astronomers, other Observatory staff, and friends of the Observatory. Chancellor McRaven has a passion for science in general and astronomy in particular. As a strong advocate for the University of Texas, science, and higher education, the Chancellor’s words were inspiring to everyone who met him at the Observatory.