Summer Brings New Attractions to McDonald Observatory

11 July 2003

FORT DAVIS, Texas—New attractions at McDonald Observatory’s Visitors Center allow patrons to catch an up close and personal view of the Sun, as well as garner in-depth insights about science and skywatching in a small-group setting.

A $10 thousand donation from Mr. Otto Wetzel has made it possible for live views of the Sun’s surface to be projected onto the screen inside the Visitor Center theater. The gift allowed a telescope stationed outside the Center to be outfitted with a new mounting system, and connected the telescope to computers inside the Center by fiber optic cable. The telescope can now be controlled remotely, from inside the Visitor's Center.

Daytime visitors can beat the heat inside the Center’s theater while enjoying real-time views of the Sun that show details as small as a few thousand miles across on the Sun’s surface. (This "Solar Viewing Program" is included in the General Admission ticket.)

The donor, Mr. Wetzel, is a long-time member of the Observatory’s Board of Visitors, an independent philanthropic and lobbying organization which supports the Observatory and UT Austin Department of Astronomy.

Another new addition to the programs of the McDonald Observatory Visitors Center this summer is the Twilight Program. This engaging, hour-long instructional presentation gives visitors a chance to learn about a topic in astronomy in a small-group setting. The program begins 90 minutes before the Star Party, and topics vary throughout the year. (Call our information line for specifics.) Tickets for the Twilight Program must be purchased during normal business hours the day of the program.

McDonald’s many other visitors programs are still going strong. By day, knowledgeable guides lead tours of the research telescopes (at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.), interpreting the telescopes’ histories, operations, and the science they work on. Visitors can get a peek at the largest telescope mirror in the world from the viewing gallery of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, and enjoy hundred-mile vistas of area mountains from the top of Mount Locke, site of the highest public road in Texas.

Inside the Visitors Center, extensive exhibits explain what astronomers do at an Observatory. Our theater offers a movie about the history of McDonald, while the StarDate Cafe offers "some of the best food in West Texas," according to The Dallas Morning News. Visitors can browse the astronomy gift shop for fun and educational items.

McDonald Observatory by night is a unique experience. The site is one of the darkest in the country for astronomical observing. McDonald’s famous public Star Parties take place on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Visitors can look through telescopes at the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park, and take part in tours of the constellations in the new outdoor Star Amphitheater. Star Party start times vary throughout the year based on the time of sunset. From April through August they begin at 9:30 p.m.

McDonald Observatory is located in the heart of the Davis Mountains of West Texas (see map). Visitors traveling east on Interstate 10 from El Paso take Highway 118 south at Kent for the 34-mile drive to the Observatory. Visitors traveling west on Interstate 10 may take Highway 17 south at Balmorhea to Fort Davis, then Highway 118 north 16 miles to the Observatory. Visitors coming from Big Bend National Park take Highway 118 north through Alpine and Fort Davis to the Observatory.

Visitors traveling from areas in the Mountain Time zone (e.g., El Paso) wishing to attend scheduled activities such as tours and Star Parties should note that the Observatory is on Central Time.

For recorded information on program times and prices, please call toll-free 877-984-7827. For other information, please call 432-426-3640.

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Note to Editors: High resolution images of McDonald Observatory, including its research telescopes and interiors and exteriors of the new Visitors Center, are available here.