What are Astronomers Doing at McDonald Observatory?

5 May 2003

AUSTIN, Texas — Do you ever wonder what astronomers do at an observatory? A new website from The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory reveals exactly which cosmic questions astronomers are trying to solve right now. Updated weekly, the site tells which astronomer is hard at work on what problem on each of four McDonald telescopes that week. The site also includes information about the telescopes, their instruments, and insight into the lives of the astronomers that use them -- all in plain English. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"McDonald has always been open to the public," Observatory Director Frank Bash said. "Now we’re making it even easier for folks to know what we’re doing here. Science is a process that goes on every clear night of the year at McDonald Observatory -- not just when major results are announced. Now people can go to this site at any time and see what we’re doing. I think it’s fantastic."

The address of the site is: http://mcdonaldobservatory.org/research

This week at the site, read about projects as diverse as looking for planets around the burnt-out cores of dead stars (called white dwarfs), to the study of black holes at the heart of massive elliptical galaxies, to finding the birthplace of stars in the disk of our Milky Way, to the mysteries of exploding stars called supernovae. Last but not least, the site also details this week’s upgrades to the telescopes and computer systems – maintenance vital to keep the Observatory running at peak efficiency.

One of the goals of the project is to show that scientists are people, too. To that end, the site includes brief interview-based biographies of the astronomers, accompanied by pictures of astronomers running in marathons, climbing mountains, Hungarian dancing, and more.

The site includes explanations of The Hobby-Eberly Telescope, The 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope, The 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope, and The 0.8-meter Telescope. And though instruments are not as well known as the telescopes that use them, telescopes would be useless without them. So the site includes descriptions and pictures of the instruments used on McDonald’s telescopes, and explains why an astronomer would choose one instrument over another to investigate a particular problem. Spectrographs, photometers, polarimeters, and more are explained.

The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Math and Physical Sciences Internship in Public Science Education program to Mary Kay Hemenway and Sandra Preston. The program brings current science research results to the public by promoting partnerships between the research community and specialists in public science education. It provides support for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as elementary and secondary-school teachers, to work in conjunction with research scientists and professionals at science centers and museums.

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