Skyword: November 2015

November 2015

Lambert

David grew up in Kent, England, just south of London. He attended an all-boys grammar school (i.e., high school). As a junior there, he won a competition for which the prize was thirty shillings toward the purchase of a book from a local shop. David went to this bookstore and, from its shelves, he pulled Frontiers of Astronomy by Fred Hoyle, a book about general astronomy. "I don't know why I chose this book; I may have just rummaged around and found it," he says. Regardless, he became enamored of the study of astronomy and, specifically, the build up of atomic elements in stars, called "nucleosynthesis."

"Not quite a proper scientist."

Upon graduating from grammar school, David enrolled in Oxford University where he completed both his undergraduate and graduate studies. While at Oxford, he was advised by a "very kind lady on the faculty" that Fred Hoyle was "not quite a proper scientist" because of his sometimes controversial ideas about astronomy. For David, however, this remark immediately drew him to Hoyle as a role model.

"I ignored that advice as I often did."

Upon graduation in 1967, David left England for America where he worked for two years at the California Institute of Technology. While he did some stellar spectroscopy at Caltech's Mt. Wilson Observatory, David's sights were set on the University of Texas where the Harlan J. Smith 2.7-meter Telescope was just being completed. "I was advised by numerous people to not come to Texas, but I ignored that advice as I often did." In 1969, David came to the University of Texas, and, except for semesters abroad in India and other nations, he has resided here since.

"Whatever takes your fancy."

David has spent many years learning the details of using the telescopes at McDonald and how to apply spectroscopy to understand the physical processes governing nucleosynthesis in stars. "Once you understand spectroscopy," he says, "you have a tool to apply to whatever takes your fancy." David has applied this tool in many realms. He has tested theories of cosmology, observed the gas between the stars, and has investigated ideas of star formation.

"A potassium atom absorbs this light and then squirts it out in some random direction"

One exciting moment in his career involved the discovery of a shell of gas and dust around the star Betelgeuse. Light from the star "goes out into the shell, a potassium atom absorbs this light and then squirts it out in some random direction. That random direction is sometimes headed towards McDonald Observatory." By pointing the telescope slightly away from the star, one can measure the amount of light from the potassium gives off, and determine the amount and nature of material in the shell of gas and dust surrounding the star.

"He looks like a Walt Disney dog."

David became the Director of McDonald Observatory on October 1, 2003. He has also played a direct role in teaching the students of UT about astronomy as a professor and former Chairperson of the Department of Astronomy. However, he still maintains time for a good game of squash. Since his youth, David has also had a passion for reading. As a teenager, he scoured the public library for books on astronomy. Today, he enjoys reading biographies and poetry. His favorite poets include some contemporary writers but also more traditional ones such as John Donne, a 17th century Anglican priest and poet. Together with his wife, Melody, David enjoys walking his dog, Fergas, who came from the animal shelter and "looks like a Walt Disney dog."

David Lambert
Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair, Astronomy
Professor at The University of Texas at Austin
Director, McDonald Observatory
Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair, University of Texas at Austin
D. Phil., Astrophysics, Balliol College, Oxford
B.A., Physics, University College, Oxford

Dinerstein

UT astronomer and professor Harriet Dinerstein grew up in the middle of New York City. The light pollution of this vast city made it impossible to see the stars at night. However, Harriet was inspired by her visits to the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium, now replaced by the Rose Center for Earth and Space Science.

While in high school, she participated in a National Science Foundation-sponsored program at the Hayden Planetarium. This program introduced Harriet to astronomy as a science, enabled her to meet real live astronomers, and cemented her love of the subject. It was 1969, the summer of the first moonwalk.

Continuing with her astronomical interests, she received her undergraduate degree from Yale University, and then attended graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the home of Lick Observatory. Her dissertation work involved combining observations from two different spectral regimes, infrared and optical; today, this kind of "multi-wavelength" astronomy is widely used to study all kinds of astronomical objects and problems.

Harriet's first postdoctoral position was as a National Research Council fellow at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, which at that time was home base for the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a flying telescope that was the forerunner of SOFIA , the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy that is currently being built.

Harriet Dinerstein first came to the University of Texas in 1982 as a Robert A. Welch Foundation postdoctoral fellow, and joined the University's faculty in 1985. Since then, she has done research on star formation, extragalactic ionized nebulae, classical novae, supernova remnants, and most of all, planetary nebulae.

Harriet has been awarded two of the major research prizes of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) the Annie Jump Cannon Award in 1984 (awarded jointly by the AAS and the American Association of University Women, AAUW) and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in 1989. She has also taught a dozen different courses at UT and won two Teaching Excellence awards.

Her husband, Dan Lester, is a Research Scientist working for McDonald Observatory, with an office right down the hall from hers. They have two daughters, Amanda and Jenna, who are both fanatical soccer players.

In her free time, Harriet relaxes with the Austin Balkan Singers, a group of women that perform folk music from such places as Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Croatia.

Harriet Dinerstein
Professor of Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D., Astronomy, University of California at Santa Cruz
B.S., Astronomy and Physics, Yale University

Kelton

While most people tend to see astronomy as a romantic and intellectual endeavor, Phil Kelton, Acting Superintendent of McDonald Observatory, is very aware of the nitty gritty parts of running an observatory. In fact, that's the main part of his job. An observatory, like any other organization or business, has to be financially functional and efficient in operation. Unlike other astronomers, who receive time on the telescopes to study the skies, Phil receives time to help maintain and upgrade the equipment. "Day to day, there is a routine aspect to running an observatory," he reflects, "and the end result is to produce telescopes and instruments that are effective at doing research."

"I do a little of everything."

Phil is a man of many interests. He enjoys sports (especially basketball) hiking, amateur astronomy, chess, computer science, wine tasting, duplicate bridge, traveling, and all kinds of music. "I do a little of everything," he says. Many of these hobbies stemmed from interests that developed during his childhood in Texas and Nebraska. He started stargazing when he was 14 years old and had a few small telescopes. He also enjoyed playing chess in his sixth grade class. "We got time out from class to sit and play chess," he remembers, "and we used to do chess tournaments every week."

"A cat called Cat."

When he's not working at the office or at the Observatory, Phil likes to spend time at home with his wife, who teaches French at The University of Texas. Also in the household is a cat, called Cat, that was a childhood pet for his three grown children - Erica, Kevin, and Christina.

"Astronomy is fun!"

Phil came to astronomy in a very roundabout way. He started out studying physics at the University of Nebraska and received a bachelor's degree in the subject. He then got a master's degree in computer science. Finally, he came to The University of Texas to work toward a doctorate. Rather than focus solely on computers, though, he decided to put his knowledge to use in astronomy. "I just sort of shifted into astronomy and started working for McDonald Observatory," he says. He worked on real-time computing and instrumentation for astronomy for his Ph.D. "Astronomy is just fun!" he says. "I like telescopes and the sky and everything about astronomy."

Phil Kelton
Acting Superintendent of McDonald Observatory
Ph.D., Interdisciplinary Studies; University of Texas
M.S., Computer Science; University of Nebraska
B.S., Physics; University of Nebraska

Gyorgyey Ries

When Judit Gyorgyey Ries was in the 6th grade in Hungary, she read a book about astronomy whose title is roughly translated as Tales of the Moon. It was this book that made her "totally fall in love with astronomy." Once she was hooked, she charted a course for her future that allowed her to study her new favorite subject.

She received her Masters degree in Physics Education and Astronomy from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. When she was 25 years old, she came to the University of Texas where she earned a Masters degree in aerospace engineering, and later a Ph.D. in astronomy. She is currently a Research Engineer/Science Associate in the astronomy department at the University of Texas.

"The word ‘deductable'"
Judit came to Texas from Hungary, where she grew up. While she did speak English when she arrived here, there were still many new words and cultural nuances that she had to get used to. "Funny things like the word ‘deductable' didn't mean anything to me," she says, "because it was a totally different system." She adjusted quickly, however, and later married an American and settled in Austin. Her husband is an aerospace engineer at UT.

"When you turn, those skirts fly!"
Upon arriving in the United States, Judit found out about a Hungarian dance group that needed a translator for the non-English speaking instructor. She volunteered to help, and has been involved with Hungarian folk dancing ever since. The group Judit performs with, which includes people of Hungarian, Japanese, Taiwanese, American, and Belgian descent, has been invited to dance at international dance festivals in the United States and in Hungary. The dancers' costumes are all specially made. The dresses that Judit and the other women get to wear have very full skirts and petticoats so that "when you turn, those skirts fly!" It's an aerobic activity that's very enjoyable for all involved, she says.

"You need to catch it again."
In her astronomical work, Judit studies Near Earth Asteroids. She spends her time at the telescope looking for new asteroids and following up on new observations from other observatories. If a new object is found, it is very important to observe it again soon. "You need to catch it again close to the discovery," she says, so that astronomers can calculate its precise orbit. Staying up late at the telescope has never been a problem for Judit, who is a self-described night-owl. She loves to stargaze at McDonald Observatory, and she has even seen the Aurora Borealis from there. (It is unusual to see these so-called "Northern Lights" from such a far southern location.) An added bonus to Judit's work is that she's helping to keep the Earth safe from asteroid impacts. Whether she is watching the skies with a telescope or with her eyes, it is clear that Judit's passion for astronomy has provided her with a lifelong career that's perfect for her.

Judit Gyorgyey Ries
Research Engineer/Science Associate, University of Texas
Ph.D., Astronomy; University of Texas
M.E., Aerospace Engineering; University of Texas
M.S., Astronomy, Physics Education; Eotvos Lorand University,
Budapest, Hungary

Endl

The best part of astronomy for Research Scientist Michael Endl is the "excitement of discovery," he says. Mike uses his time at McDonald Observatory to search for extrasolar planets, that is, planets around other stars. He says that nothing he has seen recently can compare to the moment in his student days when he discovered his first extrasolar planet. While working with another student at an observatory in South America, Mike says they looked on a computer screen at the signal from a star, and their jaws dropped. "We actually found a planet!" he recalls. And for a short time, they reveled in the knowledge that they were "the only guys on Earth who knew that there is a giant planet orbiting that star!" This, Michael says, is the greatest reward of doing astronomy. "It's the incredible feeling," he insists, "to have found something totally and completely new."

"I was an avid amateur astronomer."
Michael has always been a loyal astronomy enthusiast, even as a child in Vienna, Austria. At age 10, he built his own refracting telescope. However, it was not always obvious that he was destined to become a professional astronomer, especially towards the end of his high school career. "I became a computer nerd," he laughs, "but I really didn't like it." So much so, in fact, that after starting out with a job working on computers, he decided to attend the University of Vienna to study physics and astronomy. Later, he was able to spend two years studying in Chile before finally receiving his Ph.D. He came to the University of Texas as a post-doctoral fellow to look for extrasolar planets after finishing his degree in Vienna.

"It might have been ugly if I had really fallen in."
As a native Austrian, Mike is very familiar with big mountains. "I love mountain climbing," he says, "especially in the Himalayas and the Andes." The highest mountain Mike has ever climbed is called Aconcagua in the Andes. The peak rises almost 7000 meters (23,000 feet) into the air, and while there is an easy path to the summit, Michael and his partner chose to scale a more difficult ice route instead. "Up near the summit, I broke into a crevasse," he recalls. "It was funny because I saw it, but it was bigger than I thought." Michael pulled himself out on the other side and warned his partner about it. Because of the very thin air at that altitude, even jumping over the small gap was a true feat. "We had to laugh," he says, recalling the several minutes they had to spend panting and recovering from this mini-adventure. "But it might have been ugly if I had really fallen in."

"I think it's too early to tell."
Like his ability to work on different continents and climb in varied environments, Mike's opinions about life elsewhere in the universe are quite flexible. He certainly thinks that such life exists, but whether it is simply single-celled bacteria or beings that are intelligent remains to be seen. "I think it's too early to tell," he says, adding that new technology might shed more light on the subject. Better telescopes that will become available to astronomers within the next 20 years should allow them to find Earth-sized planets, and possibly even signs of primitive life. Michael, however, asserts that he "has an open mind." He is ready for anything.

Michael Endl
Research Scientist, University of Texas
Ph.D., Astronomy; University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria

Hill

Ever think about who is your model astronomer? How about a person who likes music, is in awe of old cathedrals, and first became interested in astronomy while having his appendix removed? Well, Gary Hill, a senior research scientist and Chief Astronomer for McDonald Observatory, is all of these things and more.

"Don't do biology."

Gary was born in Leeds, in northern England, the son to an architect and dress designer. As a child, his interests included model airplanes, marine biology, and ornithology, the study of birds. He attended a large new Comprehensive School, where, as Gary says, he "benefitted from many very eager teachers before they got beaten down by the system."

On a field trip to Oxford University, young Gary spoke with a marine biologist there about his interests in her area of study. However, she quickly warned Gary, "Don't do biology." She advised Gary that the study of physics and mathematics would prepare him for work in other areas, even marine biology. As he took physics classes the next year, Gary found that he had quite a knack for solving the problems put forth in physics. In fact, he found that these problems were even fun to solve.

While having his appendix removed.

As a young teenager, Gary had his appendix removed, and, while in the hospital, he began reading a book on astronomy by Isaac Asimov. Gary learned that his skills in physics could be applied to learn more about phenomena in astronomy. Especially, he was interested in the properties of neutron stars. This newly found fascination solidified Gary's plans to study physics as an undergraduate student.

A young but courageous student.

As a student in his second year at Oxford University, Gary sent letters to observatories around the world, requesting summer positions. After receiving offers from observatories in Green Bank, West Virginia, and New Zealand, Gary decided to go to Steward Observatory in Arizona. While at Steward, Gary discovered that he enjoyed working with astronomical instruments and decided that he needed to attend graduate school in the United States to pursue this interest. He graduated from Oxford in 1983 and left for The University of Hawaii.

"Through our mutual interest in music."

As a graduate student, Gary was disappointed because there were no opportunities to work on astronomical instrumentation. However, he did gain valuable experience in cosmology, the study of the properties and evolution of the universe as a whole. Also, while at The University of Hawaii, he met his wife, Yoshie Hasumi, through their mutual interest in music. After graduating in 1988, Gary and Yoshie moved to Austin, Texas.

"Do what you can with it."

Gary came to The University of Texas as The McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow, a prestigious research position, but, says Gary, "The instrumentation was too inefficient to do any of the projects I wanted to do." This prompted Gary to build his first instrument, the Imaging Grism Instrument (IGI).

At the time, IGI was supposed to be a short-term instrument. Basically, Gary says, he was told, "Here's 5,000 bucks. Do what you can with it." However, IGI is now one of the more heavily used instruments at McDonald even though it is more than a decade old. Subsequently, Gary led the team which built an instrument for The Hobby-Eberly Telescope -- the Low Resolution Spectrograph.

Music, architecture, and travel.

In his spare time, Gary enjoys the diverse live music scene in Austin. Gary also enjoys traveling around Europe and Japan. In particular, he has an appreciation for the cathedrals, temples, and mosques constructed many centuries ago. "The ability of people to build these enormous structures without any formal training in engineering is amazing," he says. When he's not building instruments, studying cosmology, catching a band, or traveling around the world, Gary finds that working on his house in Austin is "a full-time job."

Gary Hill
Senior Research Scientist, Chief Astronomer, McDonald Observatory
Ph.D, University of Hawaii
M.S., Oxford University
B.A., Oxford University

Gebhardt

If faculty member Karl Gebhardt wasn't an astronomer at the University of Texas, he would want to be a construction worker. In fact, he worked in construction while he was in graduate school, landscaping and building houses. What's the appeal? "You get to drive really big trucks!" he grins. Currently, this Associate Professor of Astronomy still likes to spend his free time working on his house and gardening. "We grow a lot of flowers and vegetables," he says. "Texas is a good place for that."

"Tossing a lot of good books at me" Karl grew up in Rochester, New York, where his mother worked as a hospital administrator. During his grade school years, his favorite teacher was Mrs. Tomoanovich who taught 11th grade English. "I appreciated her," he remembers, "for tossing a lot of good books at me." Among other works, the class read books by Herman Hess and Absalom, Absalom! and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. "She had a good style of teaching, and the books had a big impact," he says.

"One person can make an difference." Although he started out studying physics in graduate school, Karl was drawn to astronomy in part because of its personal nature. While research in physics often involves hundreds of scientists working together on the same project, Karl saw astronomy "as a way where one person can make an difference." What's more, compared to the many people who work in physics, the astronomy community is rather small. As Karl says, "It's a small enough group in astronomy that you tend to know most of the people, and they're spread throughout the world. So pretty much anywhere you go in the world, there's someone you know and have interacted with. Astronomers tend to be pretty nice people so that works out quite well."

"A common misconception" Like a growing number of professional astronomers, Karl rarely sees a telescope anymore. Most of the telescopes he uses, such as the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, are queue scheduled. Instead of having to be present at the telescope to make his observations, Karl simply waits for the telescope staff to make the observations for him. Data collected on his behalf are usually transmitted to him electronically, so he never even has to leave his office. The idea that he's spending nights in a telescope dome is, as he says, a "common misconception." "People think it's weird," he says, "but it's pretty typical."

Karl Gebhardt, Herman and Joan Suit Professor in Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin

Ph.D., Physics and Astronomy; Rutgers University

M.S., Physics and Astronomy; Michigan State University

B.S., Physics and Astronomy; University of Rochester

Harvey

Paul Harvey grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with two younger brothers. His dad was a mechanical engineer, and his mom was a draftswoman. From a young age, he was interested in science. "Been in physics and astronomy since elementary school," says Paul, who, in junior high, built his own telescope. Today, he continues to build instruments for telescopes both on the ground and in the air. In particular, he has constructed spectrographs for use at McDonald Observatory and at observatories on Hawaii's Mauna Kea.

Connecticut, California, Arizona, and Texas.

Paul attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, for his undergraduate degree in physics. From Connecticut to California, Paul traveled to continue his studies in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned his Ph.D. from Caltech in physics, but his dissertation focused on astronomical observing and instrumentation. Paul then worked at the University of Arizona for seven years as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a research scientist. After his work in Tucson, Paul came to Austin, Texas, where he was a professor of astronomy before switching to a full time research career.

Interests in astronomy.

Paul's interests in astronomy center around instruments that work in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some of these are part of space missions, such as Spitzer Space Telescope and Hershchel. For the Spitzer, Paul was a leading co-investigator in a major project to observe star-forming regions. He is a scientific advisor or mission scientist for the Herschel Observatory. In the past, Paul has worked with the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, an airplane that was equipped with an infrared telescope.

"Our climbing party became a rescue party."

Paul enjoys rock climbing and downhill skiing. In a trip to Mount Rainier, an active, snow-encased volcano in Washington, Paul and some friends were climbing the 4,000 meter peak when two of their group fell into a crevasse and the "climbing party became a rescue party." Certainly, Paul's dedication and endurance as an athlete render him more capable in astronomy, allowing him to be more patient in building intricate instruments and productive during long nights at observing at McDonald Observatory.

Paul Harvey
Senior Research Fellow, University of Texas at Austin
Senior Research Scientist, University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D. Physics, California Institute of Technology
B. S. Physics, Wesleyan University

Benedict

Fritz Benedict, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Texas, loves to sail. "I've got a Catalina 22 on Lake Travis," he says, "and I get to go too darn few times." When he's not sailing, he likes to spend time with his wife Ann and their dog Darcy. "Darcy is a cross between a Dalmatian and a Basset Hound," he says, "and there's been much discussion about how that could possibly occur."

"I was lucky." While Fritz claims that he is "still in the process of growing up," his childhood years were spent in a variety of places. He was born in Northern California, and shortly thereafter his family moved to Saudi Arabia. For high school, he attended an American school in Beirut, Lebanon. "I was lucky," he remembers, referring to the fact that he could attend high school relatively close to his family's home in Saudi Arabia. "Lebanon was still a civilized place when I was in high school."

"Something snapped in my brain." Even as a child, Fritz knew where his future career lay. As he says, "When I was eight, something snapped in my brain and I decided I wanted to be an astronomer." In fact, that conviction is what got him through college. "College was a whole lot of fun," he remembers. "In my junior year, I had to decide whether I was going to continue to have a whole lot of fun or do some work and get a degree. But there was that promise I made myself, so I chose the astronomy."

"Kids playing in the sandbox" True to his personality, Fritz views the field of astronomy with good natured enthusiasm. He enjoys the process of astronomy – everything from observing at the telescope to getting an answer to a scientific question. And when it comes to collaborations with other scientists, Fritz has a mental picture in mind. "I equate doing astronomy to kids playing in the sandbox. You have certain kids that you like to play with and other kids that you don't. If you can find the kids you like to play with in the sandbox, it's golden. There's nothing you can't do."

Fritz Benedict, Senior Research Scientist, University of Texas at Austin

Ph.D., Astronomy, Northwestern University

M.S., Astronomy, Northwestern University

B.S., Physics and Astronomy, University of Michigan

 

Sneden

"I can remember the exact moment when I became interested in astronomy," says astronomer Chris Sneden, professor at The University of Texas. He was at his home in Pennsylvania, listening to a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game on the radio. During the commercial break, he heard an advertisement for Saturday morning astronomy classes at the Pittsburgh planetarium. Since then, he says he "never, ever wanted to do a single thing other than astronomy. There was never a Plan B."

"They gave me much encouragement."

Chris attributes much of his success to his parents, Harold and Alice Sneden, who encouraged him to pursue his interest in astronomy. "They knew I was so pigheaded that I wasn't going to be stopped anyway," says Chris. "They gave me much encouragement."

"The very next college on the list was Haverford."

As graduation from his small, mill-town high school loomed, Chris visited his career counselor and inquired about studying astronomy in college. "I don't know anything about that," his counselor said, and gave Chris a book with colleges sorted by academic major. Chris quickly turned to the astronomy section and scanned down the list. "I got to Harvard and said, 'Ahh, I can't get into Harvard.' The very next college on the list was Haverford."

"This decision turned out to be a very good one."

Haverford College is a small Quaker college in Pennsylvania, the oldest institution of higher learning in North America. Today, it's a leading liberal arts college. "This decision turned out to be a very good one," Chris says. While there, he studied astronomy and received his Bachelor's degree in 1969.

Deep in the heart of Texas.

Chris then traveled south to Texas where he worked as a graduate student for astronomer David Lambert who was, then, a fresh new faculty member at The University of Texas. Chris was David's first graduate student and he says that "two or three people after me said that they paid for my sins. He made them work a lot harder." However, Chris obviously worked hard because he left Texas for a string of prestigious positions.

Indiana, California, Wyoming, and Washington

He went to Indiana as a postdoctoral researcher for a year and, then, to Santa Cruz, California as a research astronomer and lecturer. For three years, he worked at the University of Wyoming's infrared observatory where he was an assistant professor. Finally, he worked as an assistant professor at The University of Washington before returning to The University of Texas.

The Town Crier

Chris now holds the Rex G. Baker, Jr. Centennial Research Professorship in Astronomy and, recently, led this astronomy department as its chairman. (The current chairman is his former advisor, David Lambert.) Chris is also the editor of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, a special publication of the Astrophysical Journal that features new and exciting discoveries. Effectively, he is a "town crier" for the astronomical community, making important announcements to eager astronomers.

Encouraging his children.

Chris has been married over 20 years to Gail Sneden and has four children: Alan, Lisa, Brett, and Jeff. Alan is a medical doctor. Lisa holds a Ph.D. in criminal psychology, and Brett is preparing to be a pilot. Finally, Jeff, the youngest, recently graduated from The University of Texas with a degree in computer science.

"Anything with a ball and racquet."

In his free time, Chris enjoys playing tennis with his wife and friends. He also plays squash and racquetball -- "basically anything with a ball and racquet, anything to fool myself into thinking that I'm not exercising," he says.

Chris Sneden Rex G. Baker, Jr. Centennial Research Professor, University of Texas Ph.D., Astronomy, University of Texas B.A., Astronomy, Haverford College

Robinson

Rob studied astronomy as an undergraduate at The University of Arizona. However, he had "more physics credits than any physics major that graduated that year. It wasn't astronomy instead of physics, it was astronomy in addition to physics," he says and stresses the importance of understanding the laws that govern our world.

Upon graduation, Rob came to The University of Texas at Austin where he received his Ph.D. in 1973 under the tutelage of Brian Warner, Ed Nather, and Paul vanden Bout. Afterwards, Rob was the Miller Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of California at Santa Cruz for a year. He then returned to Texas as an assistant professor where he has since become the William B. Blakemore II Regents Professor in Astronomy.

Rob's research interests have been varied throughout his career. He has studied pulsating white dwarf stars, cataclysmic variable stars, and neutron stars. Currently, he is most interested in studying black holes in binary star systems. He says that studying these binary systems is the best method current to determine one of the fundamental attributes of a black hole -- its mass.

Edward L. Robinson
William B. Blakemore II Regents Professor of Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D., Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin
B.A., Astronomy, University of Arizona

Wheeler

Astronomy professor J. Craig Wheeler has never been a stranger to science. Even before he began to study astronomy, he was certainly influenced by his father's physics-related career. "My father followed various defense industry jobs," he says. "We lived in Boulder, Colorado when he was working on the first thermonuclear bomb."

Later, his family moved to Idaho to be close to a nuclear reactor testing station. "Idaho was an interesting environment," he says. "Very rural in some sense, but very scientific in another. It was a real cross cultural sort of thing, with potatoes and a nuclear reactor."

"I've just been immensely lucky."

Craig decided to study astronomy at just the right moment in time. Funding for science was at an all time high after World War II and the launch of Sputnik, and looking back, Craig realizes that he was, as he says, "riding that post-war wave." After receiving his doctorate at The University of Colorado, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology, and later was an assistant professor at Harvard University. "I can look back now and see that in many ways I was very, very fortunate," he says. "Caltech was a great place to be a postdoc. There were all sorts of science going on, and there was just this intellectual ferment in the air. I've just been immensely lucky. It was really a great boost to my career."

"One mind-bending idea after another."

One of the greatest perks to being an astronomer, according to Craig, is "getting to write ‘Astrophysicist' on my IRS tax return. ‘I am an astrophysicist.' That just gets me every time!" Craig also likes being an astronomer because he enjoys finding out about new ideas in the field. "I'm a new idea junkie," he says. "I feed on new ideas. Lots of fields have new ideas, but astronomy is just one mind-bending idea after another!"

"I'm just not an observer."

Unlike most astronomers, Craig is never at the telescope. "I only observed with a telescope one time," he remembers. "It was cloudy for three days. And that was the end of that. I'm just not an observer." Instead, Craig is a theorist, meaning that while he plans and uses telescope observations, he does not depend on them for his work. It is also helpful that he studies supernovae, which are very unpredictable. Because astronomers never know when one may happen, supernova observations are usually made by whichever astronomer happens to be at the telescope at the time.

The Krone Experiment

When he's not doing astronomy, Craig is probably writing about it! He has written a popular book: Cosmic Catastrophes: Supernovae, Gamma-Ray Bursts, and Adventures in Hyperspace; as well as a science fiction novel, The Krone Experiment. As luck would have it, Craig's son Rob is in the process of turning The Krone Experiment into a movie. And currently, Craig is in the process of writing a sequel called Krone Ascending. "If I weren't an astronomer, I'd probably be a writer of some kind," he says. "It's something I discovered too late to make it into a career, but I do enjoy writing."

Craig is a member of The University of Texas Academy of Distinguished Teachers. He lives in Austin with his wife of 36 years. Their older son, Diek, is a neurobiologist at The University of Pittsburgh, and their younger son, Rob, is a filmmaker in Austin.

J. Craig Wheeler Samuel T. and Fern Yanagisawa Regents Professor of Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin President, American Astronomical Society (2006-2008) Ph.D., Physics, The University of Colorado B.S., Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Drory

"I got interested in astronomy during my studies of physics," Niv Drory says. "I had a strong interest for astronomy as a teenager, but when I started studying physics, I wasn't actually sure I would end up as a researcher in astronomy. I just happened to end up in astronomy."

"An international and interesting environment."

Now that he is a professional astronomer, it's not only a fascination with the subject matter that keeps Niv interested. "The most reward I get out of astronomy is being able to work in a very international and interesting environment," he says. "It's actually more of a reason for me than the science itself, because there are interesting jobs all over the place. It's the people."

"I have always loved music."

When he's not spending time at work in front of his office computer, Niv likes to play "all kinds of sports," he says. These include running, basketball, and volleyball, among others. He also likes to cook Mediterranean and Asian food, and he enjoys music. "I have always loved music," he says, "both listening to and playing music." He plays classical and rock guitar, and he usually listens to both classical and pop when he's out at McDonald Observatory. Niv also likes movies, "literature in general," and biology, which he says he finds fascinating.

An international background

Niv was born in Haifa, Israel, and he and his parents moved between Germany and Israel several times when he was younger. They finally settled in Münich, where Niv attended high school and later college and graduate school. After finishing his Ph.D., Niv came to Texas as a postdoctoral researcher with The University of Texas at Austin. Following that, Niv returned to Germany and is now with the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, near Munich.

Niv Drory
Astronomer, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (Garching, Germany)
Ph.D., Astronomy, University of Münich
M.S., Physics, University of Münich

Lacy

John Lacy did not consider himself an amateur astronomer. He's always liked looking at the stars, and his father pointed out constellations to him when he was a boy, but it wasn't until a friend in high school convinced him to join the astronomy club that he became more interested in astronomy. That friend is now a professor of music composition.

When John teaches undergraduate courses, he occasionally runs into students with mental blocks about science. They claim they can't understand astronomy because they are not science majors. John uses his friend the music professor as an example to show those students that they can understand science.

"A matchmaker for zoo animals."

John was born in Gary, Indiana, but moved to Connecticut when he was in the ninth grade. He has two brothers and two sisters. One brother, Bob, is a biologist who works at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. John describes his brother's work as, "a matchmaker for zoo animals." Bob studies the problems of breeding animals while in captivity, and often consults with biologists at other zoos.

"Ms. Kitty is still likely to toss her cookies."

Felines reign supreme in the Lacy household. John has three cats named Ms. Kitty, Tyler, and Eppie. Tyler was a stray that he found near Tyler, Texas. That location was the inspiration for the cat's name. Eppie is a recent newcomer, and the other cats are still adjusting. Tyler stays outside a lot, and according to John, "Ms. Kitty is still likely to toss her cookies when she sees her." Hopefully peace and harmony will soon prevail.

"It nearly knocked me over!"

John's favorite teacher was his tenth grade chemistry teacher, even though he can't remember the teacher's name. John has some very vivid memories of that class. During one laboratory experiment, he had to smell the contents of a test tube. Instead of gently wafting the odors to his nose, he inhaled the odor directly and, "it nearly knocked me over!" As in other high school chemistry classes, accidents were bound to happen. John recounts the time he accidentally dropped a still glowing match into a wastebasket and, "nearly burned down the school." The teacher didn't get too upset though, which is why John liked him!

"I'm pretty incoherent when I'm on that mountain."

As a graduate student, to complete the research needed for his dissertation, he built an instrument and used it to discover a black hole in the center of our galaxy. That success has led to a career designing, building, and using other instruments, including TEXES, the Texas Echelon Cross Echelle Spectrometer.

Many people may not realize how much engineering plays a role in astronomy. After all, someone has to design and build the instruments and telescopes that astronomers use. John and his team have used TEXES at McDonald Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii at 14,000 feet above sea level. It often takes John a couple of days to adjust to that higher altitude. In fact, John says that, "I'm pretty incoherent when I'm on that mountain."

John is an avid bicycler and has ridden a 75-mile loop in the Davis Mountains near McDonald Observatory. Someday he would like to bring his bike along and ride it from sea level to the summit of Mauna Kea. It is only a 40 mile ride, but it is all uphill!

John Lacy
Professor of Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D.; Physics; University of California-Berkeley
S.B.; Physics; Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cochran

Twelve-year old Anita Cochran visited Brookhaven National Laboratory near her hometown of New York City. Although she had been encouraged to explore science by her father and several teachers, Anita remembers this visit as a pivotal point in her aspiration to be a scientist. She had become fascinated and enamored by the simple fact that people can look at the world and deduce some order. In contrast, she recalls her older brother's response to the same trip, "Oh, I remember that trip. It was the most boring thing ever." Anita sheepishly grins---"He's not a scientist."

"I was hooked."

Anita attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she satiated her desire to study the physical sciences. As an undergraduate student there, she focused on physics, but, fortunately, her advisor required that she take classes outside of the strict study of physics. "I didn't have any intention of going into astronomy," says Anita, but, after enrolling in an astronomy class, "I was hooked." Indeed, she would then move on to the land of "Hook em Horns," the University of Texas at Austin, which came in high regard with her Cornell mentor,Joe Veverka, because of the research environment and "lots of good biergartens."

"We went there bunches of times."

As a young graduate student, Anita was to begin under the advisement of Larry Trafton. Eager to work, Anita knocked on Larry's door in prospect of a project. He sent his new student to his postdoctoral researcher, Bill Cochran. Two weeks later, these two astronomers went together on a date. Where do astronomers go on their first date? Well, Bill and Anita enjoyed going to the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music hall in South Austin. In fact, "We went there bunches of times." Two years later, Bill and Anita were married and have recently celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Astronomer and Woman

As a graduate student during the 1970's, Anita found herself to be one of few women in the department. "Certain people were inhospitable at the time," remembers Anita, but the department, in general, has become more open to women. "In those days, it was a major event to get a new woman in the department, but, today, there are many more women in the program." Today, Anita says of the situation for women in astronomy, "It is really different."

"It was a very bad day."

During her tenure her as a researcher, Anita has spent many years studying bodies in our solar system. Mostly, she enjoys exploring comets, balls of ice and dust that orbit our Sun, but, occasionally, she likes to observe asteroids from the telescopes at McDonald and elsewhere. Anita has also been part of the CONTOUR mission (Comet Nucleus Tour) a space project that was intended to visit Comet 2P/Encke and study its makeup. Unfortunately, this space observatory was lost just one month after launch. "It was a very bad day," sighs Anita as she remembers hearing of the explosion.

"Chewy"

In their spare time, Anita and Bill enjoy many things together. The two are avid bicyclists and find a week incomplete without at least a few hours out on the road together. They often sponsor departmental participation in the many charitable rides and have even formed an impromptu team, Team Astro, whose motto reads, "Nuclear Powered, Stellar Performers." This couple also enjoy square dancing every Tuesday night with their fellow square dancers. Both have pursued this interest since 1984 and are considered advanced in their skill of this art. Further, the name of Anita's computer, Barolo (a region in Italy known for its wine) reflects her fancy for good wines. "Barolos tend to be really big, massive wines---chewy," says Anita. Finally, although she doesn't own a dog, Anita is a godmother to many of her friends' pets. She speaks fondly of Skye, a white Aussie; Sox, a friendly beagle; Honey Girl, a sweet terrier-like dog; and Sarah, a dog, dear to Anita, who just recently passed away.

Anita Cochran Research Scientist, Assistant Director, McDonald Observatory Ph.D., Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin B.A., Physics, Cornell University

 

Evans

In the search for the origins of stars and planets, there are few who can match the invested time, interest, and enthusiasm of astronomer Neal Evans.

His newest project will provide insight into the formation of low-mass stars and their accompanying planets, using data from NASA's newest Earth-orbiting observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Spitzer is sensitive to infrared light, and will be used to gather information on regions opaque to visible light. Neal works with a team of 50 scientists from around the globe on this project.

Life, Intelligence, and Technical Civilizations

Neal's interests, however, are not solely in stars and planets. He has long been intrigued by how life, intelligence, and even technical civilizations have come to be. Neal's interest in these subjects is in understanding how they became what they are today, whether that process might occur elsewhere, and how the outcome might differ. He frequently teaches a seminar that compares ideas about origins drawn from philosophy, religion, history, and science, exploring the different perspectives that each field of inquiry contributes.

Neal is particularly well suited for this seminar, which falls into an honors Liberal Arts degree program at The University of Texas, due to a long-standing interest he has in the study of English. This interest dates back to his years as an undergraduate at Berkeley. Before settling into physics, Neal considered pursuing a career in English, and has maintained a close affinity for the subject.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in physics, Neal went on to receive his Ph.D. in 1973, and did a year and a half of post-doctoral work at Caltech. Although initially interested in high-energy and particle physics, he was dissuaded from entering these fields by the large groups of collaborators, often hundreds of researchers, that had begun to dominate many aspects of research in those fields. He became interested in astrophysics and worked with a research group started at Berkeley by Nobel laureate Charles Townes.

The journey outweighs the destination

Neal joined The University of Texas faculty in 1975, and has worked here since. In addition to his research and coordinating work for the Spitzer project, Neal teaches several astronomy courses at the University, including a class about the search for extraterrestrial life. As with his honors Liberal Arts seminar, one of his overarching goals in teaching these classes is to share his interest in how things have come to be – an interest that takes precedence over the facts of how things are. For Neal, and his students, the journey is more important than the destination.

Neal's personal life is as varied as his professional. He's an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction, and has a particular interest in novels. He and his wife Leslie enjoy backpacking and hiking in the Sierras and Cascades of the west coast and in the Rocky Mountains. They hope to visit the Appalachian Trail some time in the near future.

Neal Evans

Edward Randall, Jr., M.D. Centennial Professor in Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin Astronomy

Ph.D., Physics, University of California, Berkeley

B.A., Physics, University of California, Berkeley

Cochran

The explorers of old forged into new lands and uncharted territories, pursuing conquests for their queens and kings and forming a legacy of adventure to follow them for centuries to come. Over the next few hundred years, the feats of these explorers will slowly be forgotten and replaced with those of the likes of Bill Cochran, an astronomer at The University of Texas.

Like his counterparts during the age of discovery, Bill also charts unknown territories. Unlike them, he does this from the confines of a telescope control room, searching for planets around stars other than the Sun. "You can discover new worlds," says Bill, "very strange and interesting worlds."

"I had no interest in astronomy as a kid."

Bill was born and raised in Schenectady, New York. He says he enjoyed camping and hiking and, in high school, wrestling on the varsity team. His colleagues often were amateur astronomers as children, but, Bill says, "I was the opposite. I had no interest in astronomy as a kid."

As a student at Duke University, Bill first tried his hand at engineering but quickly found, "No, that's not it." He liked physics, but Bill wanted to pursue some particular application of the physical sciences. He first tried biophysics because "it was an up and coming field," but a single biology course swayed him from this path. "Astrophysics sounded good," but Duke didn't offer any astronomy courses. During one summer at home, Bill enrolled in an astronomy course at the local university and, right away, was hooked. He then decided to study astronomy in graduate school and went to Princeton where he would finish his Ph.D. in four years.

"They haven't thrown me out."

After graduation, Bill came to Texas to work as a postdoctoral researcher with Larry Trafton. Since coming here, "they haven't thrown me out," says Bill who is now a Senior Research Scientist who often uses McDonald Observatory telescopes for his research.

Also, during his time as a post-doctoral researcher, Bill worked with a young woman, Anita. Soon thereafter she become his companion and wife. Together, they enjoy square dancing, cycling (about 30 miles per week) and oenology, the art and science of wine tasting. Bill and Anita have been married more than twenty-five years.

These days, Bill is forging ahead with his program of exploration and employing the help of others. Current and former graduate students have devoted many hours of work under his tutelage and guidance. With their work, we look forward to learning of their "new and interesting worlds."

William C. Cochran
Senior Research Scientist, McDonald Observatory
Ph.D., Astronomy, Princeton University
B.S., Physics, Duke University

Kumar

Pawan Kumar perhaps does not fit the popular conception of an astronomer -- he is rarely to be found burning the midnight oil in an observatory. Rather, you'd more likely find him working at the desk in his pleasant 17th floor office. Pawan does not observe astronomical objects with telescopes; his forte is the theoretical side of astronomical phenomena. Using data gathered by other astronomers, he strives to understand and solve some of the big questions of modern astronomy. Currently, his attention is fixed on gamma-ray bursts -- extremely concentrated, intense, and short lived emissions of gamma rays.

From India to Austin via CalTech, MIT, & Princeton

Born in north-central India, Pawan spent his early academic career at the Indian Institute of Technology, earning degrees in computer science and physics. Though he did not end up in the software industry, the physics degree provided a platform for his jump into astronomy. After working for a year he went back to school, eventually receiving a PhD in astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology. He subsequently worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and now does research at The University of Texas at Austin.

Training Science Teachers

Pawan also participates in the UTeach program, which trains future elementary and secondary-school science and math teachers. In particular, he teaches these future science educators how to think critically, how to read scientific literature, and how to carry out independent research.

Over the course of his career, Pawan has entertained interest in several astronomical subjects, including helioseismology (the study of the Sun's interior) and gamma-ray bursts, but he is more broadly interested in figuring things out. That is to say that the most exciting part of his job is discovering the solution to a puzzle, and being the first to do so. Referring to his work, Pawan remarks, "The most enjoyable part is to understand something that nobody knew before or that you had no idea was going on."

A Passion for Reading

Pawan says he also has a passion for reading, with a particular fondness for current affairs and literature. Eighteenth and nineteenth century classics are his favorites.

Pawan Kumar Professor, Department of Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology M. Tech, Computer Science, Indian Institute of Technology

Kormendy

Well known for his work on supermassive black holes in galactic nuclei, John Kormendy has done substantial work in other areas as well, notably the study of galactic bulges, the evolution of elliptical galaxies, and dark matter halos of galaxies.

Born in Austria, John has long been interested in the sciences. As a teenager growing up in eastern Canada, he performed chemistry experiments in his basement, trying -- for example -- to make nitroglycerine. His efforts were only partly successful, because he had no centrifuge to purify the reaction products. "I had to spin a test tube around my head on a string. So I never succeeded in making pure nitroglycerine; I could never get it to explode, the most it would do is ‘whoosh' like a blowtorch. Maybe this wasn't entirely a bad thing."

Although interested in chemistry, biology, astronomy, and other natural sciences, John gradually focused more and more on astronomy. While in high school, he had an observatory with a roll-off roof and an eight-inch telescope that he assembled out of prefabricated parts. By the time he enrolled at the University of Toronto's Honors Math, Physics and Chemistry program, he was clearly headed for a career in astronomy.

From Plates to Pixels

John's career has bridged a number of transitions in the field of astronomy. None has been as important, he says, as the change from photographic plates to electronic light detectors. He was one of the last generation of students to carry out his doctoral thesis using photographic plates. Most of these observations were made on the Mt. Wilson 100-inch Hooker Telescope. Soon thereafter, he was introduced to electronic detectors during a postdoctoral fellowship at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson. These provided much more sensitive and reliable measurements than did photographic plates.

John's career has also encompassed a wide range of extragalactic research areas. While continuing to work on black holes and dark matter halos, in recent years he has ramped up another long-term interest, namely the gradual evolution of disk galaxies as they are rearranged by the gravitational effects of bars. He has just completed a major review article on this subject for the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. He also continues a long-term program to study the formation and evolution of elliptical galaxies. Recently, research scientist Mark Cornell and proto-graduate student David Fisher have joined both of these projects.

Bird Photography, and Opera, Too

Outside of his astronomical research, John's interests range from travel and photography to scuba diving and bird watching. Birding, in particular, has become a major passion. John and his wife Mary have now birded widely in the USA, including Hawaii, as well as Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, Ecuador, Australia, and Europe. Another long-term passion is opera; his personal favorite is a March 1983 production by the New York Metropolitan Opera of Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi.

John Kormendy Professor at The University of Texas at Austin Curtis T. Vaughan, Jr. Centennial Chair In Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin Ph.D., Astronomy, California Institute of Technology B.S. Honors Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry (Astronomy Division) University of Toronto

 

Odewahn

Whenever Steve Odewahn needs to relieve a little stress, he heads for the woodpile and the power tools. His furniture building hobby began while he was doing post doctoral work at Caltech. Wanting a Mexican tiled-top table, but not wanting to pay a steep price for it, he decided to make his own. That project led to more and more, landing him in a cabinet making class while at Arizona State University. Steve also took up weightlifting extensively as a graduate student to work off tension.

Ducks and Cats

One Easter afternoon, Steve saw a duckling crossing the street all by itself. He scooped it up and took it home, even though it was too young to survive without its mother. The duck didn't last long, but Steve ended up visiting a woman who worked in duck rescue and ended up with two new ducks of his own, now named Diego and Frida. Steve also has two cats, Bob and Kitty, but they keep their distance from the birds. When the ducks were little, the cats might have bothered them, but now "the ducks are pretty tough."

Early astronomy work

Steve has been interested in astronomy since childhood. As a teenager, he began to be an amateur astronomer by grinding and polishing two of his own telescope mirrors. This inquisitive nature and interest in astronomy motivated him all the way from childhood experiments to obtaining a PhD under the direction of Gerard de Vaucouleurs at the University of Texas in the 1980s.

Stephen C Odewahn
Resident Astronomer, McDonald Observatory
Research Associate, McDonald Observatory
Ph.D., Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin
M.A., Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin
B.S., Physics, The University of Alabama

Allende Prieto

Growing up in Northern Spain, Carlos Allende Prieto went to many schools there including the Universities of Oviedo, Santander, and La Laguna. His wife Elena is also from Spain.

When it was finally time to pick a discipline of further study, Carlos says he was drawn to astronomy. He had always enjoyed physics and says he thought that astronomy was "exotic and weird." He said to himself, "This could be exciting!" and now each day at work he finds that intuition to be true.

He moved to Austin to the University of Texas as a W.J. McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow. His research interests include spectral line formation and model atmospheres and the structure and evolution of the Milky Way.

Carlos Allende Prieto Instituto de Astrofısica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain Ph.D., Physics, University of La Laguna, Spain

Winget

"I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in astronomy and horses," says Don Winget. Don is a professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin.

"One of my most vivid early memories was watching a parade, after dark in Champagne, Illinois, where I grew up," he says. " I forgot all about the parade and lay on my back on the curb, wondering about those points of light on the sky."

Don says in his later school years, he and a friend went to monthly Open House nights at the University of Illinois. There, professor Stan Wyatt gave public lectures and also talked to Don about a career in astronomy. Dr. Wyatt advised Don to study physics in college, and that is what Don did.

Don received a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Illinois. He went on to receive a master's degree in physics from the University of Rochester, and a PhD in physics and astronomy from Rochester, as well.

Today, Don studies white dwarf stars, using them to study all different kinds of things. These include the physics of matter at high temperatures and densities, as well as the structure of galaxies, and the evolution of star populations in galaxies. He even looks for planets orbiting white dwarf stars, which would be the remnants of solar systems like our own, after its Sun had died.

Don has won many awards for his teaching at Texas, as well as several prizes for his scientific work, and he says McDonald Observatory is his "favorite spot on this Earth." He is a member of the University of Texas Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Don Winget
Harlan J. Smith Centennial Professor in Astronomy,
University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D., Physics and Astronomy, University of Rochester
M.A., Physics and Astronomy, University of Rochester
B.S., Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaig

Montgomery

If he weren't an astronomer, Mike Montgomery says he would have become a professional musician. Mike plays violin, and enjoys playing what he calls "root-based music. Old-time music, bluegrass, blues, and jazz."

Mike was born in Tennessee, and grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. He attended high school in Victoria, Texas. It was during high school that he attended a summer workshop at Ball State University. "They said 'If you want to be an astronomer, major in physics'," Mike recalls.

Mike attended The University of Texas at Austin, where he indeed majored in physics. He went on to obtain a master's degree in physics from Princeton University. Finally, he returned to UT-Austin where he received a PhD in astronomy in 1998.

Since then, Mike has worked as an astronomical researcher at The University of Vienna, in Austria, and also at Cambridge University in the U.K. He returned to The University of Texas in 2004.

His favorite hobbies include playing music, tennis, foosball (sometimes called "table soccer") pinball, and bowling.

Mike Montgomery
Research Scientist, McDonald Observatory
PhD, Astronomy, The University of Texas at Austin
M.S., Physics, Princeton University
B.S., Physics, The University of Texas at Austin

Jogee

Just east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean lies the tiny island republic of Mauritius, birthplace of University of Texas astronomer Shardha Jogee. With a blossoming career that just doesn't seem to know any bounds, Shardha has followed an exciting path since completing her high school education. She was a Physics scholar and fellow at the University of Cambridge in England, a graduate scholar in astronomy at Yale University, and received numerous awards including an Amelia Earhart Fellowship and a prestigious long-term space astrophysics (LTSA) grant from NASA. She is generally considered one of the foremost experts in the evolution and structure of disk galaxies, and her research is frequently covered by the popular press, including ABC, MSNBC, Sky & Telescope magazine, Science magazine, and Reuters.

Mauritius to England to the U.S.

Mauritius has a unique history. It was discovered by the Portuguese, named by the Dutch settlers after the Prince Maurice of Nassau, colonized by the French and British, and finally gained its independence in 1968! Its local population derives primarily from immigrants who came from Europe, India, China, and Africa in the late 1700s. Shardha's own ancestors are believed to have come from India, perhaps 150 years ago. Today, Mauritius is an elite tourist destination for Europe: the entire island is basked in a cerulean blue ocean, embraced by coral reefs, wonderful landscapes, chic hotels, cosmopolitan hosts, and sophisticated cuisine. No wonder Mark Twain (1863-1910) said "You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius"!

While Shardha's native spoken language is French, she also speaks three others, including English. Once Shardha finished primary schooling in Mauritius, she left in 1989 for Cambridge University, England, where she was an undergraduate scholar and Fellow in Physics. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in physics by 1992 from Cambridge. Thereafter, she arrived in America to pursue graduate school at Yale University. There, she earned her M. Phil.(1994) M. S. (1994) and Ph.D (1999) and received the Yale University J. F. Enders Research Grant and Fellowships, a Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research, and the Amelia Earhart Fellowship.

CalTech, Space Telescope and UT-Austin

After Yale, Shardha took up a position as a postdoctoral research fellow at Caltech from 1999 to 2002. During that time, she expanded her research activities to address observational and theoretical aspects of the evolution, structure, and activities of disk galaxies over a wide range of cosmic lookback times. Following a national competitive process, NASA awarded her in 2003 a long-term space astrophysics (LTSA) grant of $558,000 in order to support her research.

In 2002, she was offered a tenure-track astronomer position at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, the institute directing the scientific mission of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. At STScI, she gained recognition as an expert on disk galaxies and bars, and soon joined the international GEMS, GOODS, and HUDF teams to conduct some of the most powerful galaxy surveys to date.

Shardha stayed at STScI until 2004, when she obtained a professorship at The University of Texas at Austin. Today, she leads an active research group there consisting of five undergraduate and graduate students and two postdoctoral fellows. She is also currently the Department of Astronomy's undergraduate advisor and is working with science educators with the goal of attracting excellent college-bound students into the sciences at UT-Austin, and in particular, into astronomy.

In her free time, Shardha enjoys dance, theater, music, yoga, and travel. She has indulged in rock, jazz ballet, swing, and now wishes to master the Latin flavors. She attends several astronomy conferences each year, giving her opportunities to travel all around the world.

Shardha Jogee Associate Professor, The University of Texas at Austin PhD, astronomy, Yale University M Phil, astronomy, Yale University MS, astronomy, Yale University MA, physics, Cambridge University (England) BS, physics, Cambridge University (England)

McArthur

Barbara McArthur is a Research Scientist at McDonald Observatory.

Breger

Once a mathematics major, Michel Breger was instantly won over by astronomy. "I was a math tutor and one of my students was an astronomy major. I think he taught me more about astronomy than I taught him about math," Michel says. "I became an astronomer within minutes."

Michel says his favorite thing about astronomy is that you can do real research early on. "When I first became an astronomy major, I started doing research within six weeks. It was real, hands-on research." Now, as a professor who takes on new students, he encourages his students to learn by doing and allows them to start research projects immediately.

In his free time, Michel is an international dance teacher. He says he loves Austin for its music and dance. He is married to a professional musician.

Michel Breger
Adjunct Professor, University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D., Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley
B.S., Astronomy, University of Capetown

Required Technology

Participation in our videoconferencing programs requires either a hardware/codec system (Polycom, Cisco/Tandberg, LifeSize, etc.) or a device with an eyeball camera and compatible software (Zoom, ClearSea, Jabber, RealPresence, Vidyo, BlueJeans, Acano, etc.). We cannot connect via Skype or Google Hangouts. If you're uncertain whether you possess the required technology, please contact your campus/district IT personnel.  Schools located in Texas can contact their local Education Service Center for assistance or anyone can contact Lori Hamm-Neckar at (817)740-7516 or lhamm@esc11.net with connectivity questions. If you are registered for a McDonald Observatory videoconference through www.Connect2Texas.net, then Connect2Texas will act as a central hub (bridge) for your connection to McDonald Observatory.

Bringing Students

 

Please register for your Astronomy Field Trip six weeks prior to your visit and plan other details ahead of time. Cell coverage is spotty in our region.

Astronomy Field Trip FAQs

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McDonald Observatory K12 education programs are made possible thanks to support from the National Science Foundation, Education & Outreach Endowments, the Abell-Hanger Foundation, Harry W. Bass Jr. Foundation, Fash Foundation, Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the Semmes Foundation, the Stillwater Foundation, and Friends of the McDonald Observatory & Orion Circle.


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Questions about Student Programs?

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Downloadable Descriptions

Student Sheet

Student sheets are designed for your students to fill in during the videoconference. 

Required Activity Materials Ready In Your Classroom

A list of materials to have on-hand for students engagement during the program. 

Teacher Guide for Videoconference Content

Includes potential student answers, descriptions of content found in student sheets, and links that support group learning.

Pre-Conference Assessment

Actvities to help you gauge student understanding before the program.

Pre-Conference Activity

An optional activity that encourages students to discuss and organize the questions they might ask during the conference.

Post-Conference Activity

An optional activity to help students transfer their McDonald Observatory experience back to their science curriculum. 

Related TEKS, NSES

This is a document that lists related Texas and National Science Standards for each videoconference.

Videoconference Evaluation Form

We ask that you complete this evaluation form following the videoconference.

K-12 Education Program Support

 
We are grateful to the following organizations for their support of 2024 K-12 Education programs
  • The Fash Foundation
  • The Alfred S. Gage Foundation
  • The George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation
  • The Meyer Levy Charitable Foundation
  • The National Science Foundation
  • Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway McDonald Observatory Outreach and Education Excellence Fund
  • Mary Ann Rankin Endowment for McDonald Observatory for UTeach Workshops
  • Friends of McDonald Observatory 
You can help support our programs through a contribution to our Annual Fund, a Friends Membership, or planned gift.

By the Numbers: Audiences and Media

2.1 MILLION daily radio listeners in more than 300 markets nation-wide

250 Board of Visitor members and 1,000+ Friends of McDonald Observatory

60,000–80,000 visitors a year at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center

10,000+ K-12 students and their teachers reached onsite and via videoconference

MILLIONS via international, national, state, and local media awareness

 

Present & Past

Directory
Want to find an astronomer, staffer, or student at the Observatory or in the UT Austin Astronomy Program? Check the Astronomy Program Directory.

Timeline
Learn more about the history of the Observatory through our interactive timeline, and suggest milestones to add to it.

Memories Blog
Have a favorite memory of McDonald Observatory? Share your stories and photos of the Observatory on our interactive blog, and read others' stories from the 1930s right up until today.

Explore Our Solar System

HET map

Recognized Locations

See the full list of locations

 


Jeff Davis County Courthouse, Fort Davis, TX
Justen Pautzke / McDonald Observatory



Catalyst Midstream Partners County Line
Processing Plant, Orla, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory



Altus Midstream Diamond Cryogenic Complex
Reeves County, Texas
Bill Wren / McDonald Observatory


The Perch, Terlingua, Texas
Spencer Millsap


Big Bend Stargazer, Terlingua, Texas
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Frama & Tumbleweed Laundry, Marfa, Texas
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


 

 

Lighting Resources



 

Support Dark Skies

The Dark Skies Initiative helps to fund education efforts and replacements of lights in our community to keep the skies above West Texas full of stars for all to enjoy. 

Support dark skies


McDonald Observatory thanks the Apache Corporation and Big Bend Coffee Roasters for their support of the Dark Skies Initiative. 

Industry Notices & Resources

 

Reeves County Outdoor Lighting Ordinance (2021). Updated language on shielding, color temperature, intensity, and timing. Floodlights should be aimed downward. 

 

In West Texas, astronomers worry about growing oilfield light pollution (2021). Travis Bubenik for Marketplace. 

 

Railroad Commission of Texas Reminds Operators to Reduce Light Near McDonald Observatory. Notice to Operators, Railroad Commission of Texas (February 2016, 2019, & 2021).

 

Texas General Land Office requires its oil and gas lessees to follow the recommended lighting practices to protect our environment from light pollution. The Texas General Land Office (2019). 

 

Recommended Lighting Practices for Oil and Gas Operators. McDonald Observatory (2018). 

 

Upgraded Rig Lighting Improves Night Time Visibility While Reducing Threat to the Dark Skies in West Texas. Bill Wren and Stacey Locke (2015). 

 

 

All Recognized Locations

Back to Recognition Page

Click the image to see it in full resolution.

 

Jeff Davis County Courthouse, Fort Davis, TX
Justen Pautzke/ McDonald Observatory


South Brewster County Emergency Response Center
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Jeff Davis County Courthouse Annex, Fort Davis, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory



Marfa Gardens, Marfa, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory



Altus Midstream Diamond Cryogenic Complex
Reeves County, Texas
Bill Wren / McDonald Observatory


 

Fossil Knob Ridge, Terlingua, Texas
Spencer Millsap


Javelina Hideout, Terlingua, Texas
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Big Bend Stargazer, Terlingua, Texas
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Frama & Tumbleweed Laundry, Marfa, Texas
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


JoMommas RV Park, Terlingua, Texas
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Apache / Altus Midstream Tank Battery
Reeves County, Texas
Bill Wren / McDonald Observatory


The Perch, Terlingua, Texas
Spencer Millsap


Catalyst Midstream Partners County Line
Processing Plant, Orla, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Forever West Texas
Keller Williams Realty, Alpine, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Alpine Visitors Center
Alpine, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


City of Marfa Visitor Center, USO Building
Marfa, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Alpine Public Library
Alpine, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


RoadRunner Travelers RV Park
Terlingua, TX
Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory


Ghost Town Casitas
Terlingua, TX
JD Swiger


Starstruck Observatory
Terlingua, TX
Linda Avitt

36" Special Viewing Night IMPORTANT NOTES

  • Please note that the 36-inch dome is NOT wheelchair accessible. This program involves the use of a step ladder and takes place in a space with low levels of illumination.
  • It is NOT possible to participate in both a Star Party and a Special Viewing Night program on the same night. 
  • In order to ensure the safety of our visitors and staff, guests under the age of 8 are not permitted to attend this program. Families with children under 8 are encouraged to attend our Star Party program.

Cell Phone Coverage and WiFi
Directions
Frequently Asked Questions
Health & Safety
Pet Policy
Weather

Special Viewing Night IMPORTANT NOTES

  • Please note that the 36-inch and 82-inch domes are NOT wheelchair accessible. This program involves the use of a step ladder and takes place in a space with low levels of illumination.
  • It is NOT possible to participate in both a Star Party and a Special Viewing Night program on the same night. 
  • In order to ensure the safety of our visitors and staff, guests under the age of 8 are not permitted to attend this program. Families with children under 8 are encouraged to attend our Star Party program.

Cell Phone Coverage and WiFi
Directions
Frequently Asked Questions
Health & Safety
Pet Policy
Weather

 

Mysteries of the Universe

Searching for ET: Planetary Habitability and Exoplanets

Galaxy Formation: The Faint Frontier

Eclipse News!

Eclipses and Planetary Systems

Annual Fund

Gifts made to the Visitors Center Annual Fund ensure McDonald Observatory’s work in science education and public outreach continues and reaches as many people as possible. Hands-on STEM experiences for students, teacher professional development workshops, Visitors Center star parties, and our flagship StarDate Radio program, which reaches listeners on over 300 stations a day, are a few of the education and outreach initiatives that the Annual Fund gifts support.

To give a 100% tax-deductible gift to the Visitors Center Annual Fund, donate online or mail a check to the address below. Please note that McDonald Observatory is a research unit of the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin. Thank you for partnering with us in this important work.

Checks should be made out to “The University of Texas at Austin,” and please include a memo or note that says “McDonald Observatory, VC Annual Fund”.

Mail
The McDonald Observatory Annual Fund
2515 Speedway C1402
Austin, TX 78712

Call: 512-471-3303
Email: friends@mcdonaldobservatory.org

Public Viewing at Painter Hall - 9 pm

Public Viewing at RLM Hall - 9 pm

Open House

In this aerial view, the two large domes in the foreground are the 2.1-meter Str

Come celebrate our 75th anniversary with us at a free Open House!

Please note that due to capacity and safety regulations, some events, though free of charge, will require reservations. They are noted below. For reservations and other information, go to our Open House reservations page.

Daytime Events:

Safe viewing of the Sun (weather permitting)

Balloons and face painting

Exhibit of 75th anniversary-themed art from local area school children

Fire Truck display

Award-winning 75th Anniversary float display

Historical display in the Visitors Center

Talks, inside the Visitors Center theater (reservations required):

  • The W. J. McDonald Observatory: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, by McDonald Director Dr. David L. Lambert
  • Hunting for Alien Worlds, by Dr. Fritz Benedict
  • Dark Energy and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), by Dr. Niv Drory

Tours:

  • Late afternoon guided tour of 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope, including telescope views of Jupiter (weather permitting). Reservations required. (Program will require climbing two flights of steps at ~ 6800 feet elevation.)
  • 107-inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope: Gallery open for self-guided tours. (Viewing gallery access will require climbing four flights of steps at ~ 6800 feel elevation.)
  • Hobby-Eberly Telescope: Open for self-guided tours.

Nighttime Events (weather permitting):

Views of Jupiter beginning at ~ 8:00 p.m. (Visitors Center Telescope Park) continuing through end of Open House.

Views of Mars beginning at ~ 8:30 p.m. (Visitors Center Telescope Park) continuing through end of Open House.

Constellation Tours (unaided-eye tours of the night sky) at 9:30 & 10:30 p.m. (Visitors Center Amphitheater).

Views of the Red Planet, Mars, on the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope at 9:15 p.m. Reservations required. (Program will require climbing two flights of steps at ~ 6800 feet elevation at night.)

For reservations and other information, go to our Open House reservations page.

Open House - All Day

SOLAR TOUR - Streaming on YouTube - 11am

DEEP SKY TOUR - Streaming on Youtube - 8pm

Visitors Center Closed - No Public Programs

Visitors Center - General Admission - 12-4:30pm

PRIVATE EVENT - Visitors Center Closed - No Public Programs

Guided Tour - 12:30pm

Guided Tour - 2pm

Solar Viewing - 1pm

DEEP SKY TOUR - Streaming on Youtube - 9:15pm

Full Moon - 10:08pm

Third Quarter Moon - 2:56am

New Moon - 4:16am

First Quarter Moon - 7:20pm

PRIVATE EVENT - No Star Party

Star Party - 7:00pm

MILKY WAY TOUR - Streaming on Youtube - 9:30pm

Star Party - 7:30pm

Full Moon - 5:09pm

Third Quarter Moon - 8:13pm

New Moon - 2:55pm

First Quarter Moon - 9:20am

Full Moon - 12:30pm

Third Quarter Moon - 10:03am

New Moon - 1:09am

First Quarter Moon - 2:06am

Star Party - 8:45pm

SPRING BREAK - Star Party - 8:45pm

SPRING BREAK - Solar Viewings - Multiple Times

SPRING BREAK - Guided Tours - Multiple Times

36" Special Viewing Night - 6:40pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 6:50pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 6:50pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 7:05pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 8:40pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 6:30pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 7:05pm

Mars Opposition Livestream - Streaming on Youtube - 8pm

Star Party - 9:15pm

Dark Skies - Community Night - Star Party - 9:15pm

Star Party - 9:30pm

Full Moon - 6:42am

Third Quarter Moon - 9:10pm

New Moon - 12:26pm

First Quarter Moon - 9:33pm

Full Moon - 11:37pm

Third Quarter Moon - 4:12am

New Moon - 11:15pm

First Quarter Moon - 4:21pm

Full Moon - 12:36pm

Third Quarter Moon - 9:29am

New Moon - 10:55am

First Quarter Moon - 10:23am

FAMILY ASTRONOMY - Galaxies - Streaming on Youtube - 7:30pm

Star Party - 9:45pm

DEEP SKY TOUR - Streaming on Youtube - 7:30pm

SOLAR TOUR - Streaming on YouTube - 2pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:00pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:05pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:25pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:30pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:35pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:45pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:45pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 9:35pm

Star Party - 9:30pm

DEEP SKY TOUR - Streaming on Youtube - 9:15pm

Visitors Center Closed - Daytime Only

Star Party - 8:45pm

Live Solar Tour - Streaming on YouTube - 2:30pm

Star Party - 8:15pm

Star Party - 7:00pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:30pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 8:45pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 7:00pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 9:30pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 8:45pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 8:15pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 8:15pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 7:00pm

Star Party - 7:30pm

Annular Solar Eclipse - 10:18am-1:20pm

Visitors Center General Admission 10-4:30pm

Guided Tour - 1pm

Guided Tour - 3pm

DAYLIGHT SAVING - TIME BEGINS

36" Special Viewing Night - 6:40pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 6:40pm

Star Party - 9:15pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 6:55pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 7:30pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 7:30pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 6:55pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 6:55pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 7:30pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 7:30pm

Solar Eclipse - Visitors Center Open - 11:30a to 3:00p

Star Party - 9:30pm

Guided Tour - 12:30pm

Guided Tour - 1:30pm

Guided Tour - 2:30pm

Solar Viewing - 3pm

Star Party - 9:45pm

Star Party - 9:30pm

Gift Shop (only) - Closed Today

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:25pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:45pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:45pm

36" Special Viewing Night - 9:45pm

82" Special Viewing Night - 9:25pm

Telescopes 101 - 8:15pm

Telescopes 101 - 8:30pm

Beginning Astrophotography Workshop - 2pm

Beginning Astrophotography Workshop - 2pm

Special Guided Tour - Otto Struve Telescope - 12:30pm

Exploring Galaxies and the Cosmos

Galaxy Classification Activity

Click here to link to the activity online

(It's recommended to review the online activity before downloading the following PDF files)

Student Worksheet
Student Image Sheet
Hubble Classification Sheet

Multi-wavelength Astronomy Activity

An activity about gathering and interpreting astronomical data in many wavelengths

Multi-wavelength Astronomy - The Teacher's Guide (PDF)
Standards and suggestions for implementation, and general instructions and answers to questions in Student Guide.

Student Guide and Worksheet
The main activity sheet - also contains information on the telescopes used to gather images on the galaxy cards.

False Coloring
Student exercise on resolution and false colors

Accompanying PowerPoint
Many color images of galaxies, as well as an evaluation exercise, are included in the PowerPoint presentation.

Galaxy Cards

Cards with galaxy images, used in the student worksheet

  • Black images on a white background (that is, negatives) are provided in this PDF document (Recommended, saves toner and paper), OR
  • White images on a black background are provided in this PDF document
  • An extended set for evaluation are provided in this PDF document (optional)

Optional Materials

Telescopes used to obtain the images are provided in this PDF document

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills
TEKS related to the activity

Lives of Stars Activity

A "dramatic" look at Stellar Evolution

Stellar Evolution - The Teacher's Guide
Standards and suggestions for implementation, and general instructions and answers to questions in Student Guide

Student Guide and Worksheet
The "drama" for students plus worksheets

The Galaxies and Cosmos Exporer Tool
An online tool to investigate galaxies

Support from NASA grants NAG5-13063 and NASA NNG 06GB99G, NSF grant AST-0607748 to Principle Investigator Dr. Shardha Jogee and a Faculty And Student Teams for Technology (FAST Tex) award from the University of Texas Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment (DIIA) is gratefully acknowledged.

Subscribe to SkyTips

SkyTips is a monthly email newsletter for visitors to McDonald Observatory and StarDate Online. Each issue features stargazing highlights, upcoming StarDate radio program descriptions, and other news.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Planning your trip:

About our programs:

Answers to the FAQs

Are Star Parties canceled on cloudy or rainy nights?

Generally, no.  For our Star Party program, we will assess the weather throughout the day and, to the best of our ability, make a judgement call on the likely weather that evening.  If inclement weather (clouds, precipitation, wind, cold temperatures) is expected during the program, we will attempt to contact you (text message, email) no less than two hours before program start time to let you know that we may offer alternative programming in lieu of live views of astronomical objects.  In this case, you will be given the chance to cancel your Star Party reservation preemptively and would receive a refund (less $3 admin fee) for your program.

Is the Observatory wheelchair accessible?

All spaces at the Visitors Center are ADA accessible.

Will the Observatory/Visitors Center be open on (holidays, special dates, etc.)?

The Visitors Center is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Day, and New Years' Eve and Day. 

When is the best time to visit the Observatory?

Typically Autumn brings us our most consistently clear skies. July, August, and early September tend to be the rainy season, although generally the rain occurs in the afternoon. 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. Over the next few years, Summer/Fall will be the best time for seeing Saturn and Jupiter. 

Why do the Star Parties start so late in the Summer?

During the Summer months, it is not dark enough to start a Star Party 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.  Daylight Saving Time makes this situation worse.

I don't have a telescope, can I still join a Star Party?

Having a telescope is not necessary ... we've got quite a few. Come on up and join us for a tour of the night sky. 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.)

 What is your policy on pets at your programs?

As much as most of us would love to welcome our four-legged furry friends, UT policy, in accordance with the State Attorney's General Office, does not allow pets (including emotional, comfort, etc., therapy/support animals) in Observatory buildings or in indoor/at outdoor public program venues. In accordance with federal regulations, trained service animals accompanying their handlers/owners are welcome.

 Are there places to eat at the Observatory?

There is no public food service at the Observatory. Fort Davis offers restaurants with a variety of food. There are several roadside picnic areas 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.

Are there RV hook-ups and/or camping facilities at the Observatory?

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. Please check the official Fort Davis website for a list of area accommodations.

Can large groups join the regular public programs?

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. Please note that our most popular programs sell out quickly, so groups will want to make reservations as early as possible.

I'm interested is seeing the Aurora Borealis, when can I come to the Observatory to see them?

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 once or twice 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, at best, to predict. An excellent resource for learning more about such activity is the NASA supported site SpaceWeather.com.

Do you offer a discount for students/faculty/staff of the University of Texas?

The Visitors Center offers a discount to current UT students, staff, and faculty with a current valid UT ID. To receive this discount, request passes for CURRENT UT students, staff, or faculty under the "Military/Senior(65+)" category in the reservations section of your program of interest.

Will we see live views from the research telescopes?

No. Astronomers at McDonald use scientific instrumentation for their reserach, which output large data sets (streams of numbers). While these data are beautiful to the scientists, they're pretty boring for the layman.  The telescopes we use for our Star Parties are optimized for visual use (looking through), and we're confident that you will be amazed at the images they produce.

Can I refuel my vehicle (gas/diesel/electricity) at the Observatory?

There are no fuels (gasoline/diesel) available at the Observatory.  The nearest standard fueling stations are in Fort Davis, 15 miles away.  There are no electric vehicle chargers at the Observatory, however there are some in the Fort Davis-Alpine-Marfa area.  Consult a service such as PlugShare, and please check with the listed providers before making your trip.

Seeing the Invisible: Dust in the Universe

Dust is all around us: at home, on Earth, and in space. Explore the properties of dust and the astronomical research of dust in space with these three inquiry based activities from McDonald Observatory.

Resources
About the Spitzer Space Telescope
Dust in your Home and Dust in Space
Resources
Resources and activities for grades K-8 in Spanish
StarDate and Universo radio shows

Activities for grades K - 8
K-2 Dust Hunt
An extension to Dust Hunt is a story sequence activity called Dusty and Ashley's Big Adventure
For this activity, you will also need a picture page.
3-5 How is the Mystery Substance Like Interstellar Dust?
6-8 Properties of Dust

Activity for grades 9-12
"From Molecular Cores to Stars" student guide and teacher guide.

In addition to the PDF files (linked above), you must also download a PowerPoint presentation (Windows or Mac), and two movies: 1994-24-a-low_mpeg.mpg and 2001-13-b-low_mpeg.mpg. The PowerPoint file and both movies must be saved in the same folder on your PC's hard drive. If you do not have Microsoft PowerPoint installed on your computer, please download the presentation in PDF format here.

Telescope Technology for Teachers

GTAG

These activities explore the technology behind the Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

Human HET
TEKS alignments

Challenge 1: Segmented Mirrors (PDF)
The goal of Challenge 1 is to determine a cost-effictive configuration for a primary mirror. Participants experiment with several mirror arrangements to manximize the reflective surface area and minimize the total cost.

Mirror models
Mirror cost chart

Challenge 2: Mirror Array (PDF)
The goal of Challenge 2 is to determine the arrangement of the mirror segments. Some teachers direct the formation of an arc while one stands at the center of curvature. They use a string as the arc radius in order to determine the distance to each mirror segment. Other teachers stand along the arc line holding small flat mirrors.

Challenge 3: Mirror Alignment (PDF)
The goal of Challenge 3 is to align the mirror segments so that they work together as a single large mirror. Each mirror on the HET can move in three ways: tip, tilt, and piston. Members of the mirror arc must move their mirrors into alignment, then hold the mirrors steady.

Challenge 4: Stay Focused (PDF)
The goal of Challenge 4 is to discover why a tracker is needed to follow a star across the sky as Earth rotates beneath the telescope.

Optic Fiber (PDF)
TEKS alignments

Students explore total internal reflection using water, dairy creamer, and a small laser.

For further information, contact Mary Kay Hemenway.

Telescope Technology for Teachers: Human HET - Science and Math TEKS

Challenge 1: Segmented Mirror

Students discover through problem-based learning the cost-effective nature of HET’s mirror array. By solving problems, the students exercise science process skills, apply mathematical knowledge, and test solutions. They discover that instead of a single large mirror, many smaller mirrors acting as one is far less expensive.

Science TEKS: Challenge 1

6.2 7.2 8.2 IPC Physics Astronomy - Scientific processes. The student use scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations.

(A) plan and implement investigative procedures including asking questions, formulating testable hypotheses, and selecting and using equipment and technology;

• Given the problem and some information, students must invent their own problem solving proceedure, then formulate and test their hypothesis.

(C) Analyze and interpret information to construct reasonable explanations from direct and indirect evidence.

• Students create a model array of mirrors out of paper cut outs to help them visualize a solution, and consult a chart of mirror cost vs. diameter

(D) Communicate valid conclusions.

• Present their model and cost estimate to the class.
• The class and presentor ask and answer questions regarding the model.

8.5 - Science concepts.The student knows that relationships exist between science and technology.

(A) identify a design problem and propose a solution;

(B) design and test a model to solve the problem;

(C) evaluate the model and make recommendations for improving the model.

6.5 - Scientific concepts. The student knows that systems may combine with other systems to form a larger system.

(A) Identify and describe a system that results from the combination of two or more systems such as in the solar system.


Math TEKS: Challenge 1
6.6, 6.7, 7.8 Geometry and Spatial Reasoning
6.8, 7.9, 8.8, 8.10 Measurement
6.11, 7.13 Underlying processes and mathematical tools
7.5, 7.5, 8.5, 8.7 Patterns, relationships, and algebraic thinking

Challenge 2: Mirror Array

Given string, meter sticks, mirror segments, students form a model of HET’s mirror array.

Science TEKS: Challenge 2

6.2 7.2 8.2 IPC Physics Astronomy - Scientific processes. The student use scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations.

(A) plan and implement investigative procedures including asking questions, formulating testable hypotheses, and selecting and using equipment and technology;

(B) Analyze and interpret information to construct reasonable explanations from direct and indirect evidence.

(C) Communicate valid conclusions.

8.5 - Science concepts. The student knows that relationships exist between science and technology.

(A) identify a design problem and propose a solution;

(B) design and test a model to solve the problem;

(C) evaluate the model and make recommendations for improving the model.

6.5 - Scientific concepts. The student knows that systems may combine with other systems to form a larger system.

(A) Identify and describe a system that results from the combination of two or more systems such as in the solar system.

Math TEKS: Challenge 2
6.6, 6.7, 7.8, 8.7 Geometry and Spatial Reasoning
6.8, 7.9, 8.8, 8.9 Measurement
6.11, 7.13, 8.14 Underlying processes and mathematical tools
6.5, 7.4 Patterns, relationships, and algebraic thinking

Challenge 3: Mirror Alignment

Devise a method to align the mirrors of the model HET mirror array to the center of curvature.

Science TEKS: Challenge 3

6.2 7.2 8.2 IPC Physics Astronomy - Scientific processes. The student use scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations.

(A) plan and implement investigative procedures including asking questions, formulating testable hypotheses, and selecting and using equipment and technology;

(B) Analyze and interpret information to construct reasonable explanations from direct and indirect evidence.

(C) Communicate valid conclusions.

8.5 - Science concepts.The student knows that relationships exist between science and technology.

(A) identify a design problem and propose a solution;

(B) design and test a model to solve the problem;

(C) evaluate the model and make recommendations for improving the model.

6.5 - Scientific concepts. The student knows that systems may combine with other systems to form a larger system.

(A) Identify and describe a system that results from the combination of two or more systems such as in the solar system.

Math TEKS: Challenge 3
6.6, 6.7, 7.8 Geometry and Spatial Reasoning
6.11, 7.13, 8.14 Underlying processes and mathematical tools

Activity 4: Stay Focused

Discover that the focal region of the telescope moves as a star transits HET’s field of view.

Science TEKS: Challenge 4

6.2 7.2 8.2 IPC Physics Astronomy - Scientific processes. The student use scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations.

(A) plan and implement investigative procedures including asking questions, formulating testable hypotheses, and selecting and using equipment and technology;

(B) Analyze and interpret information to construct reasonable explanations from direct and indirect evidence.

(D) Communicate valid conclusions.

8.5 - Science concepts.The student knows that relationships exist between science and technology.

(A) identify a design problem and propose a solution;

(B) design and test a model to solve the problem;

(C) evaluate the model and make recommendations for improving the model.

6.5 - Scientific concepts. The student knows that systems may combine with other systems to form a larger system.

(A) Identify and describe a system that results from the combination of two or more systems such as in the solar system.

Math TEKS: Challenge 4
6.7, 7.8 Geometry and Spatial Reasoning
6.8 Measurement
6.11, 6.13, 7.13, 7.15, 8.14 Underlying processes and mathematical tools

Telescope Technology for Teachers: Optic Fiber- Science and Math TEKS

Challenge 1: Students devise a way to direct a light beam around an opaque obsticle.

Challenge 2: Students compare thier mirror based solution to a optic fiber based solution.

Challenge 3: Students experiment with a model of an optic fiber and determine the critical angle

Science TEKS Process Skills

6.2 7.2 8.2 IPC Physics Astronomy - The student use scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations.

(A) plan and implement investigative procedures including asking questions, formulating testable hypotheses, and selecting and using equipment and technology;

• Challenge 1: Students plan a mirror arrangement that will direct the beam around the obsticle and test their arrangement. They are also challenged to minimze the number of mirrors needed to direct the light from beginning to end.

8.5 - The student knows that relationships exist between science and technology.

(A) identify a design problem and propose a solution;

•Challenge 1: Although the mirror arrangement directs light to a target, the beam suffers degredation and some light scatters out of the beam. Students grapple with possible solutions to these problems:

• reduce the number of reflecting elements?
• clean the glass?
• smoother surfaces to reduce scatter?

(B) design and test a model to solve the problem;

• Challenge 1 and 2: Students may test several alternative mirror arrangements in order to minimize the number of mirror elements and reduce scattering and beam degredation. They also compare their mirror based solution with an optic fiber based solution.

(C) evaluate the model and make recommendations for improving the model.

• Challenge 1 and 2: Through testing, students evaluate their mirror arrangements and try new arrangements.

Science TEKS Concepts

6.5 Systems may combine with other systems to form a larger system.

(B) describe how the properties of a system are different from the properties of its parts.

• Challenge 3: An optic fiber is a system of parts: core, cladding, jacket, plastic, etc. Each piece has different light transmission and refractive properties. Together, and arranged in the correct way they make a flexible fiber that efficiently guides light.

Physics

(8) Characteristics and behavior of waves
(A) examine and describe a variety of waves propagated in various types of media and describe wave characteristics such as velocity, frequency, amplitude, and behaviors such as reflection, refraction, and interference;

• Challenge 3: Students experiment with an optic fiber model to discover characteristics of the fiber, like the index of refraction of the cladding and core, and the central role of refraction in relationship to the critical angle of the fiber.

(C) interpret the role of wave characteristics and behaviors found in medicinal and industrial applications.

• Challenge 2: Students investigate an optic fiber and its role in the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. They compare and evaluate their mirror based and optic fiber based solutions for guiding light from one place to another.
• Challenge 3: Students experiment with an optic fiber model to discover characteristics of the fiber, like the index of refraction of the cladding and core, and the central role of refraction in relationship to the critical angle of the fiber.

IPC

(5) Effects of waves on everyday life

(B) demonstrate wave interactions including interference, polarization, reflection, refraction, and resonance within various materials

• Challenge 2: Students investigate an optic fiber and its role in the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. They compare and evaluate their mirror based and optic fiber based solutions for guiding light from one place to another. In the mirror based solution, students reflect a laser beam among mirrors to direct the beam around a barrier to a target. For the optic fiber solution, students direct the light into the fiber, which guides the light to the target.
• Challenge 3: Students experiment with an optic fiber model to discover characteristics of the fiber, like the index of refraction of the cladding and core, and the central role of refraction in relationship to the critical angle of the fiber. The model is a plastic jar half full of water. At the water surface (air-water boundary) the laser beam is refrated if it meets the boundary at an angle less than the critical angle. The materials in the fiber and the model determine the critical angle.

Math TEKS

6.8 Measurement: The student solves application problems involving estimation and measurement of length, area, time, temperature, capacity, weight, and angles.

• Challenge 1 and 2: Students measure mirror angles and the distance between mirrors in order to draw a diagram of their mirror based solution. Students measure the size of the beam on the target.
• Challenge 3: Students measure the angle of the laser beam inside the model optic fiber in order to determine the critical angle.

6.11, 7.13, 8.14 Underlying processes and mathematical tools: The student applies Grade 6, 7, or 8 mathematics to solve problems connected to everyday experiences, investigations in other disciplines, and activities in and outside of school.

(A) identify and apply mathematics to everyday experiences, to activities in and outside of school, with other disciplines, and with other mathematical topics;
(B) use a problem-solving model that incorporates understanding the problem, making a plan, carrying out the plan, and evaluating the solution for reasonableness;

• In each challenge, students solve problems whose solutions involve the application of mathamatics.

• Challenge 1 and 2: Students measure angles and distances of mirrors, and measure the size of the beam on the target.
• Challenge 3: Students experimentally determine the critical angle and measure it.

Make your own galaxy

What is a spiral galaxy? How are its components arranged? Do stars collide? Do galaxies collide? Help your students explore these concepts with this hands-on galaxy activity.

Grade level: Grade 8-12

National Science Education Standards
Grades 9-12 Earth and Space Science: Origin and evolution of the Universe

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills: Science Grade 8
8.13 The student knows characteristics of the universe.
(A)  describe characteristics of the universe such as stars and galaxies;
(B)  explain the use of light years to describe distances in the universe;

Astronomy
Ast 4 The student knows scientific information about the universe.
(B) describe characteristics of galaxies.

Construction activity (1.8MB PDF)
Background reading
Student answer sheet
Teacher lesson and answer key
SEDS Galaxies Information

 

Journey Into Spectroscopy

Spectrum

Spectroscope

 

Figure 1

image or PDF

 

Figure 2

image or PDF

 

Figure 3

image or PDF

 

Figure 4

image or PDF

 

 

Decoding Starlight

 

Objective Prism image of Hyades

image or PDF

 

Spectrum sheet 1

image or PDF

Spectrum sheet 2

image or PDF

Spectrum sheet 3

image or PDF

Spectrum sheet 4

image or PDF

 

H-R Diagram

 

Blank plots for student plotting
Plot A Plot B Plot C
image image image
PDF PDF PDF
Teacher keys
Plot A Plot B Plot C
image image image
PDF PDF PDF

 

Coma Cluster of Galaxies

Coma ClusterComa Cluster of Galaxies In 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope pointed its piercing gaze at a nearby collection of galaxies called the Coma Cluster. Using the unprecedented images that the HST provided, astronomers gained fascinating insights into the evolution of galaxies in dense galactic neighborhoods. In this activity, students will first learn the basics of galaxy classification and grouping, then they get to use some actual HST images to discover the 'morphology-density effect' and make hypotheses about its causes.

*Note: The images in the activity are very large and use a lot of toner when printing. This first version contains "negatives" of the original space images, Printing this version saves toner and provides better image detail for the students. If you are printing several copies for your students, please use this version:

Student Guide (with negatives of images)

Teacher Guide (with negatives of images)

This is the original version of the activity that is found in the StarDate Teacher Guide:

Student Guide (with positives)

Teacher Guide (with positives)

StarDate radio programs

May 5, 2008 - Coma Cluster

May 6, 2008 - Invisible Cluster

May 7, 2008 - Hostile Environment

May 8, 2008 - Nature vs. Nurture

May 9, 2008 - Galactic Giants

Supporting Educational Opportunities for All

YarCom® Inc. and the Lott family are dedicated to improving Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) educational opportunities for our youth, especially all daughters of Texas. They support StarDate and McDonald Observatory’s educational outreach as superb examples of successful STEM programs.

Exploring Light: the Optics of Diffraction

Diffraction - The Teacher's Guide | 3.2MB PDF
Standards, suggestions for implementation, and suggested applets to illustrate difficult points

Diffraction - Student Guide and Worksheets | 2.3MB PDF
The student guide and worksheets were written by Lyn Del Monte Onato, a teacher at Hidalgo High School in Hidalgo, Texas.

Supplemental materials
1.) Materials List | 48kB PDF
2.) Scans of the diffraction cards used in the activity | 10.7MB PDF

Accompanying PowerPoint
Several optical effects related to the activity are available in this accompanying PowerPoint presentation | 9.9MB PDF . If you do not have Microsoft PowerPoint installed on your computer, please download the presentation in PDF format here.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration provided support for the development of this activity under an Education and Public Outreach supplement to Grant/Contract/Agreement NNG06GC45G issued through the Office of Space Science to Dr. Daniel Jaffe.

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Thank you for shopping at the McDonald Observatory Astronomy Gift Shop. We hope you enjoy these products with the knowledge that proceeds help educate, inform, and inspire millions and support teaching in the science and hobby of astronomy.

If you have questions about your order, please call the gift shop at 432-426-3645 and we will be happy to assist you.

 

 

 

McDonald Observatory Live Streaming Programs

Visit the Observatory from the comfort of your living room! Join us live or watch a previous program on our Youtube channel.  Also check us out on Facebook for additional program announcements.  Upcoming programs will be announced here and on social media before the program occurs.  Thanks for tuning in!

Control Room Livestream: Celebrating the Otto Struve Telescope

Wednesday, May 22, 8:00 p.m. CT

 

Our 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope turns 85 years old this month! Join us from the telescope's control room as we celebrate by showing you what goes on behind the scenes, talk about the history of the telescope and the Observatory, and even go into some of the research (both past and present) done with this telescope!

 

Moon Tours

Hosts:
Kevin Mace
Judy Meyer
Saul Rivera
 

Join us for a tour of and discussion about Earth's companion, the Moon.  During the tour, your host will show both low and high power live views of the Moon and its many features visible through our 16" and 3" telescopes at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center located at McDonald Observatory.

Deep Sky Tours

Hosts:
Stephen Hummel
Kevin Mace
Saul Rivera

 
Our Deep Sky Tours feature live views of some of the objects which we typically look at during our popular Star Party programs, including nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies. The live stream is broadcast from the dome of our RCOS 16" f/9 RC telescope at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center.

Solar Tours

Hosts:
Joe Wheelock
Judy Meyer
Sam Jones


No sunscreen required!  Our Solar Tours feature live views of our nearest star, the Sun.  Depending upon the Sun's activity level at the time of the program, your host will show sunspots, flares, prominences, and other features using specialized telescopes and solar filters.

Archived Moon Tours

Archived Deep Sky Tours

Archived Solar Tours

July 6, 2023 February 22, 2023
July 28, 2020 April 21, 2022 June 16, 2021
March 5, 2021
 
May 3, 2020
 
 
December 11, 2020  
  December 2, 2020  
  November 11, 2020  
  August 8, 2020  
  July 14, 2020  
  June 23, 2020  
  June 12, 2020  
  June 9, 2020  
  May 22, 2020  
  May 16, 2020  
  May 9, 2020  
  April 23, 2020  
  April 18, 2020  
  April 14, 2020  
 

Total Solar Eclipse Livestream (Archived from April 8, 2024)

 

Join us as we talk about eclipses, what causes them, how to safely view them and watch the peak of the eclipse from three locations in Texas: McDonald Observatory, Lake Buchanan, and Irving. We will also be showing live views from telescopes and on site cameras (weather permitting).

"Decoding Starbirth with AI" Live Deep Sky Tour (Archived from March 7, 2024)

 

Dr. Stella Offner and Saul Rivera show you views from a camera attached to a research-grade 16" telescope at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center while talking to Dr. Offner about her research and how she is using AI to learn more about stellar formation. 

FAMILY ASTRONOMY: Big Planets (Archived from November 8, 2023) 

 

Your hosts Joe Wheelock and Saul Rivera show you live views of several planets in our solar system, teach you cool facts about them, and even talk about big planets in other star systems!

"Ring of Fire" Live October Annular Eclipse (Archived from October 14, 2023)

 

A special collaborative livestream between McDonald Observatory and the Blakemore Planetarium in Midland, Texas, for the October 2023 Annular Eclipse! Hosts and staff at both locations talk about eclipses, what causes them, how to safely view them, answer questions submitted by the public, and watch the peak of the eclipse, with live views from telescopes.

FAMILY ASTRONOMY: Books!  Books!  Books! (Archived from March 8, 2023)

 

We love astronomy, and we love astronomy books!  Join us as we share some of our favorite astronomy books for all ages,
from babies and kids to families and adults.

FAMILY ASTRONOMY: Galaxies (Archived from January 18, 2023)

 

Bring the whole family to look at, learn about, and even build your own galaxies!  If you'd like to build a galaxy along with the live program, be ready with a 12-inch piece of cardboard or poster board, glue, cotton balls, and glitter glue or paint.

Mars Opposition Livestream with Lowell Observatory (Archived from December 8, 2022)


Hosts: Saul Rivera and Judy Meyer, McDonald Observatory
John Compton and Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory

This show is a special joint livestream between McDonald Observatory and Lowell Observatory for the Mars 2023 opposition! Hosts from both observatories discuss all things Mars, such as its science, history, geology, and future missions.  This show also features live views of Mars from telescopes at both sites.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope - LIVE from the Control Room (Archived from November 9, 2022)


Hosts: Saul Rivera, McDonald Observatory
Dr. Steven Janowiecki, Resident Astronomer, Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Hosts Saul Rivera and resident astronomer Dr. Steven Janowiecki show how astronomers conduct research
and what they see in the control room as data are collected.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope Birthday Celebration (Archived from October 26, 2022)


Host: Saul Rivera, McDonald Observatory
Co-Hosts: Dr. Jim Fowler, Dr. Steven Janowiecki, Herman Kriel

Join us in celebrating the birthday of our largest telescope with a panel discussion with some of the staff that work on it!
Learn about the history, engineering, and science of the Hobby Eberly Telescope.

Live Milky Way Tour (Archived from Wednesday, August 24, 2022)


Hosts: Saul Rivera and Joseph Wheelock at the McDonald Observatory

 

Hosts Saul Rivera and Joe Wheelock show you views from a camera attached to a research-grade 16" telescope at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, along with spectacular wide angle views of the Milky Way.  Unfortunately, the viewing portion of the show was clouded out.

Live Total Lunar Eclipse (Archived from Sunday, May 15, 2022)


Hosts: Saul Rivera and Joseph Wheelock at the McDonald Observatory

 

Hosts Saul Rivera and Joe Wheelock show live views from a camera attached to a  telescope at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. Discussion topics include eclipses, how they occur, how to get safe pictures of them, and the program includes open ended Q&A.

What is Spectroscopy? (Archived from Wednesday, February 16, 2022)


Hosts: Joseph Wheelock, Saul Rivera, and Stephen Hummel at the McDonald Observatory


Learn about a technique astronomers use, spectroscopy, and see unique views of some celestial objects with one of our telescopes.

Family Astronomy: Lives of Stars (Archived from Wednesday, January 26, 2022)


Hosts: Judy Meyer, Martinique Pautzke, and Saul Rivera at the McDonald Observatory


Learn about the life cycle of stars and view various nebulae and star clusters which related to different stages of a star's life.

Family Astronomy: Live Planets (Archived from Wednesday, October 27, 2021)


Hosts: Judy Meyer, Martinique Pautzke, and Joe Wheelock at the McDonald Observatory


Watch this family-oriented livestream program which was broadcast on October 27, 2021.
We discussed planets and enjoyed live views of Jupiter, Saturn, and more.

Perseid Meteor Shower (Archived from Wednesday, August 11, 2021)


Hosts: Stephen Hummel and Saul Rivera at the McDonald Observatory
with Dr. Anita Cochran, Assistant Director, McDonald Observatory


Enjoy the Perseid meteor shower livestream which was broadcast on August 11, 2021.
Unfortunately, the viewing portion of the show was clouded out, but hosts also discussed the origins of meteor showers,
their relationship with comets, and much more.

Reflections on the 82-inch Telescope (Archived from May 5, 2021)

Hosts: Kevin Mace and Martinique Pautzke

Join us as we celebrate the 82nd anniversary of the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope.
We discuss the early history of the McDonald Observatory and the workings of this 82-inch (2.1 meter) telescope.
A number of ‘guest stars’ joined us to share their stories and experiences with the first telescope at the McDonald Observatory.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope Tour (Archived from March 10, 2021)

Hosts: Martinique Pautzke and Saul Rivera

Explore McDonald Observatory’s 10-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope nestled in the mountains of Far West Texas.
Learn how 91 mirrors collect starlight, why the telescope spins on air, and who we need to keep a research facility operating.
Hosts Martinique Pautzke and Saul Rivera use images and videos to engage all ages in this program.


Planet Fest 2020 (Archived from October 21, 2020)

Hosts: Stephen Hummel and Martinique Pautzke

Watch this program from October 21, 2020 when Mars was at its nearest to Earth in 17 years.  Also included in this program are
views of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, far-flung Neptune, and the dwarf planet Pluto, 3.2 billion miles away at the time.


Jupiter & Saturn Conjunction 2020 (Archived from December 21, 2020)

Hosts: Kevin Mace, Frank Cianciolo, and Stephen Hummel

This program featured live views and discussion about the close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020.

 

Interested in supporting us? https://mcdonaldobservatory.org/support

 

 

McDonald Observatory Community Partnership

 

Charged Coupled Devices

A person holds a CCD between two fingers.

Every night, light from celestial sources streams into telescopes at observatories around the world. After passing through various instruments and optics, each beam of light is brought into focus on a detector. Light sensitive detectors are essential for studying astronomy because they record the intensity and position of the light that has traveled so far to reach us. Previous generations of astronomers were accustomed to using glass photographic plates or even their unaided eyes as detectors to study light from the night sky. However, today astronomers use detectors called Charged-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, controlled by complex electronics, to make their observations.

CCDs are made of a thin wafer of silicon which is sensitive to light, on top or bottom of which is placed a tight array of pixels. The entire detector is usually a few square centimeters in size, about the size of a nickel, and it can be as thin as a micron, or a tenth of the diameter of a human hair. Pixels are laid out on the silicon wafer in a rectangular grid pattern, usually several hundred to a few thousand on a side. In order to fit so many pixels on such a small surface, the pixels themselves must also be very small; each measures approximately 10 to 20 microns across.

The pixels act like small buckets for collecting light. When light is focused onto the CCD, photons, or particles of light, fall into the pixels and are stored there, much like raindrops would build up in buckets laid out in an open field on a drizzly day. In reality, the pixels don't store photons, but electrons. Each photon that passes through a pixel knocks an electron off of the silicon layer of the detector, and it is this electron that the pixel stores. Electrons, unlike photons, are negatively charged particles, and their negative charge keeps them trapped inside the pixels. Thus, the number of electrons that the CCD collects is directly related to the number of photons that fall onto it.

Because astronomical sources are usually very faint, astronomers allow CCDs to collect light for time intervals ranging from a fraction of a second to several hours. During this time, electrons build up in the individual pixels. The number of electrons accumulated in a particular pixel depends on how many photons have passed through it. At the end of the exposure, the entire array is read electronically to determine the number of electrons present in each pixel. This digital information, which is collected from the grid either row-by-row or column-by-column, is then sent to a computer. When digital the value for each pixel is known, the entire array of pixels forms an image! Astronomical software packages can display and save the images for astronomers to use in their research.

During observing, CCDs must be kept very cold in order for them to work properly. This is usually achieved by encasing the CCD in a dewar, which is a type of special thermos designed to hold liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen is added to the dewar on a regular schedule to keep the CCD chilled down to 77 K (or –321 degrees F).

The data collection methods enabled by CCDs have revolutionized modern astronomy. Images made with CCDs are much faster to gather and much easier to manipulate than images made using previous methods, such as photographic plates. Moreover, the small size and electronic data collection capabilities of CCDs have allowed for such major advances as space-borne observatories; the Hubble Space Telescope, together with the beautiful images it sends back to earth, are a testament to the success of CCD technology.

McDonald Observatory boasts several CCDs that are used with various instruments on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope, the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope, and the 0.8-meter Telescope. Oftentimes, the CCDs are given names according to the company that manufactured them. For example, the TI1 CCD was made by Texas Instruments, the TK CCD was made by Tektronics, and the LF1 CCD was made by Loral Fairchild. Many of the CCDs at McDonald Observatory, such as TK3, TK4, CC1, and TI1, are shared among the instruments, but some of them, such as LF1 on the PFC, are always used on the same instrument. The CCDs are always treated with great care, because they are very expensive. Despite their cost, though, they are essential pieces of equipment for modern-day observing at McDonald Observatory.

 

 

Prime Focus Corrector

The Prime Focus Corrector mounted on the 0.8-meter telescope.

The Prime Focus Corrector, or PFC, is the instrument currently used on the 0.8-meter telescope. The PFC takes images of celestial objects. As a prime focus instrument, it is located at the open end of the telescope tube. Light enters the telescope from an area on the sky and is reflected from the 0.8-meter mirror into a focal plane. The instrument is placed at the front of the telescope, in the focal plane. Once inside the PFC, light passes through a filter and onto a detector called a charged coupled device (CCD).

The PFC has five filters, and each one is designed to allow light of only one color to pass through. The filters are standard UBVRI filters, whose colors range from 360 nanometers, or violet, to 1,000 nm, or infrared. Before starting an observation, the astronomer must choose which of the filters to use, depending on what type of objects or properties he or she intends to study.

The CCD detector on this instrument can capture images in a region of the sky that is three-quarters of a degree across, or a bit larger than the size of the full Moon.

Although it is a relatively small telescope, the 0.8-meter telescope and the PFC make a very useful combination for many types of astronomical projects. Astronomers have used the PFC to make surveys of the sky, search for extrasolar planets, study comets, and search for Near Earth Asteroids.

The PFC also allows astronomers the opportunity to construct color images of celestial objects. All individual images that astronomers take with CCDs are only measures of intensity and are therefore black and white. However, with five filters of different wavelength ranges on the PFC, the intensity can be measured for every visible color. These images can be combined to create one color image of the object. Nearly all color images of astronomical objects are made in this way, including those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

Imaging Grism Instrument and Polarimeter (IGI, IGP)

IGI mounted on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope.

The Imaging Grism Instrument, IGI (rhymes with piggy), is an instrument built by Dr. Gary Hill and can be used at the Cassegrain focus of either the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope or the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope. IGI is a very simple instrument that performs the following three functions:

Focal Reducer

A focal reducer is a set of lenses and mirrors that reduces the focal length, the total effective path that light travels in the telescope. By decreasing the focal length, IGI also decreases the f-number of the telescope, the ratio of the focal length and mirror diameter. The 2.7-meter Smith Telescope has a focal length of 24 meters and a mirror diameter of 2.7 meters, so the f-number for this telescope is 24 divided by 2.7, or 8.8.

IGI decreases the focal length by a factor of five to 4.7 meters and, hence, the f-number to 1.8.

Why would one want to reduce the focal length or f-number of a telescope? Well, there are basically two reasons: to increase the "speed" of the telescope and to change its magnification.

The f-number is often used to describe the "speed" of an optical system. A telescope with a low f-number is said to be very "fast." A fast telescope requires less integration time -- the time spent collecting light -- than a telescope with a larger f-number. Therefore, with the same integration time, a telescope with a lower f-number produces a brighter image than one with a larger f-number.

Also, the focal length of a telescope is directly related to the magnification; telescopes with a larger focal length have a larger magnification and a smaller field of view. If observing an object such as the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which is large and bright, you might choose to use the focal reducer. Without the focal reducer, you will need to spend more time observing in order to make an image of the entire galaxy. Additionally, you may want to make an image of a greater region of sky, such as a cluster of very faint galaxies, so you would use IGI in its imaging and focal reducing mode.

Spectrograph

In addition to acting as a focal reducer, astronomers can use IGI as a low-resolution spectrograph. IGI has a light collimator that makes the light rays all parallel to one another. By inserting a grism into the path of this collimated light, the light is dispersed into its spectrum of wavelengths. It's that simple; you just slip the grism into the light path and you've got a spectrograph.

Polarimeter

IGI also has another variation in which it can be used as a type of instrument called a "polarimeter." In this mode, IGI is called the Imaging Grism Polarimeter (IGP). The observer adds another system of optics to IGI to create IGP. This addition consists of two parts: a polarizing beam splitter and a half-wave plate. The beam splitter, as the name implies, takes a beam of light and splits it into two separate paths. The wave plate rotates the polarization of the light. Together, these two create an instrument that can observe light of different polarizations from regions such as active galaxies and star-forming regions.

UBVRI filters

Filters used for astronomical observations, such as these, are often mounted on disks called filter wheels. The astronomer can turn the filter wheel so that incoming light passes through the correct color filter.

When using a telescope to make images of celestial objects, astronomers often place special pieces of glass called filters into the path of the light. Just as a coffee filter allows coffee to pass through, and blocks everything that is not coffee, an astronomical filter allows light of certain wavelengths to pass through and blocks other wavelengths. This enables astronomers to study specific colors of light from celestial sources. Astronomical filters are made of colored glass and usually measure about one square inch.

Two important types of filters are wide-band filters and narrow-band filters. Narrow-band filters, as their name suggests, only allow a small range of wavelengths of light to pass through. They are often used to study light that is emitted by specific elements, such as hydrogen or oxygen. Wide-band filters, on the other hand, isolate a large range of wavelengths of light. In the area of the spectrum near visible light, the most commonly used set of wide-band filters go by the names U, B, V, R, and I.

The U filter stands for ultraviolet, and it allows light of wavelengths between about 320 nanometers (nm) and 400 nm to pass through. Thus, the U band is about 100 nm wide.

The B filter is for blue, and it filters light of wavelengths between about 400 nm and 500 nm.

Likewise, the V, R, and I filters stand for visible, red, and infrared respectively, and their respective wavelength ranges are approximately 500 nm to 700 nm for V, 550 nm to 800 nm for R, and 700 nm to 900 nm for I.

The system was first developed in the 1950s at the McDonald Observatory with the 0.9-meter Telescope, and included the UBV filters. Today, the UBVRI filter system has become standard in astronomy. Many astronomers use these filters for a wide variety of research projects.

 

 

Argos

The 2.1-meter Otto Struve telescope has been brought down to a servicing position so that astronomers can work on Argos, which is mounted at prime focus.

Argos is an instrument that is available to use on the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope. It's a photometer, which means it measures the intensity of light received by the telescope -- usually in very short time intervals. In its initial design, which was later revised, the instrument used many phototubes (tiny glass tubes that are sensitive to light) to detect incoming photons. Because of this, it was given the name Argos in honor of the many-eyed monster from Greek mythology. Instead of phototubes, however, Argos uses a charged coupled device (CCD) to make observations of the night sky.

Argos is a prime focus instrument, meaning that it is located at the open end of the Otto Struve Telescope. Light that enters the telescope is reflected off the 2.1-meter diameter primary mirror and is brought into focus at the top of the telescope tube. The instrument is situated in the focal plane of the light so that the CCD intercepts the light when it is in focus. The field of view of the detector measures 2.8 arc-minutes across, which is roughly the size of a tennis ball seen from a mile away.

Unlike most astronomical instruments, Argos doesn't have a shutter to open or block the flow of light onto the CCD. Instead, the CCD is divided in half, and images are collected using the so-called "frame transfer method." Initially, the first half of the CCD collects light for a given exposure time. When the time has elapsed, the data from that half of the microchip is instantly transferred to the second half, freeing the first half to again start collecting data. While the first half is collecting more data, the second half reads the transferred set of data out to a computer. The entire process happens very quickly, as exposure times can be as small as one second, and it continues for as long as the astronomer needs to observe.

There are several filters available for use with Argos, which allow astronomers to study specific wavelengths of light from astronomical sources. Filters that are commonly used with the instrument include a special blue filter and standard BVR filters. It is possible to mount two filters into Argos at one time, so that the astronomer may switch between them at will. Because the entire slide mount must be removed to change filters, this makes it more convenient for astronomers who need more than one filter for their observations.

Argos is a relatively young instrument, as it was finished in June of 2001 and commissioned in November of 2001. Despite its young age, however, Argos has helped astronomers at McDonald Observatory discover 22 pulsating white dwarf stars to date.

 

Guiders

The scanco guider in place in the Coude slit room.

Collecting light from astronomical objects is often very difficult because people do not observe the heavens from a stationary point. As Earth turns on its axis, objects such as the Sun, Moon, and stars appear to travel though the sky. In order to compensate for this motion, many types of amateur and professional telescopes alike are designed to track the stars as they move overhead. Tracking simply involves moving the telescope in right ascension at a constant rate - this follows the rotation of the Earth, and causes the stars to appear stationary in the field of view of the telescope.

For very precise measurements, however, simply tracking on an astronomical object is not accurate enough. Factors such as refraction of light through the atmosphere at different parts of the sky, the telescope structure bending slightly differently at different positions, and tracking that doesn't follow the Earth's motion exactly all cause an astronomical object to wander in a very small field of view. To ensure that this doesn't happen, astronomers guide the telescope on the object. Guiding is simply a fine-tuning of the telescope tracking. It involves moving the telescope in the necessary direction to correct for errors not accounted for in tracking.

Guiding is usually accomplished using an instrument called a guider. A guider is a camera with a charged coupled device (CCD) or TV that records some of the incoming light that has been reflected out of the main optical path. Guider images taken every few seconds or every fraction of a second are sent to a computer and displayed for the astronomer to see. The astronomer finely adjusts the position of the telescope based on the movement of the object in the images. Even better are instruments called auto-guiders. Images from auto-guiders are sent to a computer, where they are analyzed by a computer program for object movement. If the program determines that the object has moved and the telescope should be adjusted, the computer does so. Astronomers generally like auto-guiding because it can be quite accurate, and the freedom from having to guide on an object allows them to do other things.

There are several different guiders that are used at McDonald Observatory, the most familiar ones being the Apogee guider, the Star 1 guider, the MicroLuminetics guider, the White Guider, and the Scanco guider. Each guider can be used with more than one instrument. For example, the Apogee guider is used with CoolSpec, the Large Cassegrain Spectrograph, the Imaging Grism Instrument, and the Millisecond Infrared Astrophysical Spectrometer. The Star 1 guider can be used with the Cassegrain Spectrometer es2 or the Imaging Grism Instrument, and the MicroLuminetics guider is most often used with the Sandiford Cassegrain Eschelle Spectrometer. The Coudé Spectrograph on the 2.7-m Harlan J. Smith Telescope is the sole user of the Scanco guider, and the Prime Focus Camera on the 0.8 meter Telescope also has its own unnamed guider.

 

Sandiford Cassegrain Echelle Spectrometer

The Sandiford Cassegrain Eschelle Spectrometer (bottom) is shown here mated to the Otto Struve Telescope.

The Sandiford Cassegrain Echelle Spectrometer is an instrument often used on the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope. It is a spectrometer, which means that it spreads incoming light into its component wavelengths for astronomers to study. The light is spread by an echelle, which is a special type of diffraction grating.

The Sandiford Cassegrain Echelle Spectrometer, or CE for short, is mounted on the telescope at the Cassegrain focus of the telescope. This focus position is located behind the back of the primary mirror. Light that enters the telescope is reflected off the primary mirror, which is 2.1 meters in diameter. The primary mirror directs the light to a smaller secondary mirror near the top of the telescope tube, and the secondary mirror reflects the light back down the telescope tube, through a hole in the primary mirror, and into the instrument. The instrument is placed such that it intercepts the light when the light is brought into focus.

Once inside CE, light must pass through a variety of optics before it is measured. First, it is directed through a narrow slit, which shapes the incoming beam of light into a very skinny rectangle. This line of light is the most convenient way to create a tidy spectrum. Mirrors reflect the light towards an echelle, which is a special type of diffraction grating. The echelle separates the light into its component colors. The separated light is then reflected through a filter expressly designed to keep different parts of the spectrum from overlapping, and finally to a charged coupled device (CCD). The CCD is a light detector that records the spectrum and sends it to a computer in digital form for astronomers to study.

CE is a high resolution instrument, meaning that it is capable of separating light into very fine divisions. High resolution allows astronomers to see more detailed properties of the objects they are studying. CE can detect light of wavelengths between 370 nm and 1100 nm very efficiently. Since its introduction as an instrument, it has been used primarily to study the spectra of different kinds of stars to determine their composition, motions, and structure.

 

The Sandiford Cassegrain Echelle Spectrometer was named in honor of the late Brendan Sandiford, a McDonald Observatory employee who helped develop the instrument in 1991.

Cassegrain Spectrograph

The 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas McDonal

Light from the primary mirror is reflected by a secondary mirror to an instument attached to the telescope through a hole in the primary mirror.Light from the primary mirror is reflected by a secondary mirror to an instument attached to the telescope through a hole in the primary mirror. The Cassegrain Spectrograph (ES2) is a spectrometer constructed by the Boller and Chivens company and used on the Otto Struve 2.1-m telescope at the Cassegrain focus. The spectrograph offers low to medium resolution with resolving power of 600-2,500 over the wavelength range from 0.3 to 1.1 micrometers.

ES2 is a classic spectrometer. Light comes into the telescope, onto the primary mirror, and is reflected by the secondary mirror down to the Cassegrain focus. Within the spectrograph, the light passes through the slit, is collimated (made parallel) by reflecting off a parabolic mirror, and, then is reflected by the diffraction grating (i.e., a dispersing element) into the light's spectrum over ES2's wavelength range. This spectrum of light is then focused by a set of lenses onto the charged coupled device (CCD), either the TI1 or CC1. The TI1 CCD is used for the blue region of the spectrum (i.e. shorter wavelengths), and the CC1 CCD observes the red region (longer wavelengths).

As with most spectrometers, ES2 has both spatial and spectral coverage. The instrument measures the spectrum of light from a particular source so it has spectral coverage. However, the instrument also measures the spectrum of light from different regions in the source. That is, it has spatial coverage; slits for ES2 range from 0.5 to 120 arcseconds. Consider that an astronomer may want to observe some extended source in search of emission from oxygen atoms. The astronomers will want spectral coverage so that they can determine the nature of the emission, but they will also want spatial coverage so that they can determine which regions of the object have, for example, oxygen atoms at the proper temperature to emit radiation.

Robert G. Tull Coudé Spectrograph

There are four different configurations of the Tull Spectrograph on the 2.7 meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope. The configurations are TS11, also known as the 6-Foot Camera; TS12, also known as the Long Focus camera; TS21; and TS23. The instruments are spectrographs, meaning they separate light into its component colors, creating a spectrum for astronomers to study.

All of these instruments are located at Coudé focus. Light is collected by the telescope and reflected by four mirrors down the telescope axis and into a room known as the Coudé slit room. A pivoting mirror at the base of the telescope axis allows an astronomer to decide which spectrograph entrance slit to use. One spectrograph slit allows the incoming light to follow the 6-Foot Camera and the Long Focus Camera light path. The other spectrograph slit allows the incoming light to follow the TS21 and the TS23 light path. These light paths are inside the Coudé room, which is essentially the inside of an astronomical camera that happens to be large enough to allow people to walk around inside. It is a long room painted entirely black, and it contains many pieces of optical equipment. The optical equipment directs light from the spectrograph slits to the diffraction gratings, lenses, prisms and mirrors that make up the 6-Foot Camera, the Long Focus Camera, TS21, and TS23. At the end of the optical path, light is detected by a charged coupled device (CCD) camera.

The difference between the different configurations is that they provide varying degrees of resolution, or spreading of light into its component colors. The 6-Foot Camera is a medium to high resolution spectrometer, while the Long Focus Camera is a very high resolution spectrometer. TS21 and TS23 are both medium to high resolution spectrometers. There are five different diffraction gratings and two different echelles that can be used with the instruments. An echelle is a special type of diffraction grating with fewer grooves per millimeter than a normal diffraction grating. Different combinations of echelles and diffraction gratings provide different degrees of resolution and allow astronomers to study different ranges of wavelengths.

The instruments at Coudé focus on the 2.7-m Harlan J. Smith Telescope provide the highest resolution available at McDonald Observatory. The instruments were designed for spectroscopy of the atmospheres of stars and planets, and they are most often used for this purpose.

Formerly called the Coude Spectrograph, the instrument was renamed "the Robert G. Tull Coudé Spectrograph" in honor of its creator.

 

High Resolution Spectrograph

The High Resolution Spectrograph is located below the observing floor of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, in the basement.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) hosts a trilogy of spectroscopic instruments, the High-, Medium-, and Low-Resolution Spectrographs (HRS, MRS, and LRS). Of these, the HRS offers the highest resolution; that is, it can discern fine features in the spectra from astronomical sources by spreading the spectrum out more than the other spectrographs.

Because the light is more spread out, astronomers generally must observe brighter objects with the HRS than those that they might detect with LRS or MRS. However, in this sacrifice of sensitivity, the observer attains a spectral resolution that is matched by only a few astronomical instruments in the world.

In design and function, the HRS is much like the MRS. The HRS is housed in a dark, cooled room below the telescope floor which is, as described by research engineer and assistant director John Booth, a "meat locker." In fact, the room that houses the HRS and MRS is a meat locker. The HET staff found that it was less expensive to buy a commercial meat locker than to build a thermally-controlled room.

Because the HRS is not located at the telescope's prime focus like the LRS, fiber-optic lines move the light from the prime focus to the HRS in the meat locker.

The HRS is, technically, a fiber-fed cross-dispersed echelle spectrograph.

It is called "fiber-fed" because the light is delivered to the instrument via optical fibers into the entrance slit of the spectrograph.

The dispersive element is an echelle grating, a special kind of diffraction grating that gives much higher resolution than other gratings. These gratings are generally set apart from other diffraction gratings because they have much deeper and far fewer grooves cut into their surface.

The echelle is the grating of choice for high resolution spectrographs. However, with an echelle grating, you generally need another dispersing element, a grating or prism, to effectively break the spectrum into smaller pieces and stack them on top of one another. Otherwise, you'd need a really long detector, a charged-coupled device (CCD), to gather all of the spectrum.

With today's large square CCDs, it is possible to collect the data from the "stacked" spectra that are organized by the second dispersing element. This element in the spectrograph is called the cross-disperser.

Hence, the HRS is a fiber-fed cross-dispersed echelle spectrograph.

 

Eyepiece

Viewers prepare to look through the eyepiece of the 0.9-meter Telescope.

Astronomers no longer look through eyepieces on research telescopes to do their research, but eyepieces are still important at McDonald Observatory.

That's because they are attached to both our Harlan J. Smith research telescope and our 0.9-meter Telescope on a regular basis for our Special Viewing Nights. These monthly programs allow members of the public who've made advance reservations look through these telescopes for up-close views of planets, galaxies, and other beautiful celestial objects.

McDonald is one of the few professional observatories in the world that allows the general public to use its large research-class telescopes.

 

Mitchell Spectrograph

The Mitchell Spectrograph on the Harlan J. Smith Telescope.

The Mitchell Spectrograph was initially known as VIRUS-P. That's because it is a prototype for VIRUS, a much larger instrument planned for an upcoming project on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory. The installation of the Mitchell Spectrograph on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope is both helping astronomers prepare for that project, and to do interesting science today.

VIRUS stands for “Visible Integral-field Replicable Unit Spectrograph.” A spectrograph takes the light from astronomical objects and breaks it down into its component wavelengths, creating a spectrum for that object. A spectrum is like a fingerprint of a star or galaxy, and astronomers can get amazing amounts of information from it: how far away something is, how fast it’s moving, what elements or compounds it contains, and how hot or cold it is.

The “R” in VIRUS stands for “Replicable.” The final VIRUS instrument will contain 145 copies of the same spectrograph, put together to make one powerful instrument. The prototype contains one copy.

That’s so astronomers and engineers can test it, and work the kinks out, before they make all the copies. This will save money and time.

The final VIRUS instrument will be used for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Project. Its 145 spectrographs will be capable of simultaneously observing almost 36,000 individual pieces of the sky.

For the HETDEX project, HET & VIRUS will measure the positions in space of 10,000 galaxies every night, meaning a million galaxies in 100 nights. This survey is sufficient to constrain the scale of the universe to better than 1%, and will tell us whether “dark energy” — a mysterious force causing the universe to expand faster than expected — is a constant effect over time, or whether it evolves. The nature of dark energy has been called the biggest problem in all of science today.

The type of galaxies that HETDEX will map is very specific: the so-called “Lyman-alpha” galaxies. Right now, the HETDEX team is looking for these very galaxies in a pilot survey using the Mitchell Spectrograph on the Smith Telescope. This instrument was completed in October 2006.

They are also making VIRUS-P available for other astronomers to use, and it has attracted quite a bit of attention.

Together, VIRUS-P and the Smith Telescope make the most powerful instrument/telescope combination for a variety of studies. Its unique ability to take spectra of a large area of the sky at once allows astronomers to study light that is spread over a large region of the sky and very faint. By being able to grasp so much sky area at once, VIRUS-P can add up many very faint spectra to make one detailed spectrum. For example, this has opened up the study of the dark matter around galaxies, since one has to probe the very furthest extent of the galaxy where the light from stars is very faint.

 

Camera for Quasars in the Early Universe

CQUEAN attached to the Otto Struve Telescope. (Credit: Seoul National University)

Light from the primary mirror is reflected by a secondary mirror to an instument attached to the telescope through a hole in the primary mirror.Light from the primary mirror is reflected by a secondary mirror to an instument attached to the telescope through a hole in the primary mirror. The Camera for Quasars in the Early Universe (CQUEAN) is a multipurpose imaging camera located at the Cassegrain focus of the Otto Struve Telescope. It is optimized for viewing red objects that emit wavelengths between 0.7 to 1.1 microns. Its field of view is fairly large for professional-grade telescopes, at 4.7 sqaure arcminutes.

The instrument has a fast readout time that allows for astronomers to observe celestial objects whose light output varies rapidly. CQUEAN also includes an auto-guider program to keep the telescope tracking an object across the sky during long exposure times.

"The red sensitivity and no fringing at long wavelengths make the camera special, "Dr. Myungshin Im, from Seoul National University, co-Principal Investigator of the CQUEAN project explains. "We wanted to obtain imaging data to select high-redshift quasars. Usually quasars have red colors due to their spectra being red-shifted to longer wavelengths. This requirement called for a construction of a red-sensitive imager, and to be competitive with other surveys, we built CQUEAN quickly with off-the-shelf components."

CQUEAN is good at detecting red wavelengths because it has a CCD designed to work well at long wavelengths.The trade-off is that to gain efficiency in the red part of the spectrum, it must lose efficiency in the blue. Currently, the CQUEAN team is working to improve the sensitivity at blue wavelengths by replacing some of the optics in the system.

CQUEAN was constructed at Kyunghee University and Seoul National University of Korea from February 2009 through August 2010. Dr. Im and Professor Soojong Pak (Kyunghee University) are the leaders of the CQUEAN project. Dr. Won-Kee Park (Seoul National University) was in charge of software development. Dr. Seunghyuk Jang (Samsung) was responsible for the optical design of the focal reducer. Also, students at Kyunghee University and Seoul National University worked on the development of the camera.

CQUEAN has been used to select 20 high redshift quasar candidates for spectroscopic follow up in the Infrared Multi-tiered Survey. It also obtained images of a supernova in the M101 galaxy. The CQUEAN team is also working on CQUEAN2, a similar camera with a field of view nearly 100 times larger.

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50th Anniversary of McDonald

T-shirt image for 50th anniversary designed by Tim Jones

I remember the 50th anniversary of McDonald Observatory in 1989.  I was there!  Here's the t-shirt image that Tim Jones designed for that event.

College Trip to McDonald

I was a college student at UT in the early '90s, and had to do a photo essay for photojournalism class. I chose McDonald Observatory as my subject matter. I didn't know a soul at the Observatory, but contacted them and asked permission to visit. I was allowed to come out and photograph the telescopes inside the domes, and got a private tour of just about everything. It was incredible.

The trip fueled my love of astronomy. Back on campus in Austin, I ended up interning at StarDate magazine, which led me to a couple of summers interning in Hubble Space Telescope press office, then grad school for science journalism, and finally into a PR job at one of the national observatories.

And now here we are, almost 20 years later. I'm working with the folks at McDonald who helped me out back in my school days. I'm learning more about astronomy all the time. It's amazing to get to communicate discoveries about the universe that are made right here in Texas!

 

75th Anniversary Paint Job

Stripping the 82" Otto Struve Telescope Dome

Stripping and painting of the 82" Otto Struve Telescope dome began September 3, 2013, as part of the overall 75th Anniversary year.

The existing coating is being stripped using high-pressure water, bringing the surface of the dome to bare, galvanized metal panels.  Once the stripping and rinsing surface preparations are completed, the dome gets fresh paint.

A low-emissivity white urethane-epoxy paint is used, the first coat acting as a primer/bond coat, and the subsequent two coats providing the protective and weather top-coat.

Much of the work has been done in inclement weather, at the end of the monsoon season, including rain, humidity in excess of 98%, and moderate to high wind.

Comet Hale-Bopp

As a graduate student at UT, I made several visits to McDonald Observatory. One night in particular stands out in my mind. In the early morning hours Comet Hale-Bopp was hanging above the horizon, looking absolutely spectacular in the observatory's dark skies.

During the overnight hours, any calls to the observatory were routed to the 107-inch control room, where I was running the telescope. The phone rang and the caller asked, "What is that thing in the sky that looks like a comet?" I replied, "You're exactly right — it's a comet!"

When I first saw it.

I first saw the 82-inch telescope when I came to work here in 2000. I thought it was the most beautiful instrument I'd ever seen. It reminded me of the old pictures of astronomers working at Mount Wilson.

I was so disapponted to find out tours were not done there, because when people think of a grand old telescope, I'm sure THIS is what they would think of. To this day, when visitors ask me "What's the coolest thing you've ever seen here at McDonald?" I still say "Saturn through the 82-inch telescope."

Opening of the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center

McDonald Observatory vista

I remember how exciting it was to be newly hired at the McDonald Observatory Visitors Center in anticipation of the VC's grand opening.  We opened only days before Spring Break, and let me tell you that was a steep learning curve those first few months.  The StarDate Cafe served hot chocolate from individual cocoa packets!  

After the first 1,000 cups of hot chocolate that very first week, modifications were made to order bulk rather than individual portions.  I remember thinking that the lines must almost be at an end, then looked up and saw the masses still lined up out the door!  Exhausting yet thrilling days back then! 

Now, I work in the noble landmark of the Otto Struve 82-inch Telescope.  I love the location, I love the view, I am facinated by the "workings" and I am indeed priveledged to be a part of the history of McDonald Observatory.

 

Snowed In

Snow trees at the playground.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacts from the 0.9-meter Telescope

The Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacts on Jupiter occured July 16-22, 1994 as pieces of the object, earlier broken into a "string of pearls" by the immense gravity of Jupiter, one by one impacted Jupiter's upper atmosphere leaving scars in the visible image of Jupiter that were larger in size than the Earth.  Had one of these objects hit the Earth it would have been devastating, but thankfully Jupiter had caught them and was absorbing the many blows.  Observatories all over the world had plans to view the impacts if they could be seen from Earth, but no one knew if it would be possible.

At Mt. Locke, I was a staff member at the time and we made sure everything was ready for the chance to see the first impact on a foreign body, Jupiter in this case, ever observed by mankind.  The 0.9-meter observer was set to look for the impact flash reflecting off one of Jupiter's moons since no one on Earth could see them directly.  They would hit just over the horizon of Jupiter and within a few minutes the site would rotate into view.

On the first night, the observer was not able to see the flash as he had hoped, so his plan was abandoned freeing up the 0.9-meter for other use. No backup observations had been planned, so I asked the Superintendent for permission to do visual observations at the 0.9-meter. By the next night we were ready to take a look.

All the opportunities to view Jupiter were in the early evening, as Jupiter set shortly after sunset (and from the 0.9-meter, the mountain blocked our view of it even earlier).

We got word from the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope observer that the first impact of the evening had occured. We were watching the approaching edge of Jupiter anxiously to see the new impact site. When it came into view, it was incredible. As it passed over the face of Jupiter, we called just about everyone on the mountain to come take a look.  Observers on the other telescopes were using guide cameras with their spectrographs which don't really produce quality images so they took turns guiding for their instruments and came to get an eye view.  We viewed every night we could and had visitors from Fort Davis including the Boy Scout troop marveling at the newly formed impact "craters."

That period of viewing is my most memorable experience during my 22+ years working at the Observatory.

My Growing Up Years at The McDonald Observatory

Family photo 1972; Mt. Fowlkes in background

The McDonald Observatory was my childhood home. My family moved there from San Antonio in 1968 or so, just after the large telescope was built. My father’s office every day was mostly the 82-inch Telescope. My playground was the mountains ...

There were four of us at the time, myself being the oldest, and three younger brothers. We rode the bus to school in Fort Davis along with all the other children that lived on the mountain. Actually, our homes were at the base of Mt. Locke. They were all single-wide mobile homes. Some, like ours, were installed up the side of the mountain, in the shadow of Mt. Locke. Other mobile homes were located in a large circle in the valley of Mt. Locke.

The land on which the Visitor’s Center is today, was a field. There were usually Brahma bulls in this pasture and we had ‘fun’ taunting them — at a safe distance on the other side of a barbed wire fence!

Our play activities never included any regular television shows. We were too remote to get any stations except on clear nights and some mornings, we could get channel 2 from El Paso!  There was a television antenna that Dad installed in a large pine tree out the back door of the trailer — which, by the way, had no stairs to it. It was a long fall out the back door if one decided to exit that way!  Anyway, the antenna would frequently get blown around and what little reception we got would go away. Dad would climb the tree and twist the antenna around until one of us shouted out from inside “GOOD! STOP THERE!”  However, other than Bugs Bunny at 6 am on Saturdays, we really had no interest in television.

We played cowboys and Indians and made up our own games, usually with nothing other than our own imaginations and stayed outside as much as possible. We learned which wildlife to retreat from – namely skunks and porcupines. Once, we saw a mountain lion. I believe we ran all the way down Mt. Fowlkes without stopping. I’m sure the mountain lion ran down the other side of the mountain just as fast.

We didn’t know the name of that mountain then — we called it ‘flat top’ mountain because, well, it was flat on top. We regularly wandered around up there as well as the woods behind our houses that led up to the top of the mountain to the main telescopes. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope had not yet been built on our ‘flat top’ playground, so we had free reign. There were rocks to collect, trees to climb, forts to built — the possibilities endless.

Most of the residents had horses. There was a stable in the circle of houses below us. We kept an ornery sorrel named Foxy there. Foxy was gentle with us kids, but always tried to bite my dad.  There were several trips to the emergency room in Alpine for broken bones.  One was a broken collar bone that I sustained when riding someone else’s Shetland pony that brushed me off under a tree.

We left before I entered middle school and I cried and cried. I miss that lifestyle to this day. As an adult, I ended up in Houston for a job opportunity and that’s where I must stay. My children and now grandchildren are from here. I return to the McDonald Observatory from time to time and reminisce about how life would be different if my father hadn’t taken another job and taken us away from there.

It’s a wonderful, magical place in my mind. My childhood experiences there shaped who I am today and I’m very grateful for having lived there.

The Astronomy Department Airline: Nonstop Service Between Austin and Marfa

One of our Aztecs at the Austin terminal.

In the '70s, the Department operated a scheduled air charter service between Austin and Marfa. Strictly speaking, the airplane was "leased" and not "chartered." That word is important to the FAA, because leased aircraft (which operate under FAA Part 91) could do things that chartered aircraft (which operate under FAA part 135) could not (at least legally).

We used a Piper Aztec, a twin engine, turbo-charged piston powered airplane that seated 5 passengers plus the pilot. Our pilot was a World War 2 veteran (a P51 pilot during the war) named Jake Jacobsen. His actual first name was Ingvar, but he went by Jake.

The flight left Browning Aviation (a general aviation terminal at the old Robert Mueller airport) promptly at 8:00 a.m. every Monday and Friday. Two hours later we landed at Marfa, where we swapped vehicles with the staff that was departing the mountain back to Austin. The plane was refueled, Jake had his cup of coffee, and the flight left Marfa at 10:30 a.m. for the return to Austin.

Drinking that extra cup of coffee was risky for the passengers because there was no restroom on the airplane, and many of us arrived at our destination in agony, sprinting for the nearest restroom after getting off the airplane. There is a legendary story of one of our astronomers using the PUD (personal urinary device), a milk bottle sized contraption that Jake kept under the seats for extreme emergencies. Of course this device was used in full view of everyone on the airplane.

The vehicle left the TQ [temporary quarters, now called the Astronomers Lodge] for the Marfa airport at 9:30 a.m., and this made the last night of observing difficult, especially during long winter nights when observing could go on till 7:30 a.m. or later. After completing his last night, the observer had to convert his data to punched cards, a slow process, but the only method available to get stored data off the IBM 1800 computer for transport to Austin. Departing observers frequently carried up to 10 boxes of cards, each box containing 1500 punched cards. 

 

Betty Evans, Dr. David S. Evans

This morning, I had the unique, and wonderful opportunity to host Ms. Betty Evans, and her niece, for a VIP tour here at McDonald.  Ms. Evans is the wife of Dr. David S. Evans, a renowned astronomer from Cambridge, who later worked with McDonald Observatory.


Ms. Evans was delightful to talk with, and has numerous anecdotes and memories of the McDonald institution from the 1968 time-frame forward. 

There are many rare and inspiring people I've met since I've been here at the Observatory, and Ms. Evans is one of the most memorable.  I aspire to be like her, and like my father when I'm in my 90s, spry, with a sharp wit, and a clear memory.

Many of Dr. Evans contributions, and even some of the equipment he worked with continue to be important to this day.  I was able to show Ms. Evans the current incarnation of one of the telescopes her husband made history with, still working today, and contributing toward astronomy and contemporary scientific discovery now, and into the future.

Ms. Evans is a gracious, and fine lady, in the most classical of the sense, and I am honored to have met her.

My Experiences at the HET

Working at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) was one of the high points of my career in optics, and a time I will never forget!  I was employed as the On-site Optical Engineer for the HET scope from about August 2001 until March 2003. From the very start, it was an unusual experience.

The person who hired me for this Optical Engineer position resigned and left the site shortly after I began work. That was unfortunate, since I was looking forward to reporting to that individual, as my supervisor. But it worked out that I continued reporting to the on-site Director of McDonald, so it would prove to be a pleasant and satisfactory arrangement.

I had worked at multiple observatories in Hawaii (Island of Maui) and also for the U. of H. Institute for Astronomy (I fA), so working for another university was not an issue. The HET Observatory and its telescope were the largest facility and telescope equipment with which I had ever been associated, (optical scope that is, since I had also worked at the NRAO, which has extremely large radio telescopes!) I knew the HET was going to be an interesting challenge.

During my time there, I had the opportunity to help with the care and feeding of the HET, from tasks as mundane as sweeping dust off the concrete ring wall on which the HET scope rides on air bearings, to cleaning the mirror segments with CO2 snow. Also, these tasks included technical matters such as measuring the reflectivity of the mirror coatings, making adjustments to mechanical equipment, helping work on detectors, and occasionally helping other guys to remove one of the mirror segments from the primary mirror array, when a mirror needed special attention. My least favorite jobs were:  (a.) climbing around on the truss in order to inspect or remove a mirror segment, and  (b.) climbing up and down the CCAS tower outside, which was 90 feet to the top. But these were also parts of the job.

All in all, I liked the work at the HET very much and will never regret having had this opportunity to work with the HET.  The HET is an amazing telescope for astronomical research; it facilitates the pursuit of spectroscopy on a level which is hard to equal. It just does what it was intended to do!  Best of all, the people at the HET and at McDonald in general, were the greatest bunch of folks, and consequently were a joy to work with as associates!  A nicer group of folks you will not find, not easily. My favorite visual observing scope was the 82 inch, which has exquisite optics for imagery. We got to use this scope several times, which was a real treat!

My wife and I lived on-site in one of the University houses which are on the McDonald Observatory property. We both loved that experience. Deer, javalina, foxes, humming birds, etc. would visit our patio and yard all the time, and we never tired of watching and interfacing with the wild life at McDonald. My wife worked at the Visitor's Center, and she enjoyed that as much as I liked working at HET. More nice people were her associates, at the the Center.

McDonald Observatory will always be a place I remember with warm feelings. It was a great learning opportunity, a good part of my optical career, and a wonderful place to live and share our lives with our fellow employees at the site. Thanks for all the good times, and keep up the great work in professional astronomy!

Expanding the Soul

At night at the 82-inch.

When you stay in the house too much, without any contact with nature, you know how you develop a sort of sickness of the soul? Peak experiences in nature do the opposite; they're soul expanding. McDonald Observatory gives people a special way to connect with nature, whether those people travel to the site, or not. For me, it started each night with seeing a long way in every direction from the top of Mount Locke. You can see lightning storms far off over the plains, rainbows and all the distant sunsets, and stars, and planets popping into view. For a girl in her 20s, there was never so exhilarating a freedom as being able to walk around after dinner, under the darkening sky, just looking up.

  No streetlights came on, but there was no need to worry about being out alone at night, even in the dark of the Moon, as we women sometimes worry in the city. It was always a safe journey into even the darkest of nights, and I came to know my way along the paths between the domes by touch, rather than sight.

There was a magic question that every astronomer always wanted to answer: "What are you working on?" They talked so freely about the space around us, with so many different perspectives on what's out there. Often these conversations went on late at night, in one or another of the domes, as points of fresh data appeared on computer screens in front of us. The tools of astronomy, like those at McDonald Observatory, have let astronomers study starlight — that delicate substance — in order to draw their pictures of the universe.

It was thanks to Harlan Smith that those pictures didn't go into a private room with a sign over the door marked "Astronomers Only." Harlan was a trailblazer and trendsetter who helped open the door to viewing and marveling at astronomers' pictures of what surrounds us in space, for all. I was proud to act as his minion.

I saw too many wonderful sights in the sky over McDonald Observatory to list here. I'll mention one particularly rich Perseid meteor shower, which built over many nights. At the shower's peak, in the hours before dawn, I lay in the back of a flatbed truck parked between the 107-inch and 82-inch domes, as Perseid meteors in all colors literally rained down from the top of the sky. I also especially remember a little crescent Moon, only 18-19 hours from the new phase (I forget the exact number now). It was just a ghost of a Moon really, rising in the east in bright dawn twilight, spotted from the catwalk of the 82-inch telescope dome. The astronomers inside that dome were just finishing their night's work, and they came outside to enjoy the little Moon with me.

I haven't had a night on Mount Locke in a quarter century now. But my soul got so big from being outside on those nights at McDonald Observatory that the memories have carried me through many decades since … and I'm grateful.

Widening State Highway 118 - Explosively!

Highway 118 before the blast.

State highway 118 from Ft. Davis to the observatory used to be a very different road than it is today. It was a very narrow 2 lane road with no shoulders and no safety “skid out” zones on the steep turns (like Dead Man’s). There were places where the road had a shear wall on one side, and a steep cliff on the other.

Starting in 1975, the state highway department added a number of improvements to the road: they widened it, added scenic overlooks, replaced the low water crossings with bridges so Limpia Creek wouldn’t flow over the road, and they added safety zones around the steep turns.

In January 1976 the highway department informed us there was going to be a big explosion as they blew away part of the mountain to make the road wider and add a shoulder. We all walked down to the old Millimeter Wave Observatory to watch the show. We weren’t disappointed; it was quite an explosion!

Nova computers

The Nova computer was a "16-bit minicomputer" introduced to McDonald Observatory around 1970 by Dr. Ed Nather for instrumentation control. In fact, Ed bought Nova SN 1 with drawings signed by Edson de Castro himself, the founder of the computer manufacturer, Data General Corporation. The machine was small enough to fit on a roll-around cart so that it could be easily used at the 30-inch or 36-inch telescope to control an instrument mounted to the back of the telescope.

Digital memory and micro-computers were not yet available, so the computer used core memory, up to 8 kilobytes per board (about 12" x by 12"), a CPU designed with small scale TTL digital "chips," and user-designed interfaces that all slid handily into the chassis. Software was loaded into the computer from paper tape using an ASR-33 teletype, and data in turn were punched to paper tape.

The light sensor was a photomultiplier tube, a one pixel device that converted photons to electronic pulses which could be counted by the Nova computer interface. In an effort to reduce internal noise, the tubes were kept cold in insulated boxes stuffed with dry ice. Condensation on the boxes during inclement weather would sometimes short out signal cables, so that at one time de-humidifiers were installed at the 30-inch and 36-inch telescopes.

Early on, Nova software was all written in "assembly language." High-level languages and operating systems came later. With an understanding of the Nova assembly language, software could be modified or entered using the computer front panel switches. Lights on the front panel permitted reading the software by stepping through the program one instruction at a time.

At night, the stillness in front of the TQ (Transient Quarters) was broken all night by the rat-a-tat-tat of teletypes punching UBV photometry data on miles of paper tape which was feed into a temporary storage receptacle — a trash can. And in the telescope, each tape punch was preceded by the mechanical sound of the filter wheel advancing about every second to the next color. Up until the Nova computer, the filter had to be turned by hand and the data written in a notebook.

The mini-computer revolutionized the measurement of flare stars, and put McDonald at the forefront of this branch of astronomy. But astronomy keeps moving on, so that now flare star photometry is relegated to amateurs and mini-computers are replaced by microprocessor chips.

The automated photometers freed the astronomer up to guide the telescope; this was before the day of automatic guiding. Astronomers on break would meet at the TQ for coffee with patches over their guiding eyes to maintain light sensitivity.

Snowed in: November 1969

Saw this spider web while on a walk in the snow

We had just moved back from Maryland where our daughter Kimberlee was born while Ed was serving in the army from Nov. 1967 until Oct. 1968. We had moved in when his folks into a tiny bedroom not big enough for the three of us. We managed with the hope that would find something soon. He was looking for a job, and as you know, there were just not any jobs available at the time. He had applied at every possible place. Finally, in March of 1969, Ed was hired as a night assistant at the observatory.

In November of that same year, Curt Laughlin (who was the Superintendent) asked Ed if he thought I would be interested in moving into one of the new trailers which had been moved in to provide housing for the new employees. I was thrilled and began moving all the stuff that I could handle by myself because Ed was day sleeping. Eventually, I got us all moved in. Thanksgiving was fast approaching and we made plans to drive down to town to spend it with the in-laws. Surprise – the morning of, we got up to winter wonderland that would have knocked your socks off. It snowed so much our car was completely covered with snow and there was no way out. We were snowed in. However, that did not keep us from having a little fun. We played in the snow until Kim and I were all wet.

I soon learned that if we were going to live up there we would have to properly outfit ourselves with winter clothing that would keep us warm. I even bought a sled for the kids. In 1974 our son Trae was born, and both kids were raised at McDonald. When the snow was so deep that we didn’t have to worry about cars coming along, we would allow the kids to start the sled from House 15 and ride down across the road into our garage (House 10). At the time, there were so many kids, we never had to worry about them out playing at the pond, walking up the hill getting into mischief at the Transient Quarters (TQ) which is now known as the Astronomer’s Lodge, and building forts in the woods. Jerry Wiant had a bell and when he wanted the kids to come home he would ring the bell until they all started coming home. Times were so different then, we did not worry about them at all.

There are too many memories for me to name them all, but our favorite was always the snows we had while living there for 34 years. Our family was one of the original bunch and we have sustained friendships with most of the original crew.

I still visit the observatory with my grandsons Joseph and Braeden. You will find us at the pool on Mondays and Thursday during the summer months. When we are done we always drive by the house where we lived. It will always have a special place in my heart.

1970s Memories of McDonald

Space Songs

Eric and I arrived on the mountain from the east coast in December of 1969 where he would take charge of the laser project, his first job. McDonald was a wonderful place to live! We could see for miles out the living room window of House E where we lived until 1975 when the new houses were finished. It was a great place to raise children, and we made lifelong friends.

One of my favorite memories is from the time when Barbara Laughlin led the observatory children in a performance of "Space Songs." In the picture you can see Gary Gallo (narrator) on the right. In the chorus are Cobb, Barker, Dutchover, Williams, Wiant, and Silverberg children. We still are known to occasionally sing "The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas" and "Why Do the Stars Twinkle at Night."

Special Viewing Night

Special Viewing Night was offered to the locals of our area in west Texas for no admission. We had never been to the McDonald Observatory and thought this would be an opportune time. We picked the perfect night for our reservation. The skies were clear and the temperature cool. Dan, the moderator, showed us several interesting things in the night sky. Looking through the 36-inch telescope, we were blown away by the awesome wonder of the universe. The McDonald Observatory is truly a treasure in our area, and we will definitely be back again.

Visit to McDonald Observatory

107 Harlan Smith and 82 Otto Struve Telescopes

In January 2001, I watched the Sun rise from the Harlan J. Smith 107" Telescope building. I saw its dome close when the Sun came up.

At the W.L. Moody, Jr. Visitors Information Center, among other treasures, I purchased earrings that I still wear. The Frank Bash Visitors Center was being built next to it.

The people in Fort Davis proved to be friendly, knowledgable, and shared their knowledge freely. The place seemed magical. It was so green and so many trees dotted the landscape of the Fort Davis mountains.

I really enjoyed Joe's official tour of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope and of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

Here are some photos that I took.

Toddler to Technician

My experience with the McDonald Observatory began at an early age. In fact, when I was just a toddler in the 1950s. I vaguely remember visiting the observatory with family members and being simultaneously awed and terrified by the drive up. The 82" Otto Struve was the only one of the larger telescopes in existence at the time. We would make a day event of it, driving up from Marfa early and spending most of the day in the beautiful setting atop the Davis Mountains. A picnic with barbacoa cooked on a large pit at one of the road side parks leading up to Mt. Locke was always the way we completed our experience. Once at the observatory, the adults would split off from the brood of youngsters, leaving one of the adults to tend to us while they all went up to the 82" for a look see. I don't know what sort of tours they had at the time, if any, but I believe the telescope was accessible to visitors then. We kids were left to our own entertainment, supervised by a parent, and we made the most of it. It must have been like herding cats for whomever was left in charge because I can remember at least half a dozen to a dozen cousins at any one visit.

My most vivid recollection was one that could have had a tragic ending. On one visit after the adults had all gone up to enjoy the sites at the 82", we children and our adult attendant, my father's brother, entertained ourselves with child's play near the car park. At the time, if my recollection is accurate, visitor's cars were parked on the lower loop road where the 30" and 36" telescopes are now located. As we played, some of us noticed a visitor's vehicle slip its brakes and began to move backwards down the slopped parking area toward the drop off on the far side of Mt. Locke. We screamed and caught uncle's attention and he reacted almost instantly. He yelled at us to stay back and raced toward the slowly moving vehicle. He reached it and opened the drivers door, leaped in and applied the foot brake, stopping the car just before it plunged down the mountain. After all was said and done, he was both gratefully thanked by the car's owner who found it sitting not where he parked it, and chastised by our adult group for having taken such a risk to save it from a devastating plunge. I was too small to understand all of it at the time, but in my mind, my uncle was a brave hero for risking his life and doing what he did.

Now, these many years later, I find myself back at McDonald Observatory once again. Only this time, I am part of the staff at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope doing work as a technical staff associate. An electro-mechanical technician to be more precise. I came by this job after having left Texas in my youth to make my own way in the world, meeting and marrying the love of my life, Yolanda. We spent ten years in California, where she is from, raised two beautiful daughters, Ida and Jolene, and struggled as a young couple to make a go of it. Circumstances caused us to move back to Texas where I became employed in the oil and gas business for almost fourteen years. After a downsizing layoff, I decided to go back to school and hone my skills, acquire new ones, and prepare myself for another career. In late 1999, three years after first light for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, I applied for and was hired to my present job. I was ecstatic to be employed and live at such a prestigious world renown observatory and to be back near my hometown of Marfa. I have since had the absolute privilege of working with the most professional colleagues, current and past, both here at the HET and in Austin at the astronomy department. Together we have not only successfully commissioned and operated one of the world's premier spectrographic telescopes, but are currently undertaking the next phase of cutting edge astronomical science with the HETDEX project. Scheduled for completion sometime in 2014, we will be poised to make history by looking for the meaning of Dark Energy.

I have been at the HET for fourteen years now and have enjoyed every single one of them. From doing the everyday grunt work to even being deputy manager of the facility for a short stint, it has been an adventure. I love what I do, where I do it, and working with my colleagues every day. It has been rewarding and gratifying knowing I have been a small part of the science that we produce here in association with astronomers and their departments all over the world. I can truthfully say that I am at peace with the beautiful natural environment of the Davis Mountains, and I am at peace and one with the universe around me. Every night when I gaze up into the dark clear skies of West Texas, I marvel at being a part of the whole. The Milky Way appears to me as a river that can take anyone that wants to go on the journey to the far reaches of the universe and beyond. Who knows, with HETDEX, maybe we will.

Sneaking in

I happened to be in the neighborhood of the observatory after presenting a workshop in Alpine and decided to drive up to see what was going on. Alas, the observatory was closed for a private tour of Japanese tourists. I decided to take my chances, started mingling with the group, and told our observatory guide that I was a translator for the group. The truth is I didn't speak a word of Japanese! Sometimes, a little fib and subterfuge is necessary when the stars are calling, and there are no other options available. I made some new friends -- despite the language barrier -- participated in some great observing, and learned astronomy is amazing, whatever language you speak or don't speak.

Hauling the lens up the Mountain

My father Henry Noah Jones lived in the Ft. Davis , Texas area when my sister Mary Lou Jones was born there, My mom told me dad helped haul a huge lens up the mountain for a new obsevatory being built there at the time.

High School Junior

My Dad, a traveling salesman, and I visited McDonald in the summer of 1950. I was a high school junior from Lamesa, Texas. We met Paul Jose and how I"ll never know, I was invited to spend a week or so at the Observatory. I lived in the dome. I got to observe at the prime focus, develop plates, and do just about everything! Paul and his wife kept me fed and happy. It was a truly wonderful experience. I went to Texas A&M and finished with a degree in Physics. Then I received an MS in Physics fron UCLA and finally a PhD in Astronomy from Wisconsin. I went on to Indiana as a new Assistant Professor. Indiana had observing privileges at McDonald! So I observed at McDonald as a real astronomer from 1965 through the 1970s.

I hope to meet many friends at the celebration on April 26. Please reintroduce yourselves! It has been a long time.

Martin Burkhead

My wife, Barbara, and I are on our way to Capitol Reef National Park to serve as volunteers for May. I will be the visiting Astronomer!

From the Midwest to West Texas

A picture of me soon after I started working here.

I grew up on a farm near the town of Boonville, IN, and I have been interested in Astronomy since I was five years old. I received a 2.4-inch telescope as Christmas gift when I was ten and I joined the Evansville Astronomical Society when I was twelve. The club's observatory was at a local park where the the skies were pretty dark. The original telescope was a 12.5 inch F/10 Reflector that was made by the astronomer Edgar Everhart. It was replaced a long time ago with a Celestron C-14.

When I was a teenager I built a six-inch Newtonian Reflector on a Dobsonian mounting. I was very active in the club and served as the clubs Secretary/Historian and Program Chairman for several years. I received a degree in Electronics and worked in that profession for several years but my real passion has always been Astronomy.

In 1995 I began employment at the Evansville Museum of Arts and Science in their planetarium. One day while looking through the International Planetarium Society bulletin I happened upon a listing for a job opening conducting public programs at the McDonald Observatory Visitors Center. I had always dreamed of working at an observatory and this sounded just perfect for me! I applied for the job but unfortunately it had already been filled.

In 1996 I took a trip to the southwest to visit sights that have always intrigued me. I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time and visiting observatories was the top item on my list. I went to Kitt Peak, Lowell, and Sunspot just to name few. On the way back I stopped by McDonald and went to star party and did a self-guided tour the next day. After this trip I decided that someday I would live in the southwest.

In Oct. of 1999 I found out that the job at the Visitors Center was available again and I re-applied. I contacted the Visitors Center and spoke with Marc Wetzel and informed him that I was interested in the job and a few days later I hopped on a plane(s) and flew here for an interview. I was offered the job a few days later.

The journey here for the interview is a story in itself. On Nov. 1, 1999, I left Indiana for the three-day journey to my new job and home. My parents and brother traveled with me for the move and I have been here ever since. Living in West Texas is a lot different than Indiana, but it did not take me long to adapt. In closing I would like to say, follow your dreams because someday they may become true.

Sidewalk Shadows

I was selected to participate in a week long Space Science Workshop at the observatory. I was excited to attend because it was my first time to travel to the area. I learned many fascinating things about space and activities to share with my K-4th graders in the science lab at Samuel W. Houston Elementary School in Huntsville, TX. My favorite experiment was when we proved that the Earth is moving not the Sun by the use of sidewalk chalk shadow people. I still use this experiment today with my students. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in a world of space science in the great outdoors.

First and Best

I was allowed to offer Astronomy for the first time it was taught for the 2006-2007 school year at Lehman High School in Kyle, TX. My Department Chair recommended the Professional Development at McDonald Observatory, so I applied to attend two seminars. I loved the summer experience at McDonald Observatory! McDonald Observatory was the first working professional observatory I had ever visited. May of 2006 I brought my first group of students to McDonald Obs and it really changed their lives in the most positive ways. I am still attending trainings and bringing students to one of my favorite places on Earth, McDonald Observatory!

Boot Camp!

I am the basketball or Sun in the picture!

This was my very first trip to the observatory! Having no idea where the observatory was at, but knowing it was going to take me eight hours to drive, I packed my belongings late the night before, after being at school all day teaching my junior high kiddos, and got minimal sleep. I left my home a little earlier than normal and drove non stop, except for fuel and food of course, by myself. Then taking that winding road (118) off the Interstate up to the mountain top, was a bit more than I was ready for, but because I procrastinated felt it would be just fine. I knew I would check in, get my lodging, at the time it was at the Indian Lodge and then get me some rest for the next day's activities! Little did I know it would resemble boot camp I had attended some 30 years earlier in San Antonio!

Upon arriving and checking in, I was extremely tired and was informed where the classroom was and would be starting the training THEN! Although the staff was no where close to the drill instructors I had at boot camp, it was that I was expecting some rest prior to training beginning and did not get any. 18 plus hours was a bit of a long day, especially driving almost half of it. I did pick up quite a bit of information those first hours and was glad we attended. The next morning, although somewhat early and late to bed that night made for another long day, but one filled with exciting learning and things I was able to use in my classes.

I also had another exciting story the second night at the Indian Lodge. It had begun raining and my roommate and I had a great room. After we had returned from the observatory for the night, we entered our room to find we had a leak. My roommate was not so put out as I was, since the leak was over MY bed! Fortunately, they had another room and we moved that night, but in the rain!

Needless to say, the rest I did not get while at the observatory was not really needed as the staff had so much for us to do and accomplish, I completely forgot all about the rest and was able to concentrate on learning so I could be a better facilitator at my school.

Thank you to each and every one of those fantastic observatory staff members!

Starry, Starry Night

I had forgotten what a truly dark sky could produce ... the magic, the infinity, the glorious majesty, and the over whelming feeling of being a part of something far greater than everyday life. The abundance of stars crashed over me like a giant wave the instant I walked out of the transient quarters at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas late one July night. I was one of 16 teachers chosen to broaden their astronomical horizons through the American Astronomical Society Teacher Resource Agent program (AASTRA). Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway and her graduate assistant, Pamela Gay, were our guides, instructors and mentors through five nights of observation and work on the 76 centimeter telescope. But all I could think of that first night as I walked with my head held back at a 90 degree angle to my body was, “I forgot.”

I remember the first time I saw a night sky with the dominant summer Milky Way. It was almost a religious experience. I was no longer attached to my grounded hunk of tissues and bone. I became part of the darkness of space. My thoughts blended with the stars and I felt the importance of my planet’s place in our galaxy.

All of my memories of childhood wonderment came rushing back on that warm summer night. With each meteorite that fell, I felt elation and sheer joy. I don’t think I stopped smiling that entire night, even when I had to report back to the telescope for my second run at
3:00 a.m.

For those of us who teach astronomy but do not usually participate in actual astronomical research, the technology that has developed around this science is absolutely fascinating. There was no keyboard button to push, no screen to look at, and no star to locate that we did not find interesting.

On the first night though, we had problems. A summer thunderstorm struck before we arrived and the electrical power running the computers had been zapped with one bolt of lightning. We lost the ability to align the telescope with our guide star, Cygnus B and the telescope needed to be recalibrated. Everyone on all of the shifts that first night worked to accomplish this feat. We centered the telescope on several stars but it wasn’t until about 5:00 a.m. that all of the instruments checked out — just in time to shut down for sunrise.

I am not a night person but I couldn’t wait for my second night of observation. By the third morning, with two runs under our belts, we were feeling confident and started comparing notes, Making astronomical observations reminded me of rock hunting; the more specimens you find, the pickier you get.

A variety of star clusters within the Milky Way were located and imaged using our charged coupling device (CCD) capabilities. We also looked at nebulae, which supply the galaxy with pigmentation. Against the black curtain of space, nebulae colored the imaginations of all who viewed them. The Omega Nebula (M17) was the most spectacular. Looking at the monitor, we all felt the presence of beginnings; all that could be created was in that misty shroud. Fantastic!

One night we found an irregular galaxy (NGC 6027, part of the Seyfert Sextet) that was vaguely shaped like one of the worms in the science fiction novel Dune so we laughingly started referring to it as “Aracus.”

When we completed our stay at the McDonald Observatory, the goals of the AASTRA program had been accomplished. Our science was more firmly grounded. Our abilities to translate that science for students would be formed by personal experience. We had new resources and new networks. As we sat together on that last night, the talk centered not on technology but on the dark sky. We laughed that Jupiter was so bright that it looked like an airplane making an approach to an airport.

One teacher reiterated the story of how the different colored meteors had fallen one after another as if on cue. Another spoke of how brilliant the different constellations were and how extremely bright Cassiopeia was in July. I added my tale about the hypnotic effect the brightly banded Milky Way had on me as a child. We finished our stories, sang some songs, and made a final pledge. We vowed in unison to do one thing first when we returned home. We would take our loved ones and anyone else we could persuade to see a piece of magic that most city dwellers miss - the dark sky.

Thank you McDonald Observatory.

Originally published in The Science Teacher Magazine, April 2000

Time Travels of the 82-inch Telescope Model

Toni Beldock, Head of Exhibit Design and Production and John Peel, Exhibit Production Supervisor, opening the crate

Last week, the more than 75-year-old model of the 82-inch telescope arrived at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. This morning I got to be there when they opened the crate containing it. I felt a little like Indiana Jones in the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" movie to get to be a part of this ceremony. The model is on loan from the Western Reserve Historical Society and it came all the way from Cleveland, Ohio. Twenty-five years ago, the model was exhibited at the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine in association with McDonald Observatory’s 50th anniversary.

Some people really wanted to see this model again and others have never seen it. This caused our staff member Bill Wren to track it down. It had moved from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History over to the Western Reserve Historical Society, and it took him a while to find it. Then, over 50 people donated to our campaign to bring the model back to Texas and we are grateful to all of them. We expected it to be here sooner but the record-setting ice and snow in the Midwest delayed its departure from Cleveland.

The model will be part of the Texas State History Museum’s exhibit entitled McDonald Observatory: 75 Years of Stargazing, which opens on May 1 and runs through June 30, 2014. Then it will take the 450-mile trek to the Observatory’s visitors center near Fort Davis, Texas and be on display indefinitely.

If you open the little little trap doors on the side of the model, you can see into an area that was once the astronomer’s quarters. Astronomers no longer sleep in the 82-inch dome. That was something they did before they build the Astronomer’s Lodge (Long House or TQ for those in the know) and other housing. Still, the musty smell inside the crate tells me that the spirits of the model builders and the Warner & Swasey Company, that built the telescope, live on.

I was awakened from this nostalgic experience this morning with a fire drill at the Museum — not nearly as exciting as the scene in the movie when the spirits of the Ark kill everyone who is watching it being opened. Nonetheless, it was fun to time travel back to the 1930s and what it must have been like to be involved in the creation of the great 82-inch Telescope and its model.

Ladybugs

Ladybug migration

My first visits to McDonald Observatory occurred in the seventies as a camper at Prude Ranch. One of our field trips was to the Observatory and what struck me the most wasn't the telescopes or skies, but the migration of thousands of ladybugs on every surface. It was a Milky Way of orange and black.

The 1937 Trip to West Texas

Richard Robertson (left), his mother Bon Sory (center) & sister June at the McDonald Observatory Sept. 7, 1937

Shortly after my 10th birthday, our family left Dallas in our 1935 Plymouth for a trip to West Texas. Memorable stops along the way were eating breakfast in the Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg, and spending the night in the new Lone Starr Lodges in Kerrville. We headed for Fort Davis, where we spent the night at the Prude Ranch and then drove up Mt. Locke to see the new McDonald Observatory on September 7th.

 Somehow, I realized that this was a very important place. We took pictures there, and at the ruins of old Ft Davis. On the way to El Paso and the Carlsbad Caverns, we drove to Marfa during an awesome rain storm. My dad had to shed his britches and shoes and get out of the car to lead us through the deep water. Eventually, we reached New Mexico and the Caverns. My Mother's note in the photo album said there were 300 in our party to watch the bats fly out before group toured the caverns.

Building the Road to the Observatory and Hauling the Tube and Mirror

In order for the observatory to be built a road had to be constructed up the mountain, which was a distance of 17 miles from Ft. Davis., C.E. Armstrong and Sons (my Great Grandfather and his company) were part of the building of the road.

When it was completed and the building was ready for the installation of the equipment, Charles Armstrong and Sons hauled the 82-inch Telescope tube and later the first mirror up the mountain to the observatory. The original dedication took place on May 5, 1939.

Railroad Family Exploring

Jim Baker family: Myrtle Alexander Baker and children.

It was probably very early in the public history of McDonald Observatory when the Jim Baker family made their first visit. With 3 preschoolers (Warren, Mildred, and Roger), it must have been a Sunday near 75 years ago, probably when Jim was operating a Burro half-circle crane for the redecking of Southern Pacific Railroad's Pecos High Bridge.

 A white placcard on the door, and the man peering through the glass would indicate the observatory was not open to visitors. We did pet whitetail deer in the yard.

Big Telescope

I was lucky enough to get to the observatory two summers in a row for teacher workshops. On the second of these, I got my hands on a "real" telescope. No, not a research instrument. I was honored to collect photons with my own eyes through the 36-inch, by far the largest telescope I've ever used. Starting at age 12 with a 4.25-inch reflector, over the years, I worked up to a 10-inch. And I have observed objects with telescopes as large as 20 inches.

But this was a real treat!

Objects that would be faint or impossible with those smaller telescopes simply jumped out of the eyepiece! It was such a pleasure to use this telescope to see familiar objects as if for the first time. While I prefer to find objects manually, it was just plain fun to tell it what to find and watch it home in on the target -- and to see that it is smart enough to know it can't look through the mountain behind it. The fun continued well past 1 a.m., as another teacher and I kept picking off targets. Fatigue isn't a problem when you have the rare opportunity to use such a fine instrument under such perfect conditions.

I spent a fair amount of time just staring at that sky. There have been few times indeed when I have been privileged to raise my eyes to such a clear and dark sky. And despite my long experience, there were moments when the huge number of faint stars made it a little difficult to find familiar patterns.

It was hard to put the telescope to sleep and quit for the night. I almost felt sorry for astronomers working inside at a computer console who would not get the total experience of that night.

1st visit 1955 at age 10

In 1955 my mother inherited her father's car and she brought me and her mother to McDonald Observatory from Lamesa, a long trip at the time.

We were in a '49 or so Dodge, and it vapor locked on the way to observatory. My mother made me and my grandmother get out while she backed the non-running car back down the hill.

My grandmother just stood on the side of the road with her hands over her eyes screaming the whole time, knowing my mother was about to die, but she managed to back down the very narrow road and got the car restarted at the bottom.

I didn't make it to the observatory that time and probably didn't come back until the late 60s to visit, but I'll never forget the first attempt.

Vacation with children

A highlight of our epic three week vacation, with 5 kids in a "Pop-Top VW" was the McDonald Observatory. Friends at the Moody Foundation, my customer, had urged be to go to the Observatory. Evidently the Moodys were big contributors, and I had done considerable work in their new building, American National Insurance Co., Galveston. I had seen photos in the Moody offices. Anyway the experience was "other worldly," to use a cliche'. I loved it and have returned many times. The kids now have kids and will be taking them soon.

Remembering William Johnson McDonald in Paris, Texas

L-R: Brandon Hoog, David L. Lambert, and Rhonda Rogers. Photo by Joel Barna.

On May 2, 2014, McDonald Observatory Director David L. Lambert gave a talk on the history and future of McDonald Observatory in Paris, Texas — the home of William Johnson McDonald (1844-1926), whose bequest to the University of Texas created McDonald Observatory.

The event, on the campus of Paris Junior College, was hosted by the Rotary Club of Paris and the Texas Exes Paris Chapter. In his closing, Lambert said that his own life had been greatly affected by the events that Mr. McDonald set in motion through his will, and that he liked to think that Mr. McDonald would be happy to see what his estate had created and how it had grown and developed over time. Later, Lambert was joined by Texas Exes Paris Chapter officers Brandon Hoog and Rhonda Rogers for a photo (shown) in front of the historic marker that honors Mr. McDonald at the site of the First National Bank of Paris, downtown.

Observing with Dr. Harlan Smith

Gemini Twins Castor and Pollux over the Harlan Smith Telescope

During April of 1982, I attended a Planetarium Conference with a very good friend of mine, Bryan Snow. Bryan was then Director of the Scobee Planetarium at San Antonio College. Just before we left on our journey we contacted a local meteorologist about the weather conditions in Fort Davis. His comment was, "You poor boys." The forecast was a snow storm for the Davis Mountains. Mind you, this was late for this time of year. While traveling out interstate 10 West the weather was very nice. When we arrived in Fort Stockton, Texas we noticed the outside temperature dramatically dropped. We stopped for lunch in Fort Stockton and noticed the buses traveling from the West had sheets of ice on the front grills. We did not think much of it and proceeded with our trip to the Davis Mountains.

When we approached the mountainous area, we encountered one of the most beautiful snow storms I have ever seen. Living in San Antonio, Texas, for so many years one rarely sees snowfall. So this was a real treat. Arriving at the Indian Lodge located at the Davis Mountain State Park, snow had blanketed much of the area.

The Indian Lodge was not only our hotel accommodations but also the site of the Planetarium Conference. One of the speakers at the conference was then McDonald Observatory Director Dr. Harlan Smith. The conference went well and later we all wondered if the skies would clear. Harlan Smith said it will be clear tonight. I then asked Dr. Smith if it would be alright to set up my vintage orange Celestron C8 telescope on Mt. Locke near the 107" telescope dome. Harlan said it was okay.

Indeed the skies did clear. I was using my 1950 Epoch Skelnate Pleso star charts to star hop and locate faint planetary nebulae that would push the limits of my C8 telescope. While observing these faint fuzzy objects, a gentleman in a wool ski cap came behind me, and requested to look through my telescope. We then proceeded to observe many faint planetary nebulae, which some appeared nearly stellar in the Celestron C8 telescope. He told me that was the most planetary nebulae he had seen in a single evening.

At that point he explained he had recently returned from an Astronomical Conference in Greece. He said he was there with some of the most notable astronomers in the world. While at the conference they stepped outside to look at the night sky. The gentleman informed me many of these astronomers could not identify the bright object in the western sky as the planet Venus. He then proceeded to have a class on whats up in tonight's sky which he instructed. The gentleman Bryan and I were observing with was Dr. Harlan Smith. Dr. Smith was not only a professional astronomer but also an observer.

That evening was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, that I will always cherish. The 107" Telescope on top of Mount Locke now bears his name.

The Message of Starlight

I love to learn and consider myself a lifelong learner. My original degrees are in Biology and Botany, but my first love of Astronomy began at the age of 5 when I first saw the Milky Way from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Growing up in the wilds of New York City brought me to learn at the Hayden Planetarium in as many "Astronomy for Young People" courses as my parents would allow.

I have been teaching a one semester Astronomy course for high school students since the Fall of 2004. From the beginning, I have sought professional development opportunities to extend and update my knowledge and authentic research experiences that I could turn into investigations for my students.

 I was fortunate to be selected for The Age of the Milky Way workshop the summer after I had worked on the ARBSE program through Kitt Peak National Observatory. The summer of 2008 had brought me to Kitt Peak. The night I was supposed to be rotating through and collecting our data for the Open Cluster project found us immersed in a major electrical storm that closed down the 0.9-meter telescope.

Undeterred, I saw a similar, shorter program at McDonald Observatory posted for the Summer of 2009. Since West Texas is closer to Oklahoma than Arizona, I decided that this was the place to be. The drive takes me 10 hours from Norman, but I have learned to love each part of the way, know where to stop and stretch and when I see the Davis Mountains rise up, I really get excited. I enjoyed the drive through the Davis Mountains as much to see the biology of the area. It is lovely.

We had perfect skies during the three nights and four days of that workshop, and I think the group of us closed down the telescopes each night of our stay there. The message of starlight and dark skies is magical, and once you have experienced it you are rarely satisfied with any less.

The other wonderful part is that I was able to connect with a group of teachers and UT Astronomers with similar interests and hopes for their students. We continue our conversations and sharing via e-mails and Facebook. We also became friends. I am always humbled when the Longhorns are willing to share their skies with this Sooner.

Other workshops (MONET in 2010; The Hubble Universe in 2012; and Texas EXES with Dr. Chris Sneeden and sharing his quest to study halo stars in 2013) have been outstanding (even thought it rained for the entire MONET workshop). Getting to have eyeball-to-eyepiece views on all of the scopes has been impressive. M 13 on the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope was just amazing, but my favorite scope is the 0.9-meter because it is the most hands-on for the teachers.

Getting to meet and learn from folks such as Drs. Mary Kay Hemenway, Kurtis Williams, Rick Hesseman, Keely & Steve Finklestein, Kyle Fricke, Jody Harkrider, Judy Stanton Meyer, Marc Wetzel, and all the research astronomers who have shared their experiences and what they were learning has been exciting and stimulating. They practice what they preach!

I look forward to more experiences in the dark skies of West Texas whenever I can come down. The true beneficiaries are my own students and my three sons who are amazed that I have so much enthusiasm for what I teach. While I haven't been able to field trip my students down to West Texas, I can take them to the dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle during the Okie-Tex Star Party each Fall.

Learning more about Astronomy and our Universe is very special when it is hands-on, but nothing prepares you for the aesthetics and emotional side of the magic of starlight! Thanks for the memories and learning to share with others! Here's to the future! Happy 75th Anniversary!

Seed Funding for the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory

James W. McCartney and Neil Griffin gave seed funding for the future Frank N. Bash Visitors Center (photo Kevin Mace)

My wife, Linda, and I were guests at McDonald Observatory in the 1980s. It was an exceptional experience. The people there, the student instructors, the cordial reception, and program were all very impressive. Multiple telescopes were available, for viewing nebulae, twin stars, the moon, Saturn’s rings, and various other objects. The quality of the presentations could not have been better, but we noticed that the quality of the existing visitors’ center was something else.

I called Frank Bash, who, I believe, was at the time the chair of the astronomy department at UT Austin, and mentioned this to him. I suggested that some consideration be given to improving the visitors center. As I recall, he said that, by coincidence, they were looking into that matter at that time and were looking to raise some seed money to provide architectural plans for the project. I believe that around an additional $70,000 was needed. I indicated that I would see if I could get a friend of mine, Neil Griffin of Kerrville, to join me in making a contribution around that level. Whether Neil had had any prior connection with McDonald Observatory or the astronomy department at UT, I do not know, but he indicated immediately that he liked the idea and would like to participate. The seed money was provided, as I am sure along with other funds, and work on the new upgraded visitors center was begun.

The Visitors Center, which opened in 2002 and was later named in honor of Dr. Frank Bash, is, of course, an important part of the McDonald Observatory complex and provides a statement of the quality of the overall operation.

The annual run

I just wanted to throw this story out there and it is not some spectacular tale of stars and galaxies far, far away. it is about a group of guys that makes a short little motorcycle run from the Waco and Temple areas of Texas to the observatory each year.

T-Bone, Mace, Quagmire, and Johnnykat ride out to West Texas each year to sleep in tents, see the sights and enjoy what mother nature has to offer. Along with our ride comes a visit to McDonald Observatory each year. It is a great ride to the top and pictures are taken of the same things each year and it always seems new. We were lucky enough to meet a great guy one year that allowed us to actually see the inside. AMAZING! We may not be astronomers, but we are still amazed by the size and capability of each of these 'scopes. This stop is on our list again this year. Terlingua4 ...

Supernova in M82

In January 2014 light from a supernova in M82, the Cigar Galaxy, reached us here on Earth. I was able to view it with my small Dobsonian, but I wanted more so I signed up for one of the special viewing sessions on the 36" Telescope at McDonald Observatory.

When time came for the viewing session, skies were heavily overcast. Only I and two others stuck it out with staff member Dan Gordon. Dan was convinced the clouds would part if we were willing to wait it out. Finally it did clear, and the three of us were rewarded with a fantastic evening on the telescope.

I had asked Dan if we might view the supernova in M82, but he was doubtful because he felt it would be behind the dome of the 107" Telescope. As the session came to an end, Dan was kind enough to give it a try. M82 had just barely peeked out from behind the 107" dome, and we were treated to a sight few ever get a chance to see ... a supernova in a neighboring galaxy just 12 million light years distant. Viewed through the 36" scope it was fantastic, and an experience I will always treasure. I'd like to give a huge thank you to Dan Gordon for being willing to have a go at finding M82 in the waning evening hours. Thank you, Dan!

First Visit 1956

My family lived in Odessa, TX at the time of my first visit. All I wanted to do was see the stars. As a child it was amazing to see this telescope that could go to the stars. I have a picture of myself in front of the observatory in 1956, and Christmas of 2009 I took a picture of my grandson standing in the area that I stood. My grandson loved the visit and wishes to go back and hope to do so next summer, 2015.

StarDate 7/2008

After years of hearing StarDate on NPR, I knew that the McDonald Observatory was a worthy destination on my Hemicentennial (50th Birthday) Celebration roadtrip. I decided to leave Seattle and drive to various astronomy-related sites ending with a visit to the McDonald Observatory (and my son who was living in Marfa). I started in Seattle and drove to The Griffith observatory in L.A., Kitt Peak Observatory in Tucson, the VLA in Soccoro, NM, and finally to the McDonald in Ft. Davis.

Loving astronomy as a Seattleite (avg 226 cloudy days per year) is perhaps the most frustrating hobby in the universe, so my time looking at the dark skies of West Texas was a quasi- religious experience for me. My son from Marfa and I came to a star party and got to see the Jovian moons and other deep-sky objects we couldn't see with our binoculars. I think that day was one of my "perfect days," starting with a horse ride at the Prude Ranch. Then a lunch at the StarDate Cafe watching the hummingbirds, then a thorough visit at the visitor's center, dinner in Ft. Davis, then back to the observatory for the Star Party.

The next night we put our star smarts to use at the end of a road (field) in Marfa complete with fireflies, crickets, the train, and the Summer Triangle right overhead.

Now my son can point out the stars to his boys and think about the moons of Jupiter. Life just gets better, doesn't it?

A scientist discloses the truth about Santa Claus

My father, R. Edward Nather, passed away on August 13, 2014. He was one of McDonald Observatory's most illustrious astronomers. Would you believe that when he passed at age 87, he still kept his observing suit?

All of you have "Ed Stories," so here is one of mine. In 1976, I was 6 years old and the youngest of Dad's children. That Christmas, Dad told my siblings and me that we had to spend the holiday at "the observatory," which to my child's ears simply meant "someplace foreign and unfamiliar."

One afternoon, I recall being kept away from my parents for what seemed like a nefarious reason, and this only lit my natural inclination toward investigation. So I snuck out of wherever I was banished and found my parents sitting in a living room, on the floor, buried under mounds of wrapping paper. Dad handed me a hollow plastic candy cane filled with M&Ms and said very matter-of-factly — as you do — "Santa Claus does not exist. We've been giving you presents every Christmas."

I took it in stride - being handed chocolate always helps bad news go down easier — and within minutes, I had wandered off to go look at the deer through the window. And that is how I learned the truth about Santa Claus.

This was not the last hard truth that Dad would bestow upon me, but it is by far the most memorable in its insouciance and scientific delivery. If you knew Ed Nather, you are nodding right about now.

Yerkes to McDonald . . .

Event at McDonald Obs. 1940.

This is being written by Bruce Babcock, son of Horace W. Babcock (1912-2003). Horace was at McDonald during parts of the year 1940. I'm not sure if he would be considered a staff or a visiting astronomer. I know he was brought in by Otto Struve after a stint at Yerkes in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. It was there he met my mother and they were married on July 1, 1940.

He later worked on radar and rocket projects during the war (at MIT and Caltech) and then joined the Mount Wilson staff in 1946. He retired as Director of the Carnegie Observatories after taking a leading role in the creation of Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. His father, Harold Delos Babcock, was on the Mount Wilson staff from 1909-1949. Both won the Bruce Medal, among many other honors. This photo was among many family 35 MM slides taken during the 1940s and 1950s. I imagine that he took this photo.

I was hoping to identify the people in the photo. The woman in white is my mother, Margaret Anderson Babcock. Otto Struve is, I believe, second from the left. I'm not sure if the others are staffers and their wives, or were visitors attending some kind of event. I've had no luck so far. Any help would be appreciated. Many thanks,

Bruce Babcock

Dedication of McDonald Observatory

Leading astronomers from around the world gathered for the dedication of McDonald Observatory and its 82-inch telescope.

W.J. McDonald Bequest

Paris, Texas banker William Johnson McDonald left the bulk of his fortune to The University of Texas at Austin “for the purpose of aiding in erecting and equipping an Astronomical Observatory to be kept and used in connection with and as part of the University for the study and promotion of the study of Astronomical Science.”

Discovery of Titan's Atmosphere

Gerard Kuiper discovered the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, the first detection of an atmosphere for any moon in the solar system.

Improving the View

Harold Johnson and W.W. Morgan devised a system for measuring the colors of stars. The system, which is still in use today, allows astronomers to remove the effect of interstellar dust, which makes stars look redder.

Shape of the Milky Way

Gerard De Vaucouleurs proposed that the Milky Way galaxy is a barred spiral, with spiral arms extending from a long “bar” of stars in its center.

Dedication of the 107-inch Telescope

The 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the University of Texas Mc

Dedication of the 107-inch (2.7-meter) Telescope. It was later renamed the Harlan J. Smith Telescope in honor of the observtory director responsible for its construction.

Coude Spectrograph

The 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the University of Texas Mc

Robert Tull completed the Coude spectrograph for the 107-inch Telescope. It is the largest and most sensitive spectrograph of its type in the world. It has been renamed the Tull Spectrograph, and is still in use today.

 

Bouncing a Laser Off the Moon

One month after Neil Armstrong took the first “small step” on the Moon, McDonald Observatory bounced a laser beam off a reflector left on the Moon by Apollo 11. The experiment measured the Earth-Moon distance with an accuracy of a few inches.

Invention of High Speed Photometry

An instrument developed by R. Edward Nather opened a new field of astronomy, high-speed photometry. It allows astronomers to measure changes in an object’s brightness on timescales of a thousandth of a second or less. Among other things, it has been used used to discover rapid pulsations in white dwarfs, the “corpses” of once-normal stars like the Sun.

Sizing Up the Stars

Tom Barnes and David Evans published a method for determining a star’s size by measuring its brightness and temperature. Known as the “surface brightness relation,” it is still a commonly used technique today.

Helping with Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA launches Hubble Space Telescope, which was developed and planned with the input of several University of Texas astronomers and engineers. In particular, Fritz Benedict and Bill Jeffreys led a team developing the telescope's Fine Guidance Sensors, which allow it to point precisely at cosmic targets. Today, McDonald astronomers routinely use Hubble and other space-based telescopes in their research.

Dedication of Hobby-Eberly Telescope

The primary mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory.

The innovative Hobby-Eberly Telescope was dedicated. It uses a mosaic of 91 individual mirror segments to create a primary mirror with an effective light-gathering power of a single 9.2-meter mirror.

Most Powerful Supernova

An automated search using a McDonald telescope discovered the most powerful supernova to date, Supernove 2005ap.The exploding star briefly shone 100 billion times brighter than the Sun. The Texas Supernova Search project was run by University of Texas graduate student Robert Quimby using the ROTSE IIIb telescope at McDonald.

Dark Energy Search

McDonald astronomers Gary Hill and Karl Gebhardt began developing the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). It will examine more than one million galaxies to probe the nature of dark energy, which is causing the universe to expand faster as it ages.

First Planet Orbiting a Close Binary Star

Using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, McDonald astronomers including Bill Cochran discovered the first planet orbiting a close-together binary star system. It is one of many exoplanet discoveries made at McDonald.

University of Texas Partners with University of Chicago

Yerkes Observatory

When The University of Texas at Austin received W.J. McDonald's bequest for building an observatory, it had no astronomy department. The University of Texas entered into an a agreement with the University of Chicago, which had many fine astronomers and its own Yerkes Observatory. The deal allowed for the University of Chicago to operate McDonald Observatory for 30 years.

Donation of Mount Locke

The two large domes in the foreground house the 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve

Mrs. Violet Locke McIvor donated the mountain upon which now sit most of McDonald Observatory's telescopes. Previously called "Flat Top" or "U Up and Down Mountain" (for the ranch in which it sat), it was renamed Mount Locke in honor of Mrs. McIvor's grandfather. Dr. G.S. Locke of Concord, New Hampshire, was the founder of the ranch.

Donation of Mount Fowlkes

HET

After receiving the donation of Mount Locke (previously called Flat Top) as the site for the new observatory, planners thought they should acquire the nearby smaller mountain (Little Flat Top) for possible future expansion. They received the donation from the estate of Fort Davis Judge Edwin H. Fowlkes, for whom the mountain was re-named. Decades later, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (one of the world's largest optical telescopes) was built atop Mount Fowlkes.

Otto Struve Directorship

Otto Struve

Astronomer Otto Struve was the first director of McDonald Observatory. He served from November 1932 to August 1947, and was concurrently director of The University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory.

Gerard Kuiper Directorship

Astronomer Gerard Kuiper served as director of McDonald Observatory for approximately two years.

Bengt Strömgren Directorship

Bengt Strömgren served as director of McDonald Observatory from January 1951 through August 1957.

Second Kuiper Directorship

Gerard Kuiper served a second time as director of McDonald Observatory from September 1957 to March 1959.

William W. Morgan Directorship

William W. Morgan served as director of McDonald Observatory from April 1959 to August 1963. He was the final McDonald director from the University of Chicago.

Harlan J. Smith Directorship

Harlan J. Smith was the first University of Texas director of McDonald Observatory, and served simultaneously as chair of the new astronomy department in Austin. Among many other accomplishments, he led the construction on the 107-inch telescope that now bears his name. More information on Harlan J. Smith is available on his University of Texas memorial page.

Frank N. Bash Directorship

Astronomer Frank N. Bash served as director of McDonald Observatory from 1991 to 2003, and served two years as interim director from 1989-1990.

David Lambert Directorship

Dr. David L. Lambert became director of McDonald Observatory in 2003. Lambert also holds the Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy, and has been a professor at The University of Texas at Austin since 1969. He retired as observatory director in 2014.

StarDate Radio Program Debuts

McDonald Obervatory's StarDate radio program debuted on the nation's airwaves, initially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Today, StarDate is the longest running, nationally syndicated science show on radio. It currently airs on more than 300 stations. More information is available at StarDate Online.

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center opens

The 12,000-square-foot Frank N. Bash Visitors Center opened. Originally called the Texas Astronomy Education Center, it features an interactive exhibit, 90-seat theater, cafe, gift shop, and outdoor telescope park and amphitheater. It was later renamed the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center for the the former director of McDonald Observatory.

W.L. Moody Visitors Information Center opened

The W.L. Moody Visitors Information Center opened in 1982. For two decades, it served thousands of visitors to McDonald Observatory.

Taft Armandroff Directorship

Taft Armandroff with Struve Telescope dome

Taft Armandroff became director of McDonald Observatory on June 1, 2014. He had previously served as director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Armandroff's research specialties include dwarf spheroidal galaxies, stellar populations, and globular clusters.

Construction Begins on Giant Magellan Telescope

Eleven international partners, including The Univesity of Texas at Austin, announced June 3, 2015, that they had approved the start of construction on the Giant Magellan Telecope (GMT). The telescope is poised to become the world's largest. It is expected to see first light in 2021 and be fully operational by 2024.

McDonald Laser Ranging Station

The McDonald Laser Ranging Station at the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory. (credit: Kathryn Gessas/McDonald Observatory)

Otto Struve Telescope, Interior

The 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory.

The 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. McDonald Observatory photo

Harlan J. Smith Telescope, Interior

The 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

The 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, Aerial View

An aerial view of the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Bill Wren/McDonald Observatory

Hobby-Eberly Telescope, Primary Mirror

The primary mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory. The mirror is made up of 91 segments, and has an effective aperture of 9.2 meters. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

The primary mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory. The mirror is made up of 91 segments, and has an effective aperture of 9.2 meters. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope, Interior

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Thomas A. Sebring/McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Thomas A. Sebring/McDonald Observatory.

McDonald Observatory Domes

The two large domes in the foreground house the 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope (left) and the 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope (right). Between these two, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) can be seen, atop neighboring Mt. Fowlkes.

The University of Texas McDonald Observatory. The two large domes in the foreground house the 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope (left) and the 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope (right). Between these two, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) can be seen, atop neighboring Mt. Fowlkes. Photo by Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory.

Otto Struve Telescope, Dome

The 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

The 2.1-meter (82-inch) Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

Harlan J. Smith Telescope, Dome

The 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

The 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

Illustration of the Giant Magellan Telescope

Illustration of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Credit: Matt Johns, Carnegie Observatories

Illustration of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Credit: Matt Johns, Carnegie Observatories.

Supernova 2006bp

Supernova 2006bp was discovered by the Texas Supernova Search within two days of its explosion. Credit: Robert Quimby, UT-Austin McDonald Observatory.

ROTSE IIIb Telescope

The Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment has placed telescopes in four locations on Earth to cover the entire sky in search of gamma-ray bursts. Credit: ROTSE Collaboration

The Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment has placed telescopes in four locations on Earth to cover the entire sky in search of gamma-ray bursts. One of these, ROTSE IIIb, is located at McDonald Observatory. In addition to its primary mission, the telescope is used for the ROTSE Supernova Verification Project (RSVP). Credit: ROTSE Collaboration.

Logo for Texas Supernova Search

The Texas Supernova Search is carried out by post-doctoral researcher Robert Quimby using the ROTSE IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Robert Quimby, UT-Austin McDonald Observatory.

The Texas Supernova Search is carried out by post-doctoral researcher Robert Quimby using the ROTSE IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Robert Quimby, UT-Austin McDonald Observatory.

Presentation of AEP Foundation Grant

Bart Rosenquist (left) and Fred Hernandez (center) of American Electric Power present a check for $30,000 to McDonald Observatory education coordinator Marc Wetzel (right).

Bart Rosenquist (left) and Fred Hernandez (center) of American Electric Power present a check for $30,000 to McDonald Observatory education coordinator Marc Wetzel (right). Rosenquist is a customer services representative for AEP Texas in San Angelo. Hernandez is the community affairs representative for AEP Texas in San Angelo. Photo credit: McDonald Observatory

McArthur, Barbara

Barbara McArthur is a Research Scientist with The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory. Credit: Matt Lanke.

Benedict, G. Fritz

Fritz Benedict is an emeritus Senior Research Scientist with The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory. Credit: McDonald Observatory

'Kicked Out' Black Hole

This supermassive black hole has been ejected from the center of its host galaxy. The black hole drags part of its surrounding accretion disk along for the ride. Some of the material lags behind, then catches up, crashing into the moving disk and producing a powerful burst of X-rays. Credit: Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory.

Salcido, Jimmy

Jimmy Salcido (center) receives a plaque and pin celebrating his 30 years of service with McDonald Observatory. Also pictured, from left: Dr. David Lambert, Director; Don Wallace, Superintendent; Rex Barrick, head of Physical Plant. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory.

Spectrum of a Distant Quasar

This chart shows the light given off by superheated material spiraling into a black hole at the heart of a galaxy 12.7 billion light-years away. This active galaxy, called a "quasar," is known as CFHQS 1641+3755. Because its light has traveled so far to us, it has lost energy, causing wavelengths to stretch. The light from neutral hydrogen gas, indicated by the label "Ly alpha" here, has stretched from a wavelength of 1216 Angstroms all the way to 8500 Angstroms. (For comparison, the human eye can only see light of wavelengths up to 6500 Angstroms.) The magnitude of this stretch, or "redshift," is what allows astronomers to calculate the quasar's distance. This quasar is one of only a handful known at such a great distance. This spectrum was taken with Marcario Low Resolution Spectrograph on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Gary Hill/Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory.

Supernova 2005ap (with labels)

Left: Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) image of the field where supernova 2005ap was found, showing four nearby galaxies (A, B, C, and D) in December 2004. Right: Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) image of the same field about 2.5 months later, showing supernova 2005ap. The supernova's host galaxy is too distant to appear in either image. Credit: SDSS, R. Quimby/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Supernova 2005ap (without labels)

Left: Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) image of the field where supernova 2005ap was found, showing four nearby galaxies in December 2004. Right: Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) image of the same field about 2.5 months later. Supernova 2005ap appears at right center. The supernova's host galaxy is too distant to appear in either image. Credit: SDSS, R. Quimby/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Solar Twin HIP 56948

HIP 56948 is more like the Sun than any known star. Located 200 light-years away in Draco, the dragon, the star is too dim to see with the unaided eye. Credit: Tim Jones/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Gary Hill & Phillip MacQueen with the Mitchell Spectrograph

Instrument-building astronomers Gary Hill (left) and Phillip MacQueen with the Mitchell Spectrograph.

Instrument-building astronomers Gary Hill (left) and Phillip MacQueen pose with  the Mitchell Spectrograph, which is mounted on the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Formerly known as VIRUS-P, the Mitchell Spectrograph is the prototype for the VIRUS instrument that will be created for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) to carry out the HET Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Jogee, Shardha

Shardha Jogee is an assistant professor in Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: Christina Murrey/UT-Austin

Evans, Neal

Neal Evans is a professor and chairman of the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Sneden, Chris

Chris Sneden is a professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Gebhardt, Karl

Karl Gebhardt is a professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Kormendy, John

John Kormendy is a professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: Courtesy John Kormendy/UT-Austin

Barnes, Tom

Thomas G. Barnes is a Senior Research Scientist at McDonald Observatory, part of The University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Wheeler, J. Craig

J. Craig Wheeler is The Samuel T. and Fern Yanagisawa Regents Professor in Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Credit: UT-Austin

Dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope

The closed dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible in the background at left. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

The closed dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible in the background at left. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

Harlan J. Smith Telescope dome with stars

Stars shine in an inky night sky above the open dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

Stars shine in an inky night sky above the open dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

The Astronomers Lodge

The Astronomers Lodge, where visiting scientists and other official visitors stay while visiting McDonald Observatory, sits below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope dome on Mount Locke. The dome of the Otto Struve Telescope is visible at right. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

The Astronomers Lodge, where visiting scientists and other official visitors stay while visiting McDonald Observatory, sits below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope dome on Mount Locke. The dome of the Otto Struve Telescope is visible at right. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

Light Deficit in Elliptical Galaxy Cores

Two giant elliptical galaxies, NGC 4621 and NGC 4472, look similar from a distance, as seen on the right in images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. But zooming into these galaxies' cores with Hubble Space Telescope reveals their differences (left, black and white images). NGC 4621 shows a bright core, while NGC 4472 is much dimmer. The core of this galaxy is populated with fewer stars. Many stars have been slung out of the core when the galaxy collided and merged with another. Their two supermassive black holes orbited each other, and their great gravity sent stars careening out of the galaxy's core. Credit: NASA/AURA/STScI and WikiSky/SDSS

Core of Galaxy NGC 4621

The core of ellipitical galaxy NGC 4621 is bright; it does not show 'light deficit.' Credit: NASA/AURA/STScI

Elliptical Galaxy NGC 4621

This image of the elliptical galaxy NGC 4621 is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: WikiSky/SDSS

Core of Galaxy NGC 4472

This image of the core of elliptical galaxy NGC 4472 comes from Hubble Space Telescope. This core shows a 'light deficit' — it is missing light from stars that have been gravitationally slung out of the core during a past merger of galaxies and their supermassive black holes into the current supergalaxy. Credit: NASA/AURA/STScI

Elliptical Galaxy NGC 4472

This image of the elliptical galaxy NGC 4472 is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: WikiSky/SDSS

Komatsu, Eiichiro

Dr. Eiichiro Komatsu is the Director of the new Texas Center for Cosmology, and an Associate Professor of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Credit: UT-Austin

Fry, Edward S.

Dr. Edward S. Fry is a Distinguished Proofessor of Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University. (Credit: Texas A&M University)

Suntzeff, Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas Suntzeff is head of the astronomy program within the Department of Physics at Texas A&M University. He has a joint appointment in the Department of Astronomy of The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: Texas A&M University)

Newton, H. Joseph

Dr. H. Joseph Newton served as Dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2015. (Credit: Texas A&M University)

Mitchell, George P.

Mr. George P. Mitchell is Chairman and CEO of GPM Inc. and former Chairman and CEO Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. The Houston businessman and philanthropist is a major contributor to the astronomy programs at both Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: Texas A&M University)

Bill Cochran

Bill Cochran is a Research Professor with The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory. Credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Silver and Gold HET

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope gleams in silver and gold against a deep blue night sky. Credit: Damond Benningfield

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope gleams in silver and gold against a deep blue night sky. Credit: Damond Benningfield

HET with Orange Sky

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mt. Fowlkes gleams silver against an amazing orange sunset. Credit: Damond Benningfield

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mt. Fowlkes gleams silver against an amazing orange sunset. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Texas Historical Marker

This sign from the Texas Historical Survey Committee explains the the founding of McDonald Observatory and its early history. Credit: Damond Benningfield

This sign from the Texas Historical Survey Committee explains the the founding of McDonald Observatory and its early history. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Sign with Domes

The domes of the Struve and Smith Telescopes appear in the distance beside this entry sign. Credit: Damond Benningfield

The domes of the Struve and Smith Telescopes appear in the distance beside this entry sign. Credit: Damond Benningfield

TxDoT Elevation Sign

This sign from the Texas Department of Transportation is near the dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. It alerts visitors that the summit of Mt. Locke is the highest point on Texas highways. Credit: Damond Benningfield

This sign from the Texas Department of Transportation is near the dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. It alerts visitors that the summit of Mt. Locke is the highest point on Texas highways. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Entry Sign

This stone sign signals visitors they are entering the grounds of McDonald Observatory. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible at left in the distance. Credit: Damond Benningfield

This stone sign signals visitors they are entering the grounds of McDonald Observatory. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible at left in the distance. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Aerial View of McDonald Observatory

In this aerial view, the two large domes in the foreground are the 2.1-meter Struve Telescope (left) and the 2.7-meter Smith Telescope (right) atop Mt. Locke. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope can been seen atop Mt. Fowlkes in the distance between them.

In this aerial view, the two large domes in the foreground are the 2.1-meter Struve Telescope (left) and the 2.7-meter Smith Telescope (right) atop Mt. Locke. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope can been seen atop Mt. Fowlkes in the distance between them. The 0.8-meter Telescope dome is visible in the right foreground, with the 0.9-meter Telescope appearing to the lower right of the Smith Telescope. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Glowing HET

The interior lights from the Hobby-Eberly Telescope glow through the dome opening and louvers.

The interior lights from the Hobby-Eberly Telescope glow through the dome opening and louvers. The telescope's large segmented mirror can be seen through the louvers. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Lonestar Supercomputer

The Lonestar supercomputer is a resource of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin.

The Lonestar supercomputer is a resource of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin. It is a Dell Linux cluster with 5,840 processing cores, and a peak performance of 62 teraflops (62 trillion floating-point operations per second). Since its launch in 2006, Lonestar has provided more than 85 million computing hours to approximately 1,100 researchers across the nation. Credit: TACC/UT-Austin

Birth of a primordial star

Birth of a primordial star, as seen through a supercomputer simulation. A spiral pattern forms inside the disk surrounding the star, leading to enhancements in density. One of these density perturbations is large enough to trigger the formation of a secondary protostar. Distances are measured in Astronomical Units (AU), which is the distance between Earth and our Sun. Credit: Clark, Glover, Smith, Greif, Klessen, Bromm (Univ.of Heidelberg, UT Austin); Texas Advanced Computing Center

Time sequence of the disk evolution around the first star

Time sequence of the disk evolution around the first star. The disk gives rise to spiral density waves, compressing the gas, and thus triggering further fragmentation into additional protostars. Already 110 years after the first protostar formed, three neighboring stars have emerged. The assembly process of the first stars will continue for another 100,000 years or so, at which point a massive double-star will likely have formed, possibly accompanied by a small group of somewhat lower-mass stars. Credit: Clark, Glover, Smith, Greif, Klessen, Bromm (Univ.of Heidelberg, UT Austin); Texas Advanced Computing Center

Volker Bromm

Volker Bromm is a professor in the UT Austin Department of Astronomy. (Credit: UT Austin)

Buckyballs Around a Hydrogen-Rich Star

Artist's concept of buckyballs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons around an R Coronae Borealis star rich in hydrogen. Credit: MultiMedia Service (IAC)

Supernova 2008am

A follow-up image of supernova 2008am. Credit: D. Perley & J. Bloom/W.M. Keck Observatory

Wide Shot of Controlled Burns Near HET

The Southern Area Incident Management Team undertook controlled burns on Sunday, April 17, 2011 to get rid of fuel on the mountains around McDonald Observatory. This would starve the Rock House wildfire of fuel should it head back in our direction. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope dome is at right. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

HET and Controlled Burn on Guide Peak

The Southern Area Incident Management Team undertook controlled burns on Sunday, April 17, 2011 to get rid of fuel on the mountains around McDonald Observatory. This would starve the Rock House wildfire of fuel should it head back in our direction. This shot shows Guide Peak, to the north of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, almost completely burned. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

Overview of Observatory with Controlled Burn on Guide Peak

Guide Peak in flames from the controlled burn undertaken by the Southern Area Incident Management Team on April 17, 2011. The two peaks of McDonald Observatory, Mount Fowlkes and Mount Locke, are to the right and far right, respectively. The domes of the 9.1-meter Hobby-Eberly, 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith, and 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescopes are visible. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center with Controlled Burn

The controlled burn of Sunday, April 17, 2011, as seen from the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center's public telescope park at McDonald Observatory, where public star parties are held three times each week. The Southern Area Incident Management Team undertook the controlled burn to starve the Rock House wildfire of fuel, should it turn back toward the observatory. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

0.9-meter Telescope with Fire on Horizon

This view of the Rock House wildfire was shot on the night of April 9, 2011 overlooking the dome of the 0.9-meter Telescope. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

Smith Telescope with Fire on Horizon

This view of the Rock House wildfire was shot on the night of April 9, 2011, from the catwalk of the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope dome looking east. The 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope is at left. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

HET with Controlled Burns on Surrounding Peaks

The Southern Area Incident Management Team undertook controlled burns on Sunday, April 17, 2011 to get rid of fuel on the mountains around McDonald Observatory. This would starve the Rock House wildfire of fuel should it head back in our direction. Here, Black Mountain is burning. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope dome is at right. Above it, the bright line on the right is the wildfire which broke through a burn-out line on Sunday afternoon. The bright line on the left is the front of a back-fire set to stop that portion of the wildfire. Silhouetted by the back-fires on Black and Spring (to the left) Mountains is Guide Peak now with only small pockets of active fires. (Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory)

HBC 722

This composite image reveals the hidden power sources of this volatile star forming region. Blue represents starlight as seen by the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), green is Herschel's view of the heated gas by ultraviolet radiation from protostars, and red is cooler gas seen by the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. X marks the outburst, an area astronomers will keep an eye on. (Credit: J. Green, Univ. of Texas/ESA/UKIRT/CSO)

Binary White Dwarf

Two white dwarfs have been discovered on the brink of a merger. In just 900,000 years, material will start to stream from one star to the other, beginning the process that may end with a spectacular supernova explosion. Watching these stars fall in will allow astronomers to test Einstein's theory of general relativity as well as the origin of a special class of supernovae. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Kepler-18

The top graphic shows the orbits of the three known planets orbiting Kepler-18 as compared to Mercury's orbit around the Sun. The bottom graphic shows the relative sizes of the Kepler-18 and its known planets to the Sun and Earth. Credit: Tim Jones/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

The top graphic shows the orbits of the three known planets orbiting Kepler-18 as compared to Mercury's orbit around the Sun. The bottom graphic shows the relative sizes of the Kepler-18 and its known planets to the Sun and Earth. Credit: Tim Jones/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Visitors Center at Dusk

The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory at dusk.

The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory at dusk. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve Telescopes are visible atop Mt. Locke in the distance. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Inside the Theater

Inside the theater at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center.

Inside the theater at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Visitor Orientation Presentation

Visitors watch an orientation presentation.

Visitors watch an orientation presentation inside the theater at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Exhibit Hall

A portion of the exhibit hall at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory.

(Kevin Mace / McDonald Observatory)

Sodium in Extra-Solar Planet Atmosphere

Seth Redfield used HET's High Resolution Spectrograph to detect the well-known signature of sodium, a pair of absorption lines known as a "doublet," at specific wavelengths (indicated here in angstroms) in the atmosphere of the extra-solar planet HD189733b. Credit: S. Redfield/T. Jones/McDonald Obs.

HET Observations of an Extra-Solar Planet's Atmosphere

The dotted line shows the planet's orbit around the star HD189733. The planet orbits the star once every 2.2 Earth days, crossing the face of the star well below its equator. The small circles indicate the planet's location during each of Seth Redfield's more than 200 HET observations over the course of one Earth year. The red circles indicate observations during transit; the rest of the circles denote out-of-transit observations. Credit: S. Redfield/T. Jones/McDonald Obs.

The 'Hot-Jupiter' Orbit of an Extrasolar Planet

HD189733b is a "hot Jupiter"-type extrasolar planet. It is 20% more massive than Jupiter, but orbits 10 times closer to its star than Mercury orbits the Sun. Mercury's orbit around the Sun is shown for comparison. Credit: S. Redfield/T. Jones/McDonald Obs.

Sundial Court

Visitors enjoy the Sundial Court at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve Telescopes are visible atop Mt. Locke in the distance. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Astronomy Gift Shop

The Astronomy Gift Shop at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Information Desk

The Information Desk and the Astronomy Gift Shop at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory

The Information Desk and the Astronomy Gift Shop at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Information Desk and Astronomy Gift Shop

The Information Desk and the Astronomy Gift Shop at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. © 2002, Hester + Hardaway Photographers

William J. McDonald photo

William Johnson McDonald

Hobby-Eberly Telescope, Aerial View

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

Struve Telescope Mirror, about 1935

The 82-inch telescope's primary mirror, around 1935.

J.S. Plaskett, C.A.R. Lundin, and George A. Decker view the 82-inch telescope's primary mirror at Warner & Swasey Company in Cleveland prior to shipment to Texas. The telescope was later re-named the Otto Struve Telescope. This photo was likely taken in 1935. Photo courtesy Warner & Swasey Company.

Struve Telescope Dome with Workers, mid-1930s

Workers take a break from construction on the dome of the 82-inch telescope (later re-named the Otto Struve Telescope). The dome is 62 feet wide and weighs 115 tons. Construction on the telescope began in 1933 and ran through 1939. Credit: McDonald Observatory.

Struve Telescope Construction, mid-1930s

Workers at Warner & Swasey Company in Cleveland put the finishing touches on the polar axis and driving gear of the 82-inch telescope (later re-named the Otto Struve Telescope) destined for McDonald Observatory. Photo courtesy Warner & Swasey Company.

Struve Telescope Tube, mid-1930s

The tube of the 82-inch telescope (later re-named the Otto Struve Telescope) en route to McDonald Observatory. Credit: McDonald Observatory.

Drawing of Struve Telescope

Engineering diagram of the 82-inch telescope (later re-named the Otto Struve Telescope). Credit: McDonald Observatory.

Construction of Smith Telescope, late 1960s

Construction on the 107-inch telescope.

Construction on the 107-inch telescope (later re-named the Harlan J. Smith Telescope) began in 1966 and ended in 1968. Credit: McDonald Observatory.

William J. McDonald painting

William Johnson McDonald

Otto Struve, first director of McDonald Observatory

Otto Struve, first director of McDonald Observatory

Otto Struve (d. 1963) was the first director of McDonald Observatory, serving from 1932 to 1947. During this period, McDonald was run jointly by The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Chicago. Struve served simultaneously as the director of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. Credit: McDonald Observatory.

Dedication of McDonald Observatory, 1939

Many of the world's foremost astronomers attended the dedication of McDonald Observatory on May 5, 1939. This photo includes, among others, Walter Baade, Bart Bok, Edwin Hubble, Jan Oort, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henry Norris Russel, Martin Schwarzschild, and R.J. Trumpler. Credit: McDonald Observatory.

Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon Nebula is a star-forming region in the constellation Sagittarius. It also goes by the names M8 and NGC 2563. This image was made with the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, using the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. To obtain a color image, three exposures were added together, one made with a red filter, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. Credit: Mary Kay Hemenway/AASTRA teacher program/McDonald Observatory.

Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula, also known as Messier 16, lies in the constellation Serpens. This image was made by the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. To obtain a color image, three exposures were added together, one made with a red filter, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. Credit: Mary Kay Hemenway/AASTRA teacher program/McDonald Observatory.

Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula lies about 8,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. It also goes by the names Messier 20 (M20) and NGC 6514. This image was made by the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. To obtain a color image, three exposures were added together, one made with a red filter, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. Credit: Mary Kay Hemenway/AASTRA teacher program/McDonald Observatory.

Dumbbell Nebula

The Dumbbell Nebula lies in the constellation Vulpecula. It is also known as Messier 27 (M27) or NGC 6853. This image was made by the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. To obtain a color image, three exposures were added together, one made with a red filter, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. Credit: Mary Kay Hemenway/AASTRA teacher program/McDonald Observatory.

Horsehead Nebula

Lying just below the belt of Orion, the Horsehead Nebula is actually two nebulae, one lying in front of the other. The foreground nebula, which includes the horsehead figure, appears dark because there are no nearby stars to illuminate it. The background nebula emits the characteristic red light of hydrogen, caused to glow by the energy of nearby stars. The Horsehead is also known as IC 434. This image was made with the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. Credit: Tom Montemayor/McDonald Observatory

Bubble Nebula

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is a sphere of active star formation glowing faintly in the constellation Cassiopeia. The hydrogen gas cloud from which the stars form emits red light, the characteristic color of hydrogen, by absorbing energy from them. This image was made with the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. Credit: Tom Montemayor/McDonald Observatory.

Helix Nebula

The Helix Nebula, also known as NGC 7293, is a wreath placed by nature around a dying star. Nearing the end of its life and running out of nuclear fuel, the star in the center of the nebula has blown off its outer atmosphere. The blue-green interior color of the nebula is caused by oxygen emission; farther out the red color is caused by hydrogen emission. Our Sun will likely meet the same fate in about five billion years. This image was made with the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. Credit: Tom Montemayor/McDonald Observatory.

Spiral Galaxy M33

More than a billion stars form the whirling spiral galaxy Messsier 33 (M33) in the constellation Triangulum. Its spiral arms glow blue with the light of hot, new stars. Older, yellow stars populate the nucleus. At a distance of only 3.5 million light-years, M33 is one of the nearest spiral galaxies. This image was made with the 0.8-meter Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with the Prime Focus Corrector instrument. Credit: Tom Montemayor/McDonald Observatory.

Rebecca Gale Telescope Park

The Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center is home to three star parties each week, under some of the darkest night skies in North America. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

The Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center is home to three star parties each week, under some of the darkest night skies in North America. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center

The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory opened in 2002. The interior houses exhibits, a theater, and cafe. This photo of the Center shows the Sundial Court in front, the patio of the StarDate Cafe (left), the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park (right, rear) and the Amphitheater (center, rear). Credit: Martin Harris/McDonald Observatory

GMT Model

Model of the Giant Magellan Telescope.

Model of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Note the person at bottom right, indicating scale. Credit: Marsha Miller/Univ. of Texas.

SALT with Star Trails

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) at the South African Astronomical Observatory. SALT is a near-twin of the Hobby-Eberly Telesocope at McDonald Observatory. The HET Board is a partner in the SALT consortium. (Credit: SALT Consortium)

Dr. Khotso Mokhele & Dr. Frank Bash

Dr. Khotso Mokhele (left), president of South Africa's National Research Foundation, with Dr. Frank Bash, former director of McDonald Observatory. Dr. Mokhele visited McDonald in 2000 to give a talk on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), whose design is based on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald.

Smith Telescope with Nearly-full Moon

A nearly full gibbous Moon shines at sunset over the dome of the 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope.

A nearly full gibbous Moon shines at sunset over the dome of the 2.7-meter (107-inch) Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. While the dome was viewed from about half a mile away, the Moon, at the time of this photograph, was nearly 222,000 miles away. Distances can be truly deceiving in West Texas! Credit: Frank Cianciolo/ McDonald Observatory

0.9-meter (36-inch) Telescope, Interior

The 0.9-meter (36-inch) Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Today, this telescope is mostly used for public outreach programs, including Elderhostel programs and Special Viewing Nights. Credit: Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory

0.9-meter (36-inch) Telescope, Dome

The 0.9-meter (36-inch) Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory

The 0.9-meter (36-inch) Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory

Edge-on Spiral Galaxy

This snapshot of an edge-on spiral galaxy was taken with a digital camera attached to the MONET/North telescope at McDonald Observatory, as a quick test of the new telescope. Photo by Stathis Kafalis, Stathis-Firstlight.

MONET at Dusk

The clamshell enclosure of the MONET/North telescope is open, revealing the 1.2-meter robotically controlled telescope. The crescent Moon shines above. Photo by Dr. Frederic Hessman, University of Göttingen.

MONET Enclosure

The barn-shaped enclosure of the MONET/North telescope at McDonald Observatory sits atop Mt. Locke, below the Otto Struve Telescope (top left) and the Harlan J. Smith and 0.8-meter telescopes (top right). Photo by Dr. Frederic Hessman, University of Göttingen.

MONET Team with Telescope

The MONET/North team poses with the telescope, celebrating completion of its clamshell-style enclosure and placement of the 1.2-meter robotically controlled telescope inside. Photo by Diane Peterson, McDonald Observatory.

Harlan J. Smith, first UT director of McDonald Observatory

Harlan J. Smith (1924-1991) served as director of McDonald Observatory from 1963 to 1989. He was the first University of Texas director, after a partnership with the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory ended. Among many other accomplishments, he initiated the construction of the 2.7-meter (107-inch) telescope at McDonald that now bears his name. (Credit: McDonald Observatory)

Gerard P. Kuiper, second director of McDonald Observatory

Gerard P. Kuiper was the second director of McDonald Observatory, after Otto Struve. The Observatory was run by the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory at that time. Kuiper was best known for his studies of solar system bodies. While at McDonald Observatory, he used the 2.1-meter (82-inch) telescope to make in-depth studies of Mars' atmosphere, to discover methane in the atmosphere of Titan (Saturn's largest moon), and to discover new moons of both Uranus and Neptune. (Credit: McDonald Observatory)

Test Site for CTI-II Telescope, Day

Adjusting the dome of a fully automated 'RoboDome' telescope. Come nightfall, the 10-inch telescope will measure sharpness of star images. This testing will enable astronomers to choose the best site at McDonald Observatory for the coming CTI-II Telescope. The domes of two McDonald telescopes are visible in the background. Image courtesy Dr. John McGraw, University of New Mexico

Test Site for CTI-II Telescope, Night

The fully automated 10-inch telescope inside the 'RoboDome' (atop the wooden tower) is measuring the sharpness of star images. The testing will enable astronomers to choose the best site at McDonald Observatory for the coming CTI-II Telescope. The domes of three McDonald telescopes are visible at bottom left. Image courtesy Dr. John McGraw, University of New Mexico

CTI-II Test Site with Researchers

University of New Mexico research faculty members and a student install a fully automated 'RoboDome' telescope that measures the sharpness of star images.

University of New Mexico research faculty members and a student install a fully automated 'RoboDome' telescope that measures the sharpness of star images. The telescope measures the twinkling of starlight, or astronomical "seeing." Astronomers seek sharp, stable stellar images with minimal twinkling, which is created by atmospheric turbulence. Image courtesy Dr. John McGraw, University of New Mexico

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center sign

The visitors center at McDonald Observatory was re-named the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory in a ceremony on July 22, 2006, to honor former Observatory director Dr. Frank Bash. Photo by Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Star Party

Visitors enjoying a star party at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory.

Visitors enjoying a star party at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Redfield, Seth

Seth Redfield is a post-doctoral researcher and Hubble Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. Credit: McDonald Obs.

HET at Twilight

The mirror of the 9.2-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible through the open louvers in this twilight view. In daylight, the flagpoles on the right show the flags of the five HET partner institutions. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

Interacting Galaxies from GEMS (1 of 4)

One of the many interacting galaxy pairs seen by the GEMS survey with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: S. Jogee/UT-Austin/GEMS Collaboration/STScI/NASA

Interacting Galaxies from GEMS (2 of 4)

One of the many interacting galaxy pairs seen by the GEMS survey with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: S. Jogee/UT-Austin/GEMS Collaboration/STScI/NASA

Interacting Galaxies from GEMS (3 of 4)

One of the many interacting galaxy pairs seen by the GEMS survey with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: S. Jogee/UT-Austin/GEMS Collaboration/STScI/NASA

Interacting Galaxies from GEMS (4 of 4)

One of the many interacting galaxy pairs seen by the GEMS survey with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: S. Jogee/UT-Austin/GEMS Collaboration/STScI/NASA

Mitchell Spectrograph

The George and Cynthia Mitchell Spectrograph mounted on the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. (Martin Harris/McDonald Observatory)

Gary Hill and the Mitchell Spectrograph

Phillip MacQueen and VIRUS

HETDEX Search Area

HETDEX will search a large region of the sky that overlaps the Big Dipper. While the Dipper's stars are only a few dozen light-years away, though, the galaxies that HETDEX will target are around 10 billion light-years away. [Tim Jones]

Upgraded Field of View

This diagram shows HET's new, upgraded field of view (center), compared to its original field of view (right) and the full Moon (left). [Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory]

What is the Universe Made Of?

GMT Artist's Concept

An artist's concept of the GMT

An artist's concept of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Credit: Todd Mason/GMT Consortium/Carnegie Observatories

HET in the morning

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory basks in early morning sunlight in this aerial view. The dome is open, revealing some of the structure at the top of the telescope itself. [Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory]

McDonald in the Morning

Early morning sunlight bathes the three largest telescopes at McDonald Observatory, in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, in this aerial view. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (foreground) is atop Mount Fowlkes, with the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes atop Mount Locke. [Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory]

HET from Above

Blue sky reflects in the primary mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in this aerial view. The mirror is made of 91 individual segments. A dark instrument platform, which sits at the top of the telescope, partially obscures the mirror. [Martin Harris/McDonald Observatory]

McDonald Telescopes

Early morning sunlights illuminates the three largest telescopes at McDonald Observatory: the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (foreground) and the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes. [Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory]

Pulsations of a Carbon White Dwarf (color)

This 'light curve' shows the changes in light output over time, or 'pulsations,' of the first-discovered pulsating carbon white dwarf, as measured by the Argos instrument on the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: K. Williams/T. Jones/McDonald Observatory

Pulsations of a Carbon White Dwarf

This 'light curve' shows the changes in light output over time, or 'pulsations,' of the first-discovered pulsating carbon white dwarf, as measured by the Argos instrument on the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: K. Williams/T. Jones/McDonald Observatory

First Pulsating Carbon White Dwarf

McDonald Observatory astronomers Michael Montgomery, Kurtis Williams, and Steven DeGennaro discovered that the star SDSS J142625.71+575218.3 is the first pulsating carbon white dwarf. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) Collaboration (http://sdss.org)

Scout Patch

Boy Scouts participating in Scout Nights at McDonald Observatory receive this souvenir patch, funded by a grant from Mr. Harry E. Bovay, Jr. of Houston, Mr. Lowell Lebermann of Austin, and Ms. Virginia Lebermann of Marfa. (credit: Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory)

Cochran, Anita

Anita Cochran is a Senior Research Scientist and Assistant Director of McDonald Observatory. Credit: McDonald Observatory/UT-Austin

Hemenway, Mary Kay

Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway is Senior Lecturer and Research Associate in the astronomy department at The University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in astronomy education for elementary and secondary teachers and the history of astronomy. Credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

HET at Dusk

The last rays of Sun strike the aluminized dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at dusk, producing pastel shades of pink, lavender, and silver. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

HET in its Landscape

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope sits atop Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope sits atop Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Credit: Bill Nowlin Photography

Gerard de Vaucouleurs

French astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs (1918-1995) was among the first group of five faculty members to join the new The University of Texas Astronomy Department in 1960. He is best known for his extensive galaxy studies, and his Reference Catalogue of Bright Galaxies, which was published by The University of Texas Press in three editions. (Credit: McDonald Obs./UT-Austin)

Winget, Don

Astronomer Don Winget speaks to an audience at a meeting of the UT Astronomy Program Board of Visitors. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

Whirlpool Galaxy with the Mitchell Spectrograph

The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is seen at left in an image taken with the one-meter MONET North telescope at McDonald Observatory. At right: The MItchell Spectrograph (formerly known as VIRUS-P) measured the intensity of the hydrogen-alpha emission at 246 points across the central region of the galaxy. The H-alpha emission traces the light from very young stars, and thus is a good indicator of the rate of star formation at each of these locations. Red dots indicate higher levels of star formation; the blue and black dots indicate lower levels of star formation. Credit: G. Blanc/K. Fricke/T. Jones/McDonald Obs.

Star Formation in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)

The Mitchell Spectrograph (formerly known as VIRUS-P) on McDonald Observatory's 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope measured the intensity of hydrogen-alpha emission at 246 points across the central region of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). The H-alpha emission traces the light from very young stars, and thus is a good indicator of the rate of star formation at each of these locations. Red dots indicate higher levels of star formation; the blue and black dots indicate lower levels of star formation. Credit: G. Blanc/McDonald Obs.

Whirlpool Galaxy

This image of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) was taken with the MONET North telescope at McDonald Observatory as part of the observatory's educational outreach program. Credit: K. Fricke/MONET/McDonald Obs. (funded by Astronomie & Internet, a Program of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, Essen)

AEP Texas Funds West Texas School Trips

AEP Texas has granted $3,000 to McDonald Observatory to fund scholarships for West Texas schoolchildrent to visit the Observatory during the 2009-2010 school year. Pictured with presentation check, left to right, are: Sandra Preston (Observatory Assistant Director for Education and Outreach), Joel Barna (Observatory Development Officer), Graham Dodson of AEP Texas, and Dr. David L. Lambert (Director of McDonald Observatory).

WMAT with domes

The new Wren-Marcario Accessible Telescope (WMAT) sits on a concrete pad behind the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. This 100% wheelchair-accessible telescope will be dedicated July 17, 2010. It will allow mobility-impaired visitors greater participation in the Observatory's popular star parties, and will also be used by other visitors. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) is visible in WMAT's central mirror, and the domes of Mt. Locke are visible in the background (Harlan J. Smith Telescope at left, Otto Struve Telescope at right). Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

WMAT diagram showing wheelchair access

The Wren-Marcario Accessible Telescope at McDonald Observatory's Frank N. Bash visitors center is designed to be 100% wheelchair accessible. The telescope's open design and wide wheelchair pathways will allow mobility-impaired visitors greater access to the Observatory's popular star parties, and will also be used by other visitors. Credit: Tim Jones/Mike Jones/McDonald Observatory

Comet Hartley 2

This photo of Comet Hartley 2 (green, right center) was taken by Joe Wheelock near McDonald Observatory on October 8. On this date, the comet appeared to the right of two star clusters called the "Double Cluster" in the constellation Perseus. The red nebulae to the far left are collectively called the Heart and Soul Nebula. The photo was taken using a camera with a 105-mm telephoto lens piggybacked onto a 16-inch Newtonian telescope. Credit: Joe Wheelock/McDonald Observatory

Komatsu, Eiichiro

Dr. Eiichiro Komatsu is director of the Texas Cosmology Center and a professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Komatsu is also a member of the science team for WMAP, NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. (Credit: Texas Cosmology Center/UT-Austin)

M87 Black Hole Artist's Concept

Artist's concept of what a future telescope might see in looking at the black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87. Clumpy gas swirls around the black hole in an accretion disk, feeding the central beast. The black area at center is the black hole itself, defined by the event horizon, beyond which nothing can escape. The bright blue jet shooting from the region of the black hole is created by gas that never made it into the hole itself but was instead funneled into a very energetic jet. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA illustration by Lynette Cook

Christmas Burst

The merging of the helium and neutron star produces a broad torus, plus two jets aligned with the rotation axis of the system. The jets interact with the previously ejected torus causing the observed spectrum. (Credit: A. Simonnet, NASA, E/PO, Sonoma State University)

Dodson-Robinson, Sally

Dr. Sally Dodson-Robinson is an assistant professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (credit: UT-Austin)

Supermassive Black Hole

Artist's concept of stars moving around a galaxy's black hole. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/Lynette Cook

An artist's conception of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a supermassive black hole. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook

Karl Gebhardt

Karl Gebhardt is the Herman and Joan Suit Professor of Astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin.

Karl Gebhardt is the Herman and Joan Suit Professor of Astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin. Credit: McDonald Observatory

Dramatic Transformation of Massive Galaxies over 10 Billion Years

The most massive galaxies present two to three billion years after the Big Bang differ dramatically from today’s, when the universe is 13.7 billion years old. A remarkably high fraction of the massive young galaxies host disk components, making them look like thick pancakes. In contrast, today’s most massive galaxies (ellipticals and lenticulars) typically have large bulges, and are shaped like watermelons. Additionally, 40% of the young massive galaxies are ultra-compact, compared to less than 1% of their massive elliptical and lenticular descendants today. Credit: T. Weinzirl, S. Jogee (U. Texas)/ A. Feild (STScI/NASA)

Comparison of Massive Galaxies at Early Times vs. Today

Massive galaxies today are substantially larger and more bulgy than massive galaxies 10 billion years ago. Credit: T. Weinzirl, S. Jogee (U. Texas)/STScI/NASA/SDSS

Massive galaxies today are substantially larger and more bulgy than massive galaxies 10 billion years ago. The left column illustrates the difference in size by comparing a face-on view of the massive present-day elliptical galaxy (NGC 4472) to the Hubble NICMOS image of a face-on ultra-compact galaxy from 10 billion years ago. The right column highlights the disky nature of massive young galaxies by contrasting an edge-on view of a modern bulge-dominated spiral (NGC 4594, the Sombrero Galaxy) with the an edge-on view of a massive disky galaxy from 10 billion years ago. Credit: T. Weinzirl, S. Jogee (U. Texas)/STScI/NASA/SDSS

Major Merger

This Hubble image of NGC 4676, nickednamed “The Mice,” illustrates an ongoing major merger between two colliding galaxies of similar mass. The gravitational forces between the two galaxies have produced two long tails of gas and stars stretching away from the galaxies, as well as a bridge of stripped material between the galaxies. Credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M.Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

McDonald Laser Ranging Station

The McDonald Laser Ranging Station at The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory. (credit: Kathryn Gessas/McDonald Observatory)

Lunar Lunar Laser Ranging Station

The Lunar Lunar Laser Ranging Station at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Randall L. Ricklefs/McDonald Observatory

Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET)

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Photo by Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

Aerial From Mt Locke

The large telescope domes of McDonald Observatory. In the top left corner, the Hobby-Eberly Telecope dome sits atop Mt. Fowlkes. In the foreground, the dome of the Otto Struve Telescope sits at left and the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at right, atop Mt. Locke. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

The large telescope domes of McDonald Observatory. In the top left corner, the Hobby-Eberly Telecope dome sits atop Mt. Fowlkes. In the foreground, the dome of the Otto Struve Telescope sits at left and the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at right, atop Mt. Locke. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory.

Lunar Laser on the Harlan J. Smith Telescope

From the late 1960s to mid-1980s, McDonald Observatory astronomers measured the Earth-Moon distance by beaming a laser from the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope to reflectors placed on the Moon by Apollo astronauts. (credit: Frank Armstrong/UT-Austin)

Drs. Rankin & Lambert with GMT Model

Dean of Natural Sciences Dr. Mary Ann Rankin and McDonald Observatory Director Dr. David Lambert, with a model of the Giant Magellan Telescope. An illustration of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is in the background. Credit: Marsha Miller/Univ. of Texas.

McDonald Observatory Fire Truck

McDonald Observatory's new custom-designed, orange fire truck was purchased with grant funds from the Texas Forest Service and the UT-Austin administration. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope (left) and Otto Struve Telescope (right) can be seen in the background, atop Mt. Locke. Photo by Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory.

Steve Bramlett, Safety Officer & Fire Marshal

Steve Bramlett, Safety Officer & Fire Marshal for McDonald Observatory, in front of the Otto Struve Telescope dome with the Observatory's new emergency services vehicle. Photo by Yadon Hardaway/McDonald Observatory.

Volunteers Tour HET

On May 18, 2006, McDonald Observatory honored volunteers who help out with our thrice-weekly star parties and other events. After a reception and dinner, they were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hobby-Eberly-Telescope. Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Volunteers at 0.9-meter Telescope

On May 18, 2006, volunteers who help out with McDonald Observatory's thrice-weekly star parties and other events were treated to a private star party on the 0.9-meter Telescope (seen here), after a reception and dinner. Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Testing the Mitchell Spectrograph

McDonald Observatory astronomers Phillip MacQueen (left) and Gary Hill test the VIRUS prototype (now called The George and Cynthia Mitchell Spectrograph) from the control room of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. [Martin Harris/McDonald Observatory]

HET in the Davis Mountains

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope sits atop Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. The telescope will be the site of the HETDEX experiment. [Damond Benningfield]

de la Cruz, Teresa 'Fendi'

Teresa "Fendi" de la Cruz is the voice of McDonald Observatory's Spanish-language radio program Universo. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Marco Lara and Ignacio 'Nacho' Acosta

Marco Lara (left) and Iganacio "Nacho" Acosta during a recording session of McDonald Observatory's Spanish-language radio program Universo. Lara is the program's associate producer; Acosta is its audio engineer. Vocal talent Teresa "Fendi" de la Cruz can be seen in the background, inside the soundproof recording booth. Credit: Damond Benningfield

Moon, Venus, and Jupiter over UT Tower

The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter blaze over the Tower of The University of Texas at Austin campus on December 1, 2008. This photo was taken from a 16th floor window of Robert Lee Moore Hall, which houses the administrative offices of McDonald Observatory and the Department of Astronomy. Credit: Joel Barna

Black hole diagram

The illustration shows the relationship between the mass of a galaxy's central black hole and the mass of its central bulge. The new higher mass Gebhardt and Thomas computer modeled for M87's black hole, 6.4 billion solar masses, could change this relationship. They used a more complete computer model than previous work. This may mean that the black holes in all nearby massive galaxies are more massive than we think, signaling a change in our understanding of the relationship between a black hole and its surrounding galaxy. Credit: Tim Jones/UT-Austin after K. Cordes & S. Brown (STScI)

Lambert, David L.

Dr. David L. Lambert is the Director of McDonald Observatory, and holds the Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin

Hemenway Awarded AAS Education Prize

Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway was presented with the American Astronomical Society's Education Prize by AAS President Dr. John Huchra (left), in Washington, D.C. in January 2010. (Credit: Richard Dreiser/AAS)

Paul and Ruthie Premack

Paul and Ruthie Premack of San Antonio's premack.com have funded McDonald Observatory's dark skies awareness efforts that kick off in Summer 2010. Credit: Joel Barna/McDonald Obs.

WMAT with HET

The Wren-Marcario Accessible Telescope (WMAT) sits on a concrete pad behind the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. This 100% wheelchair-accessible telescope was dedicated July 17, 2010. It allows wheelchair users greater access to telescope viewing at the Observatory's popular star parties. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) atop Mt. Fowlkes is visible in WMAT's central mirror. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System (mock-up)

This montage shows a mock-up of the new top end for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), including the Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System, under construction at The University of Texas at Austin's Center for Electromechanics. Once completed, it will travel to McDonald Observatory to be mounted atop the HET in preparation for the HET Dark Energy Project. Credit: Univ. of Texas/Center for Electromechanics

Upgraded HET

Artist's concept of the upgraded Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The VIRUS spectrographs are contained in the curved gray "saddlebags" on the side of the telescope. They receive light through the green cables, which contain bundles of fiber-optic lines. This illustration shows the telescope without its enclosing dome. Credit: McDonald Observatory/HETDEX Collaboration

NN Serpentis

This artist's concept shows two newly discovered planets orbiting the binary star NN Serpentis. Credit: Stuart Littlefair/Univ. of Sheffield

Miller, Sarah

Sarah Miller, and undergraduate student in astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, has been chosen as a Rhodes Scholar for 2008. The scholarship will fund her doctoral studies in astrophysics at Oxford University in the U.K.

ROTSE IIIb enclosure

The ROTSE IIIb telescope is inside this enclosure on McDonald Observatory's Mt. Fowlkes, not far from the much larger Hobby-Eberly Telescope. ROTSE, the Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment, headquarters at The University of Michigan, has placed telescopes in four locations on Earth to cover the entire sky in search of gamma-ray bursts. Credit: Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory

GMT Site Blasting

On March 23, 2012, engineers began a series of detonations to level the peak of Las Campanas Mountain in Chile. The mountaintop is the future site for the Giant Magellan Telescope. Credit: Francisco Figueroa/GMTO

LCOGT First-Light Team

The LCOGT installation crew. From left: Vincent Posner, David Petry, Annie Hjelstrom (Project Manager), Wayne Rosing (Chief Engineer and founder), and McDonald Observatory's Bill Wren. Credit: LCOGT Network

LCO 1-meter Telescope

The first 1-meter telescope in the Las Cumbres Observatory global network (pictured) saw first light at McDonald Observatory in 2012. Located on Mount Fowlkes, this robotic telescope is part of a world-wide network of telescopes used in both research and education. On October 30, 2019, a second 1-meter LCO telescope was dedicated at McDonald, in an adjacent dome on Mount Fowlkes. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

LCOGT Dome with Mt. Locke Domes

The dome of the new 1-meter telescope of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network is seen at front at its home on McDonald Observatory's Mt. Fowlkes. The domes of the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope and 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope are visible in the background atop Mt. Locke. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

HET with Star Trails

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory/UT-Austin

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is surrounded by star trails centered on Polaris, the North Star. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory.

Students at Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Central Texas high school students participated in a week-long research experience at McDonald Observatory in June 2012. Here the students visit the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Irina Marinova/McDonald Observatory

Evidence for Gravitational Waves

Data showing the decreasing orbital period of J0651. The dotted lines shows when the eclipse times should occur if the orbit were constant. The top panel shows how the eclipses have changed from when expected; the dashed line fits the observations. The bottom panel shows a zoomed view of the primary eclipses for four different months of observations (the colors correspond to the points in the top panel). Over time, the mid-point of the eclipses happen sooner (they shift to the left), indicating that the orbital period of the binary system is shrinking. The rate at which this orbit is shrinking is so far consistent with predictions from the emission of gravitational waves. Credit: JJ Hermes/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

CANDELS galaxies

A small portion of one of the CANDELS fields; click for more information.

A small portion of one of the CANDELS fields; small circles indicate galaxies included in the survey. Galaxies seen at various distances are circled in colors according to epoch. Galaxies at a redshift of 4, or 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang, are circled in magenta, while galaxies at 5, 6, 7 and 8 are circled in blue, green, yellow and red, respectively. The three insets show a zoomed in view of three galaxies; the upper-left panel is one at a redshift of 4, the lower-right is at a redshift of 6, and the lower-left is at a redshift of 7.

This composite image is made up of an optical image (shown in blue) by Hubble Space Telescope as part of the GOODS survey, combined with an infrared Hubble image (red and green) taken in dedicated CANDELS observations.

Credit: S. Finkelstein/CANDELS Collaboration/STScI/NASA

CANDELS galaxy colors

This graph shows that galaxies become dustier over time; click for more information.

The red circles from left to right represent the measured average color of galaxies at a redshift of 4, 5, 6 and 7, where the bottom axis shows the time since the Big Bang. The light blue bar running through the center of the diagram shows the color of the local galaxy NGC 1705, which contains no dust. When CANDELS astronomers saw that the redshift 7 galaxies in their sample have a similar color as NGC 1705, they derived that those are also dust free. The gradual reddening they observed at lower and lower redshifts reveals that the galaxies are getting dustier with time.

Credit: S. Finkelstein/CANDELS collaboration

GMT Artist's Concept

The Giant Magellan Telescope, against the southern Milky Way, as it will appear when completed. Credit: Todd Mason/Mason Productions and GMTO Inc.

The Giant Magellan Telescope, against the southern Milky Way, as it will appear when completed. Credit: Todd Mason/Mason Productions and GMTO Inc.

Galaxy NGC 1277

This image of NGC 1277 was taken with Hubble Space Telescope. This small, flattened galaxy contains one of the most massive central black holes ever found. At 17 billion solar masses, the black hole weighs an extraordinary 14% of the total galaxy mass. [NASA/ESA/Andrew C. Fabian]

Image of lenticular galaxy NGC 1277 taken with Hubble Space Telescope. This small, flattened galaxy contains one of the most massive central black holes ever found. At 17 billion solar masses, the black hole weighs an extraordinary 14% of the total galaxy mass.

Credit: NASA/ESA/Andrew C. Fabian

Environment of NGC 1277

The galaxy NGC 1277 (center) is embedded in the nearby Perseus galaxy cluster.
[D. W. Hogg/M. Blanton/SDSS Collaboration]

The galaxy NGC 1277 (center) is embedded in the nearby Perseus galaxy cluster. All the ellipticals and round yellow galaxies in the picture are located in this cluster. NGC 1277 is a relatively compact galaxy compared to the galaxies around it. The Perseus cluster is 250 million light years from us.

Credit: David W. Hogg, Michael Blanton, and the SDSS Collaboration

Size of NGC 1277's Black Hole

The diamater of the 17-billion-solar-mass black hole in the heart of galaxy NGC 1277 is eleven times wider than Neptune's orbit around the Sun. [D. Benningfield/K. Gebhardt/StarDate]

This diagram shows how the diamater of the 17-billion-solar-mass black hole in the heart of galaxy NGC 1277 compares with the orbit of Neptune around the Sun. The black hole is eleven times wider than Neptune's orbit. Shown here in two dimensions, the "edge" of the black hole is actually a sphere. This boundary is called the "event horizon," the point from beyond which, once crossed, neither matter nor light can return.

Credit: D. Benningfield/K. Gebhardt/StarDate

Dr. Paul R. Shapiro

Dr. Paul R. Shapiro

Dr. Paul R. Shapiro is the Frank N. Edmonds, Jr., Regents Professor in Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: UT-Austin)

Chow Telescope with Milky Way

The Milky Way shines over the dome of the new Alan Y. Chow Telescope at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory.

The Milky Way shines over the dome of the new Alan Y. Chow Telescope at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Alan Y. Chow

Dr. Alan Y. Chow

Dr. Alan Y. Chow dontated the new Chow Telescope recently dedicated at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. Dr. Chow is a physician, teacher, inventor, and amateur astronomer. Credit: Alan Chow

Chow Telescope

Chow Telescope

The Alan Y. Chow Telescope was recently dedicated at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. It will be used for public programs, teacher training, and teacher and student research. Credit: LCOGT

Anne Adkins

Anne Adkins

Anne Adkins is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Anne and Howard Adkins.

Wayne Alexander

Wayne Alexander

Wayne Alexander is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Wayne and Barbara Alexander.

Barbara Alexander

Barbara Alexander

Barbara Alexander is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Wayne and Barbara Alexander.

John Gerling

John Gerling

John Gerling is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy John Gerling.

Mike Gibson

Mike Gibson

Mike Gibson is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Mike Gibson.

Ted Gray

Ted Gray

Ted Gray is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Ted Gray.

John Heasley

John Heasley

John Heasley is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy John Heasley.

David King

David King

David King is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy David King.

Robert Neblett

Robert Neblett

Robert Neblett is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Robert Neblett.

David Rose

David Rose

David Rose is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy David Rose.

Eugene Sepulveda

Eugene Sepulveda

Eugene Sepulveda is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Eugene Sepulveda.

Klaus Weiswurm

Klaus Weiswurm

Klaus Weiswurm is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy Klaus Weiswurm.

75th Anniversary logo

75th anniversary logo

McDonald Observatory is celebrating its 75th anniversary from September 2013 through August 2014. The anniversary logo may be used to promote official anniversary events. If you have questions about acceptable use, or need a different file type of the logo, please contact observatory press officer Rebecca Johnson.

75th Anniversary poster art

This poster was created to commemorate the 75th anniversary of McDonald Observatory. Credit: McDonald Observatory

CANDELS Image Highlighting Galaxy z8_GND_5296

Hubble CANDELS image highlighting galaxy z8_GND_5296

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope CANDELS survey highlights the most distant galaxy in the universe with a measured distance, dubbed z8_GND_5296. The galaxy's red color alerted astronomers that it was likely extremely far away, and thus seen at an early time after the Big Bang. A team of astronomers led by Steven Finkelstein of The University of Texas at Austin measured the exact distance using the Keck I telescope with the new MOSFIRE spectrograph. They found that this galaxy is seen at about 700 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was just 5% of its current age of 13.8 billion years.

Image credit: V. Tilvi, S.L. Finkelstein, C. Papovich, A. Koekemoer, CANDELS, and STScI/NASA

Artist's Rendition of Galaxy z8_GND_5296

Artist's rendition of galaxy z8_GND_5296

An artist's rendition of the newly discovered most distant galaxy z8_GND_5296. (The galaxy looks red in the actual Hubble Space Telescope image because the collective blue light from stars get shifted toward redder colors due to the expansion of the universe and its large distance from Earth.)

Image credit: V. Tilvi, S.L. Finkelstein, C. Papovich, and the Hubble Heritage Team

Shetrone, Matthew

Dr. Matthew Shetrone

Dr. Matthew Shetrone is a Senior Research Scientist with McDonald Observatory, and the Facilities Manager for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. (credit: McDonald Observatory)

Armandroff, Taft

Taft Armandroff will become director of McDonald Observatory in June 2014

Dr. Taft Armandroff will become director of McDonald Observatory in June 2014. Credit: McDonald Observatory

John P. Dennis, III

John P. Dennis, III

John P. Dennis, III is a member of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors. Photo courtesy John P. Dennis, III.

Systemic Live

Systemic Live is an educational website to help the public understand more about extrasolar planets, created by Univ. of Texas astronomer Dr. Stefano Meschiari in conjunction with Dr. Greg Laughlin and others at The University of Calif., Santa Cruz. Credit: Systemic Live Collaboration

Super Planet Crash

Super Planet Crash is an online game created by Univ. of Texas astronomer Dr. Stefano Meschiari in conjunction with Dr. Greg Laughlin and others at The University of Calif., Santa Cruz. Credit: Systemic Collaboration

Best of Show, Jr. High-High School Category

Pencil drawing of Otto Struve Telescope by Rafael Riegel

Rafael Riegel's pencil drawing of the Otto Struve Telescope won Best of Show in the junior high-high school category of McDonald Observatory's art contest celebrating our 75th anniversary on April 26, 2014. Rafael is a sophomore at Fort Davis High School. Credit: Rafael Riegel

Best of Show, Elementary School Category

Mixed-media collage by Charlotte Browning

Charlotte Browning's mixed media collage featuring the Otto Struve Telescope won Best of Show in the elementary school category of McDonald Observatory's art contest celebrating our 75th anniversary on April 26, 2014. Charlotte is in kindergarten at Marfa Montessori School. Credit: Charlotte Browning

Solar Sibling HD 162826

Finder chart for HD 162826

The star HD 162826 is probably a "solar sibling," that is, a star born in the same star cluster as the Sun. It was identified by University of Texas at Austin astronomer Ivan Ramirez, in the process of honing a technique to find more solar siblings in the future, and eventually to determine how and where in the Milky Way galaxy the Sun formed.

HD 162826 is not visible to the unaided eye, but can be seen with low-power binoculars. It is 110 light-years away in the constellation Hercules, and appears not far from the bright star Vega in the night sky.

Credit: Ivan Ramirez/Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory

Dr. Frank N. Bash

Dr. Frank N. Bash

Dr. Frank N. Bash served as Director of McDonald Observatory from 1991 to 2003, and as Interim Director 1989-1991. The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory was named for him. Bash is currently the Frank N. Edmonds, Jr. Regents Professor Emeritus in Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. His research centers on large-scale structure of spiral galaxies and star formation on large scales. (Credit: McDonald Observatory)

1930s Struve Telescope Model

Model of the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope, on display at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. (Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

Warner and Swasey Co. of Cleveland created this model of the 82-inch Telescope (later re-named the Otto Struve Telescope) before they built the actual telescope on-site at McDonald Observatory. The model is now on display at the observatory's Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. (Photo by Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

Kepler-444

Kepler-444 hosts five Earth-sized planets in compact orbits. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the face of their parent star, as shown in this artist's concept. Credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Divine

An animation is also availlable; click to view and download.

Kepler-444 hosts five Earth-sized planets in compact orbits. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the face of their parent star, as shown in this artist's concept. Credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Divine

An animation is also availlable; click to view and download.

Mt. Locke Domes with Star Trails

Star trails whirl around Polaris, the North Star, in early evening above the dome of the Otto Struve Telescope. The dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope is at right. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Panorama

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope sits atop Mt. Fowlkes, surrounded by the Davis Mountains. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Struve Telescope with Open Dome

The Otto Struve Telescope points through its open dome. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Smith Telescope Panorama

The closed dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope dominates the foreground of this panoramic view. At left, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible atop Mt. Fowlkes. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Looking into the Mt. Locke Domes

This ariel view looks into the open domes of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope (front) and the Otto Struve Telescope (rear). Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Mirror through Dome

Looking into the open dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope reveals the 91 segments of its primary mirror. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Amphitheater with Milky Way (horizontal)

Visitors in the amphitheater during a public star party at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. The Milky Way is clearly visible under the dark skies of McDonald Observatory. The streak at top center shows the path of an artificial satellite passing overhead. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Smith Telescope with Sunrise

The Sun rises behind the open dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope in this panoramic view. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Struve Telescope Dome with Sunset

The open dome of the Otto Struve Telescope is backed by multi-colored sunset. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

UT Seal, Observatory Nameplate

The great seal of The University of Texas at Austin appears with the observatory's name on the Art Deco dome of the Otto Struve Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Overview of Mt. Fowlkes

The summit of Mt. Fowlkes features the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (largest dome), as well as the McDonald Laser Ranging Station, the ROTSE/IIIb telescope, a 1-meter telescope of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Network Group (small dome in foreground), and several other instruments and workshops. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Overview of Mt. Locke

The summit of Mt. Locke features the Harlan J. Smith Telescope (largest dome), the Otto Struve Telescope (smaller of the two large domes), as well as the smaller 0.8-meter Telescope (small silver dome at left center) and 0.9-meter Telescope (small white dome to the left of the Smith Telescope). The large red-roofed building at bottom right is the Astronomers Lodge. The white building to the right of the large domes is the Physical Plant. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET with Mt. Locke Domes in Background

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope dome sits atop Mt. Fowlkes at left. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescope sit atop Mt. Locke in the background at right. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Overview of McDonald Observatory

This overview of McDonald Observatory includes Mt. Fowlkes (left, with Hobby-Ebely Telescope dome), Mt. Locke (right, with Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescope domes), and the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center (center, at the base of Mt. Locke). Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Overview of Frank N. Bash Visitors Center

The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes are visible atop Mt. Locke in the background. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Amphitheater with Mt. Locke

The amphitheater and public telescope park at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center are shown with the domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes visible atop Mt. Locke in the background. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

McDonald Observatory and Surroundings

The three largest domes of McDonald Observatory appear in their context of the Davis Mountains. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible in front atop Mt. Fowlkes. The Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes are visible behind it atop Mt. Locke. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Astronomer's Lodge with Domes

The Astronomers Lodge sits beneath the dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope atop Mt. Locke. The dome of the Otto Struve Telescope is at right. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Amphitheater and Public Telescope Park

The amphitheater and public telescope park at the McDonald Observatory Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Dome at Dusk

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at dusk. The flags of the four partner instistutions fly with the U.S. flag outside the open dome. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Amphitheater with Milky Way (vertical)

Visitors attend a star party in the amphitheater at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. The Milky Way shines brightly overhead, plainly visible under the dark skies of McDonald Observatory. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, Night

Nighttime view of the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes are visible atop Mt. Locke in the background. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Panorama with Clouds

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is surrounded by clouds and highlighted with a lens flare in this panoramic image. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Smith Telescope with Open Dome

The Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Smith Telescope with Colorful Clouds

The 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with its new IGRINS instrument, was used by UT Austin astronomer Andrew Mann and colleagues to observe the red dwarf star in the Hyades cluster to confirm the planet’s discovery. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Colorful clouds pass behind the open dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is visible atop Mt. Fowlkes in the background at left. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Struve Telescope at Sunset

A colorful sunset forms the backdrop to the open dome of the Otto Struve Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET with Star Trails (vertical)

Star trails wheel around Polaris, the North Star, above the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET with Star Trails (horizontal)

Star trails swirl around Polaris, the North Star, above the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Taft Armandroff with Struve Telescope Dome

Dr. Taft Armandroff, Director of McDonald Observatory, stands on the catwalk of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. The Otto Struve Telescope dome is visible in the background. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Taft Armandroff with HET Mirror

Dr. Taft Armandroff, Director of McDonald Observatory, stands in front of the mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Smith Telescope with Star Trails

Star trails zoom past the dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET VIRUS Structure

This square black unit attached the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is one of two "saddlebags" that ride along with the telescope as it turns. (Part of the telescope's segmented mirror is visible at bottom left.) Each saddlebag will hold multiple spectrographs that together make up VIRUS, the instrument that will carry out a study of dark energy. The project is called HETDEX, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Engergy Experiment. More information about the project, and VIRUS, is available at http://hetdex.org. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Mirror and Louvers

This interior view of the dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope reveals its segmented mirror, the dome opening, and the open louvers that look like blinds which encircle the structure. When open, the louvers allow cool air to flow through the dome, keeping the temperature inside as close as possible to the temperature outside. This helps to maintain the quality of astronomical observations. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Mirror and VIRUS Structure (front view)

This interior view of the dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope reveals its segmented mirror, the dome opening, and the open louvers (visible at left center) that look like blinds which encircle the structure. The black structure (visible at right center) is one of two "saddlebags" that ride along with the telescope as it moves. Each will carry multitple spectrographs that together make up the instrument known as VIRUS. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Mirror and VIRUS Structure (back view)

The mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is seen from behind, highlighting its teal blue support structure. At left, the square black unit is one of two "saddlebags" that ride along with the telescope as it turns. Each saddlebag will hold multiple spectrographs that together make up the VIRUS instrument. At right, the louvers that look like blinds are visible. These encircle the structure. When open, they allow cool air to flow through the dome, keeping the temperature inside as close as possible to the temperature outside. This helps to maintain the quality of astronomical observations. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Control Room

Control room of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Credit: Kevin Mace / McDonald Observatory

IGRINS Instrument

The IGRINS instrument sits inside the dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. IGRINS stands for Immersion Grating Infrared Spectrometer. The instrument is a collaboration between The University of Texas and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute. Dr. Dan Jaffe, Chair of the University of Texas Astronomy Department, is the Principal Investigator. More information about IGRINS is available here. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Smith Telescope with IGRINS

The IGRINS instrument (foreground) sits inside the dome of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. The telescope is visible at left. IGRINS stands for Immersion Grating Infrared Spectrometer. The instrument is a collaboration between The University of Texas and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute. Dr. Dan Jaffe, Chair of the University of Texas Astronomy Department, is the Principal Investigator. More information about IGRINS is available here. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Andrew Mann

Andrew Mann

Dr. Andrew Mann is a Hubble Post-doctoral Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. (credit: Andrew Mann)

Kepler-452b (Artist Concept)

Artist's concept of Kepler-452b

This artist's concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to the Sun. The habitable zone is a region around a star where temperatures are right for water — an essential ingredient for life as we know it — to pool on the surface. Scientists do not know if Kepler-452b can support life or not.

What is known about the planet is that it is about 60 percent larger than Earth, placing it in a class of planets dubbed "super-Earths." While its mass and composition are not yet determined, previous research suggests that planets the size of Kepler-452b have a better than even chance of being rocky. Kepler-452b orbits its star every 385 days.

The planet's star is about 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It is a G2-type star like the Sun, with nearly the same temperature and mass. This star is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than the Sun. As stars age, they grow in size and give out more energy, warming up their planets over time.

Scientists and artists considered these facts when creating this illustration. If the planet Kepler-452b does in fact have liquid on its surface and has grown warmer due to the older age of its star, it could possibly be experiencing a runaway greenhouse effect, where oceans would begin to evaporate and contribute to increased cloud cover. This, plus other factors such as the planet's large size, was factored into the hypothetical scenario depicted in this illustration.

Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Kepler-452b Compared with Earth

 

 

Scientists using data from NASA's Kepler mission have confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. The habitable zone is the region around a star where temperatures are just right for water to exist in its liquid form.

The artistic concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger. The illustration represents one possible appearance for Kepler-452b — scientists do not know whether the planet has oceans and continents like Earth.

Both planets orbit a G2-type star of about the same temperature; however, the star hosting Kepler-452b is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than the Sun. As stars age, they become larger, hotter and brighter, as represented in the illustration. Kepler-452b's star appears a bit larger and brighter.

Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Kepler-452 system compared to our solar system

This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and the solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury.

The habitable zone of Kepler-186 is very small compared to that of Kepler-452 or the Sun because it is a much smaller, cooler star. The size and extent of the habitable zone of Kepler-452 is nearly the same as that of the Sun, but is slightly bigger because Kepler-452 is somewhat older, bigger and brighter. The size of the orbit of Kepler-452b is nearly the same as that of the Earth, at 1.05 AU. Kepler-452b orbits its star once every 385 days.

Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt

Keaton Bell

Keaton Bell is a graduate student in astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: UT Austin)

Keaton Bell is a graduate student in astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: UT Austin)

White Dwarf Outburst

The regular brightness pulsations (red) of white dwarf star PG1149+057 are visibly affected by an outburst (green). Such outbursts have been detected in two pulsating white dwarfs to date, and astronomers plan to hunt for more examples. (Credit: J.J. Hermes/Univ. of Warwick/NASA) 

HET with George T. Abell Gallery

The dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope sits in front of a backdrop of blue sky. The interior of the George T. Abell Gallery, where visitors can learn about HET and view the telescope, is illuminated. (Ethan Tweedie Photography)

HET Back View

Back view of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope shows support structure of the primary mirror (turquoise), as well as the tracker above the mirror that supports the new Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System (top center). (Ethan Tweedie Photography)

Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System Installed on HET

The Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System is a complex set of optics, including four mirrors, that sit above the primary mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope on a support structure called a tracker. The primary mirror feeds light from cosmic targets into the Simmons System, which sharpens the view before sending that light into the telescope's science instruments. (Ethan Tweedie Photography)

Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System

Here the Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System is seen in the lab at The University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, before it has been completely enclosed in its protective casing. (Hanshin Lee/McDonald Observatory)

Working on the Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System

Research Associate Hanshin Lee works on the Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System before it is placed atop the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The 2-ton Simmons System is 5 meters tall, and contains four precisely alligned mirrors (three 1-meter mirrors and one 0.25-meter mirror). (Hanshin Lee/McDonald Observatory)

GMT at Las Campanas Observatory (Artist's Concept)

This artist's concept of the Giant Magellan Telescope shows the telescope and enclosure as they will appear when completed at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. (Credit: GMTO Corporation)

Galaxy Simulation (Animation Available)

This illustration shows the gas density in a simulated galaxy at about 1 billion years after the Big Bang (redshift 6) with properties similar to those of the galaxies in a Hubble Space Telescope study released today. This includes an efficient rate of turning gas into stars. The simulated galaxy is being fed by streams of cold gas (green and yellow) flowing in along filaments from the cosmic web. This fuels the star formation occurring in the regions with the densest gas in this galaxy (red and white), mostly in the galaxy's center but also in clumps around it. The gas in this galaxy has shrunk to a compact, star-forming "blue nugget" with a violently unstable, clumpy disk.

Animation is available here: https://youtu.be/aDZNe_RvVl0

Credit: Avishai Dekel, Nir Mandelker, Daniel Ceverino, Joel Primack, and the VELA simulation team

Galaxies in HST's CANDELS GOODS-South Field

This image shows a region of the CANDELS GOODS-South field, which is one of the fields used in this study. This image combines data taken from Hubble Space Telescope's optical and near-infrared cameras, and contains galaxies at a range of distances. The larger galaxies are relatively close by, while the smallest specks hail from the earlier universe.  Some of the smallest dots in this image are those used in this study; their light is coming from 0.5 to 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang.

Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Koekemoer and the CANDELS science team

Natalie Gosnell

Dr. Natalie Gosnell is a W.J. McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: Natalie Gosnell)

Birth of a Blue Straggler

Left: A normal star in a binary system gravitationally pulls in matter from an aging companion star that has swelled to a bloated red giant that has expanded to a few hundred times of its original size. Right: After a couple hundred million years the red giant star has burned out and collapsed to the white dwarf that shines intensely in ultraviolet wavelengths. The companion star has bulked up on the hydrogen siphoned off of the red giant star to become much hotter, brighter and bluer than it was previously. Credit: NASA/ESA, A. Feild (STScI)

Open Star Cluster NGC 188

McDonald Observatory astronomer Natalie Gosnell and her team used the open star cluster NGC 188 as a laboratory to study stellar evolution. Credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2 (STScI/AURA, Palomar/Caltech, and UKSTU/AAO)

Artist's Concept of HD 32963

This artist's concept shows the relative sizes and separation of the star HD 32963 and its newly discovered Jupiter-mass planet. Credit: Stefano Meschiari/McDonald Observatory

Orbit of HD 32963 b

This artist's concept shows the orbit of the newly discovered Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star HD 32963, compared to the orbits of Earth and Jupiter around the Sun. Credit: Stefano Meschiari/McDonald Observatory

Dominick Rowan

Dominick Rowan is a high school senior from Armonk, New York. Credit: Dominick Rowan

HET with Pink Sunset

The dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope below a beautiful West Texas sunset. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET with pink sunset 2

The dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope sits at left with a backdrop of a multi-colored West Texas sunset. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Simmons Optical System

Close-up view of the Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System that sits atop the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. These new optics were installed in 2015 as the heart of a major upgrade to the telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Working on HET

Hobby-Eberly Telescope staffer Emily Mrozinsky works on the telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Working on HET 2

Hobby-Eberly Telescope staffer Emily Mrozinsky works on the telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Working on HET 3

Hobby-Eberly Telescope Mechanical Engineer Emily Mrozinsky works on the telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Cleaning HET's Mirrors

Hobby-Eberly Telescope staffer Amanda Turbyfill cleans one of HET's 91 hexagonal mirror segments by spraying it with dry ice. The small pellets of frozen carbon dioxide are abrasive enough to clear off dirt and bugs, but won't scratch the mirror. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Sunrise view from McDonald Observatory

A beautiful sunrise over the Davis Mountains seen from McDonald Observatory. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photograghy

Sun Rising over the Davis Mountains

The horizon seems to catch fire as the Sun rises in the Davis Mountains as seen from McDonald Observatory. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photograghy

Working on HET 4

Hobby-Eberly Telescope site manager Herman Kriel works on the telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

HET Mirror Seen from Above

Looking down at the main mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The Harold C. Simmons Dark Energy Optical System is visible at top center. The black "saddlebags" holding the VIRUS spectrographs are visible at the left and right sides. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Mirror Images?

The wall panels of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope dome (top half of photo) recall the colors and shapes of the 91 hexagonal segements of the telescope's main mirror (bottom half of photo). Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Sunrise over McDonald Observatory

A colorful sunrise over McDonald Observatory. Mount Locke is at left, featuring the domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes. The observatory's physical plant is at bottom center. At right center, the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center and the domes of its public telescope park can be seen. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Telescope Dome with Yucca

The dome of McDonald Observatory's 0.8-meter Telescope, also known as the 30-inch Telescope, is seen atop Mount Locke. A yucca plant blooms at the top of the stairs leading down to the dome. The Davis Moutnains are visible in the background. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Working on IGRINS

Graduate student Kyle Kaplan works on the IGRINS instrument mounted on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Sunrise with the Struve Telescope

The Sun rises behind the dome of the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Struve Telescope with Sunrise

The dark silhouette of the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope is backed by a colorful sundrise. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Star Trails at HET

Star trails are seen through opening of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope dome. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

New vs. Old Solar Camera

Comparison photos of a sunspot group shot December 26, 2015 using McDonald Observatory's solar viewing system. At left, the view from the system's new Semmes camera. At right, the view from the old Semmes camera. (Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

SDO vs. McDonald Solar Camera

These images of a sunspot group viewed in white light were both taken on December 26, 2015. At left, the view from the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). At right, the view from McDonald Observatory's recently upgraded solar viewing system. The two images are are surprisingly comparable. (SDO/NASA, Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

Three Generations of Solar Cameras

These views of the Sun's full disk allow a comparison of three generations of solar cameras on McDonald Observatory's solar viewing system, from the original Overcash camera (smallest solar disk), to the upgrade to the first Semmes camera (middle disk), to the most recent Semmes camera upgrade (largest disk). The new camera's maximum resolution of the full solar disk has provided an astonishing improvement in size and clarity. (Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

Sunspots, Flares, and Filaments

The view of sunspots, solar flares, and solar filaments was taken on June 20, 2015 with McDonald Observatory's solar viewing system. (Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

Solar Prominences

This view of solar prominences was taken on April 4, 2013, with McDonald Observatory's solar viewing system using a hydrogen-alpha filter. (Kevin Mace/McDonald Observatory)

K2-25 in the Hyades Cluster (annotated)

The 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory, with its new IGRINS instrument, was used by UT Austin astronomer Andrew Mann and colleagues to observe the red dwarf star in the Hyades cluster to confirm the planet’s discovery. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

The red dwarf star K2-25 is indicated in this view of part of the Hyades open star cluster from the Digitized Sky Survey. The Hyades is the closest open star cluster to Earth. It is visible in the night sky in the horns of the constellation Taurus, the bull. (A. Mann/McDonald Obs./DSS)

Part of the Hyades Cluster (unannotated)

A view of part of the Hyades open star cluster from the Digitized Sky Survey. The Hyades is the closest open star cluster to Earth. It is visible in the night sky in the horns of the constellation Taurus, the bull. (A. Mann/McDonald Obs./DSS)

Supernova 2012cg

The blue-white dot at the center of this image is supernova 2012cg, seen by the 1.2-meter telescope at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. This supernova is so distant that its host galaxy appears here as only an extended smear of purple light. Credit: Peter Challis/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

The blue-white dot at the center of this image is supernova 2012cg, seen by the 1.2-meter telescope at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. At 50 million light-years away, this supernova is so distant that its host galaxy, the edge-on spiral NGC 4424, appears here as only an extended smear of purple light. Credit: Peter Challis/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Brendan Bowler

Dr. Brendan Bowler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (credit: Brendan Bowler) 

Galaxies Akira and Tetsuo

An artist’s rendition of the galaxies: Akira (right) and Tetsuo (left) in action. Akira’s gravity pulls Tetsuo’s gas into its central supermassive black hole, fueling winds that have the power to heat Akira’s gas. The action of the black hole winds prevents a new cycle of star formation in Akira. (Credit: Kavli IPMU)

Exoplanet K2-33b Orbits Youthful Star

K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days. These two characteristics combined provide exciting new directions for planet-formation theories. K2-33b could have formed on a farther out orbit and quickly migrated inward. Alternatively, it could have formed in situ, or in place. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Comparing K2-33 to our Solar System

This image shows the K2-33 system, and its planet K2-33b, compared to our own solar system. The planet has a five-day orbit, whereas Mercury orbits our sun in 88 days. The planet is also nearly 10 times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

K2-33 in Upper Scorpius

Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) image of the 11 million year old Upper Scorpius Star forming region. The two bright stars are Nu Scorpii (left) and Beta Scorpii (right), both likely members of Upper Scorpius. The cloudy region around Nu Scorpii is a reflection nebula; residual dust from recent star formation as well as interstellar dust is reflecting light from the bright star. A zoom-in inset is shown around the star K2-33b, with the planet host circled in red.

Large color image constructed from Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) images, inset constructed using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). (Credit: A. Mann/McDonald Obs/DSS/SDSS)

Forming a Direct Collapse Black Hole

An image based on a supercomputer simulation of the cosmological environment where primordial gas undergoes the direct collapse to a black hole. The gas flows along filaments of dark matter that form a cosmic web connecting structures in the early universe. The first galaxies formed at the intersection of these dark matter filaments (Aaron Smith/TACC/UT-Austin)

Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith is a graduate student in UT Austin's Department of Astronomy.

Surface of Proxima b (Artist's Impression)

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

 

Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri (Artist's Impression)

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

 

Proxima b Infographic

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of our solar system. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result, it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

 

Motions of Proxima Centauri due to Orbiting Planet

This plot shows how the motion of Proxima Centauri toward and away from Earth is changing with time over the first half of 2016. Sometimes Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 3 miles per hour (5 kph) — normal human walking pace — and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. This indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times Earth's, orbiting about 4.4 million miles (7 million km) from Proxima Centauri — only 5% of the Earth-Sun distance. Credit: ESO/G. Anglada-Escudé

 

Walter E. Massey

Dr. Walter E. Massey is Chair of the Board of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. (Credit: Walter E. Massey)

Taft Armandroff

McDonald Observatory Director Dr. Taft Armandroff is the Vice Chair of Board of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. (Credit: GMTO Corporation)

Betelgeuse in Infrared

This 2012 infrared image of Betelgeuse by the orbiting Herschel telescope shows two shells of interacting matter on one side of the star. (Credit:  L. Decin/University of Leuven/ESA)

Orion

This view of Orion, the hunter, was captured from McDonald Observatory on November 20, 2016 by a DSLR camera piggybacked on a three-inch telescope for a 12-minute exposure. Supergiant star Betelgeuse forms the hunter's bright orange shoulder at top left. (Credit: Tom Montemayor)

Robert Shelton

Dr. Robert Shelton is President of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. (Credit: GMTO)

Galaxy Cluster MACS 0416

A Hubble Space Telescope view of the galaxy cluster MACS 0416 is annotated in cyan and magenta to show how it acts as a ‘gravitational lens,’ magnifying more distant background galaxies. Cyan highlights the distribution of mass in the cluster, mostly in the form of dark matter. Magenta highlights the degree to which the background galaxies are magnified, which is related to the mass distribution.

Credit: STScI/NASA/CATS Team/R. Livermore (UT Austin)

Galaxy Cluster Abell 2744

A Hubble Space Telescope view of the galaxy cluster Abell 2744 is annotated in cyan and magenta to show how it acts as a ‘gravitational lens,’ magnifying more distant background galaxies. Cyan highlights the distribution of mass in the cluster, mostly in the form of dark matter. Magenta highlights the degree to which the background galaxies are magnified, which is related to the mass distribution.

Credit: STScI/NASA/CATS Team/R. Livermore (UT Austin)

HETDEX Infographic

This infographic provides information about the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). Credit: Cockrell School of Engineering/UT-Austin

Star Falling into a Supermassive Black Hole

This artist's impression shows a star crossing the event horizon of a supermassive black hole located in the center of a galaxy. The black hole is so large and massive that tidal effects on the star are negligible, and the star is swallowed whole. The effects of gravitational lensing distorting the light of the star are not shown here. (Mark A. Garlick/CfA) 

Star Falling into a Supermassive Black Hole

This artist's impression shows a star crossing the event horizon of a supermassive black hole located in the center of a galaxy. The black hole is so large and massive that tidal effects on the star are negligible, and the star is swallowed whole. The effects of gravitational lensing distorting the light of the star are not shown here. (Mark A. Garlick/CfA) 

Star Hits the Hard Surface of a Supermassive Sphere

This is the first in a sequence of two artist's impressions that shows a huge, massive sphere in the center of a galaxy, rather than a supermassive black hole. Here a star moves towards and then smashes into the hard surface of the sphere, flinging out debris. The impact heats up the site of the collision. (Mark A. Garlick/CfA) 

Supermassive Sphere Brightens Post-Impact

In this second artist's impression a huge sphere in the center of a galaxy is shown after a star has collided with it. Enormous amounts of heat and a dramatic increase in the brightness of the sphere are generated by this event. The lack of observation of such flares from the center of galaxies means that this hypothetical scenario is almost completely ruled out. (Mark A. Garlick/CfA) 

Binaries over Mauna Kea (still frame from animation)

This image shows several of the binaries from this study, each orbiting around its center of mass, which is marked by an ‘x.’ Colors indicate surface temperatures, from warmest to coolest: gold, red, magenta, or blue. The background image is a map of the entire sky visible from Hawaii and a silhouette of Mauna Kea (home of Keck Observatory and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, where this study was conducted over the past decade). Each binary is shown roughly where it is located in the night sky. The actual sizes of these orbits on the sky are very small (about one billionth the area covered by each ‘x’), but the orbit sizes shown in the animation are accurate relative to each other. The animation is also in extreme fast-forward; each second corresponds to approximately two years of real time. (Credit: Trent Dupuy/Karen Teramura/PS1SC)

Las Cumbres Observatory

Map of the Las Cumbres Observatory global network of robotic telescopes. (Credit: Las Cumbres Observatory)

Forming a Massive Star

Projected density distributions of dark matter (background and top panel) and gas (bottom three panels) components when the massive star forms. The stellar cradle is extremely asymmetrical as a wide, wedge-shaped structure (middle panel) due to the initial supersonic gas motions left over from the Big Bang. The circle in the right panel indicates the gravitationally unstable region with mass of 26,000 solar-masses. (Credit: Shingo Hirano)

A Newborn Protostar

Gas density distribution around the newborn protostar. The left-to-right supersonic gas motion results in the non-spherical, compressed density structure. (Credit: Shingo Hirano)

Evolution of a Protostar

Evolution of the temperature and density structure in the protostellar accretion phase after the protostar formation. The rapid accretion of dense gas cloud (white contour) constricts an expansion of the photoionized region (red) which is possible to shut off the gas accretion. (Credit: Takashi Hosokawa)

Artist's Concept of Exocomet System

Artist’s concept of a view from within the exocomet system KIC 3542116. (Credit: Danielle Futselaar)

Placing Glass for Casting GMT Mirror 5

Staff at The University of Arizona's Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory review the glass placed in the mold, checking for space for the last few pieces of glass for mirror 5 of the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Credit: Damon Jackson)

GMT Mirror 5, Glass-Filled Furnace

The GMT mirror 5 mold filled with 17,500 kg of low expansion glass, ready for the lid of the furnace to be placed. (Credit: University of Arizona)

GMT Mirror 5 Furnace

GMT mirror 5 furnace fully assembled and ready to start. (Credit: University of Arizona)

CEERS Field seen by HST

A Hubble Space Telescope view of the field that CEERS will survey. This field has been imaged by several surveys with Hubble, including AEGIS and CANDELS. A larger version (133Mb) of this image is available; click here to access. (Credit: Anton Koekemoer/STScI)

Exoplanet VHS 1256-1257 b

Image of the planetary-mass companion VHS 1256-1257 b (bottom right) and its host star (center). (Credit: Gauza, B. et al 2015, MNRAS, 452, 1677-1683)

Exoplanet GSC 6214-210 b

Image of the planetary-mass companion GSC 6214-210 b (bottom) and its host star (top). (Credit: Ireland, M. J. et al 2011, ApJ, 726, 113)

Exoplanet ROXs 42B b

Image of the planetary-mass companion ROXs 42B b (right, labeled 'b') and its host star (left, labeled 'A'). (Credit: Kraus, A. L. et al. 2014, ApJ, 781, 20)

GMT Mount

Engineering drawing of the mount for the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Credit: GMTO)

Andrew Vanderburg

Dr. Andrew Vanderburg was a NASA Sagan Fellow in the UT Austin Department of Astronomy through August 2020. He is now a professsor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Credit: UT Austin)

Casey, Caitlin

Dr. Caitlin M. Casey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: Caitlin Casey)

Rizzuto, Aaron

Aaron Rizzuto is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (credit: UT Austin)

Wu, Ya-Lin

Ya-Lin Wu will be a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin in 2018. (credit: Ya-Lin Wu)

Neutron Stars Merge to Form Black Hole

The spectacular merger of two neutron stars that generated gravitational waves announced last fall likely did something else: birthed a black hole. This newly spawned black hole would be the lowest mass black hole ever found.

After two separate stars underwent supernova explosions, two ultra-dense cores (that is, neutron stars) were left behind. These two neutron stars were so close that gravitational wave radiation pulled them together until they merged and collapsed into a black hole. The illustration (top) shows the two neutron stars spinning around each other while merging.

X-ray studies are critical for understanding what happened after the two neutron stars collided. The Chandra X-ray Observatory observed GW170817 multiple times. An observation two to three days after the event failed to detect a source, but subsequent observations 9, 15 and 16 days after the event resulted in detections (bottom left). The source went behind the Sun soon after, but further brightening was seen in Chandra observations about 110 days after the event (bottom right), followed by comparable X-ray intensity after about 160 days.

By comparing the Chandra observations with those by the NSF's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), researchers explain the observed X-ray emission as being due entirely to the shock wave — akin to a sonic boom from a supersonic plane — from the merger smashing into surrounding gas. There is no sign of X-rays resulting from a neutron star. Thus, the researchers in this study claim this is a strong case for the merger of two neutron stars merging to then produce bursts of radiation and form a black hole.

Credit: Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/Trinity University/D.  Pooley et al.

GMT Site Excavation

Hard rock excavation has begun for the Giant Magellan Telescope's massive concrete pier and the foundations for the telescope's enclosure at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. More than 13,000 tons of rock will be removed. Credit: GMTO Corporation

McDonald Geodetic Observatory Radio Dish Site

The site for the McDonald Geodetic Observatory’s 12-meter radio telescope dish is being prepared at the base of Mount Locke, near the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. The dish will rest on a concrete pier attached to bedrock, soon to be poured in the rebar-filled box at center. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory

Construction on McDonald Geodetic Observatory

Construction is ongoing for the McDonald Geodetic Observatory. Credit: McDonald Observatory

Galaxy Wind

ALMA, aided by a gravitational lens, imaged the outflow, or "wind," from a galaxy seen when the universe was only one billion years old. The ALMA image (circle call out) shows the location of hydroxyl (OH) molecules. These molecules trace the location of star-forming gas as it is fleeing the galaxy, driven by either supernovas or a black-hole powered “wind.” The background star field (Blanco Telescope Dark Energy Survey) shows the location of the galaxy. The circular, double-lobe shape of the distant galaxy is due to the distortion caused by the cosmic magnifying effect of an intervening galaxy.

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Spilker/UT-Austin; NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello; AURA/NSF

Artist's Impression of Galaxy Wind

Artist impression of an outflow of molecular gas from an active star-forming galaxy.

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, D. Berry

Cloud Models

Models of two turbulent clouds without stars (left) and with stars launching winds (right). The colors show gas speed: grey (6-10 km/s), blue (12-25 km/s), and red (180-250 km/s). Credit: Stella Offner/UT Austin

Models of two turbulent clouds without stars (left) and with stars launching winds (right). The colors show gas speed: grey (6-10 km/s), blue (12-25 km/s), and red (180-250 km/s). Credit: Stella Offner/UT Austin

Magnetic Waves from a Young Star

Gas density and velocity (top) and magnetic field strength and magnetic field lines (bottom) showing magnetic waves propagating ahead of the wind shell. The left and right panels show different models. The waves stand out when the surrounding gas is not turbulent. Credit: Stella Offner/UT Austin

StarDate Logo

StarDate is a public education and outreach arm of The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory. The StarDate radio program airs daily on about 400 stations. The bimonthly StarDate magazine is the perfect skywatching companion for amateur astronomers or anyone interested in celestial events and space exploration. And StarDate Online puts skywatching information and more at your fingertips at http://stardate.org.

Dusty Star-Forming Galaxy DSFG850.95

This composite image of the dusty star-forming galaxy DSFG850.95 shows young stars, seen in blue from Hubble Space Telescope, and dust, seen in red by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. Credit: Patrick Drew (UT Austin)/STScI/ALMA

Crystalized White Dwarf

White dwarf star in the process of solidifying. (credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick)

White dwarf star in the process of solidifying. (credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick)

Habitable Zone Planet Finder

The Habitable Zone Planet Finder instrument during installation in its clean-room enclosure in the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Credit: Guðmundur Stefánssonn/Penn State

Anne Dattilo

Anne Dattilo is senior undergraduate student in the Department of Astronomy. (credit: Anne Dattilo)

David Booth

David Booth, co-founder and executive chairman of Austin-based Dimensional Fund Advisors. (credit: David Booth)

GMT with Artificial Guide Stars

Artist’s concept of the Giant Magellan Telescope, shown with beams creating artificial guide stars that the telescope’s adaptive optics system will use to compensate for turbulence in the atmosphere, ensuring extremely clear images. (GMTO Corporation)

Sandy Wood

Sandy Wood has served as the voice of StarDate radio since 1991. She is retiring from the program on July 16, 2019. (credit: McDonald Observatory/StarDate)

Billy Henry

Bill Henry

Billy Henry is the new voice of StarDate radio. His first program airs on July 17, 2019. (credit: Damond Benningfield/StarDate)

GMT Site Rendering

The latest design of the GMT enclosure, telescope, and site at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Credit: M3 Engineering

GMT Enclosure and Night Sky

The latest design of the GMT enclosure, telescope, and site at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile with a night sky background. Credit: M3 Engineering and GMTO Corporation

GMT Structure and Primary Mirrors

The GMT telescope structure showing the six 8.4-meter off-axis mirrors arrayed around a central, on-axis 8.4-meter mirror. Credit: M3 Engineering  

Dome of 2nd LCO 1-meter Telescope

Dome of the new 1-meter Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) telescope on Mount Fowlkes, dedicated October 30, 2019. In the background, the domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes are visible on Mount Locke. Credit: Katie Parker/McDonald Observatory

MAMBO-9 artist impression

Artist impression of what MAMBO-9 would look like in visible light. The galaxy is very dusty and it has yet to build most of its stars. (Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton)

ALMA image of MAMBO-9

ALMA radio image of the dusty star-forming galaxy called MAMBO-9. The galaxy consists of two parts, and it is in the process of merging. (Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), C.M. Casey et al.; NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton)

Keith and Kevin Hawkins

Astronomer Keith Hawkins (left), an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin, is pictured with twin brother Kevin Hawkins. Credit: Rob Hardin

Identical Twin Binary Stars

Hawkins found that the chemical 'DNA,' or spectra, of twin stars born together are identical, as shown here. Hawkins captured these spectra of two stars in a binary pair using the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. (The background image is an artists' concept of a binary star.) Credit: K. Hawkins/UT Austin (data) and NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (background)

Caroline Morley

Dr. Caroline Morley is an assistant professor in the UT-Austin Department of Astronomy. (credit: Caroline Morley)

Brown Dwarf GJ 504 B

This image of the low-mass brown dwarf GJ 504 B was taken by Bowler and his team using adaptive optics with the NIRC2 camera at Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The image has been processed to remove light from the host star (whose position is marked with an “x”). The companion is located at a separation of about 40 times the Earth-Sun distance and has an orbital period of about 240 years. By returning to this and other systems year after year, the team is able to slowly trace out part of the companion’s orbit to constrain its shape, which provides clues about its formation and history. Credit: Brendan Bowler (UT-Austin)/W. M. Keck Observatory

Possible Orbits for Giant Planets and Brown Dwarfs

By patiently watching giant planets and brown dwarfs orbit their host stars, Bowler and his team were able to constrain the orbit shapes even though only a small portion of the orbit has been monitored. The longer the time baseline, the smaller the range of possible orbits.  These plots show nine of the 27 systems from their study. Credit: Brendan Bowler (UT-Austin)

Eccentricity Distribution

These two curves show the final distribution of orbit shapes for giant planets and brown dwarfs. The orbital eccentricity determines how elongated the ellipse is, with a value of 0.0 corresponding to a circular orbit and a high value near 1.0 being a flattened ellipse. Gas giant planets located at wide separations from their host stars have low eccentricities, but the brown dwarfs have a wide range of eccentricities similar to binary star systems. For reference, the giant planets in our solar system have eccentricities less than 0.1.Credit: Brendan Bowler (UT-Austin)

Teznie Pugh

Dr. Teznie Pugh is the Superintendent of McDonald Observatory. (Credit: Lara Eakins/UT-Austin)

Artist's concept of Kepler-1649c

An artist's concept of Kepler-1649c orbiting around its host red dwarf star. This newly discovered exoplanet is in its star’s habitable zone and is the closest to Earth in size and temperature found yet in Kepler's data. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter 

Artist's Concept of Kepler-1649c's Surface

An artist's concept of what Kepler-1649c could look like from its surface. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter 

Comparison of Earth & Kepler-1649c (labeled)

A comparison of Earth and Kepler-1649c, an exoplanet only 1.06 times Earth's radius. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Comparison of Earth & Kepler-1649c (unlabeled)

A comparison of Earth and Kepler-1649c, an exoplanet only 1.06 times Earth's radius. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Mechanism to Create Aluminum-26

This schematic of the proposed mechanism shows a cutaway view of a young star and the disk of gas surrounding it, in which planets may form. The gas parcel Offner's team modeled is depicted as a cluster of red dots. The 'inner disk' is the region from the star out to Earth's distance from the Sun (1 Astronomical Unit, or about 93 million miles). Some fraction of the enriched outflow gas may fall onto the disk where the cosmic ray irradiation is weak. Regions I and II denote different regions of cosmic ray transport. Credit: Brandt Gaches et al./Univ. of Cologne

Location of K2-25b

A newly characterized sub-Neptune-sized planet, named K2-25b, orbits a low-mass star in the Hyades cluster, a cluster of young stars about 150 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Taurus. The detailed characterization sheds light on how such planets form and evolve. Credit: Gudmundur Stefansson

Artist's Impression of K2-25b

New detailed observations from the Habitable Zone Planet Finder on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, as well as NSF’s NOIRLab facilities, reveal a young exoplanet, orbiting a young star in the Hyades cluster, that is unusually dense for its size and age. Slightly smaller than Neptune, K2-25b orbits an M-dwarf star — the most common type of star in the galaxy — every 3.5 days. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pollard

Ultimately Large Telescope

UT Austin astronomers Anna Schauer, Niv Drory, and Volker Bromm are advocating the revival of the lunar liquid mirror telescope project orginally proposed in 2008 by Roger Angel and collaborators. The Texas group advocates that rather than have a 20-meter liquid mirror (shown), the size be increased to 100 meters so that the telescope can study the first stars that formed in the universe, the so-called Population III stars. They have dubbed this facility the 'Ultimately Large Telescope.' (credit: Roger Angel et al./Univ. of Arizona)

Anna Schauer

Dr. Anna Schauer is a NASA Hubble Fellow in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (credit: UT Austin)

VIRUS Focal Surface

This image shows the ‘focal surface’ of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, where the optical fibers of VIRUS are arrayed. The circles each contain a square grid of 448 fibers. When the telescope is pointed and VIRUS takes an observation, each of the 32,000 fibers takes a spectrum simultaneously, recording a vast array of information on the speed, direction, and chemical makeup of every point inside the field of view, which is about the size of the full Moon. Credit: J. Pautzke/E. Mrozinski/G. Hill/HETDEX Collaboration

Pinwheel Galaxy from VIRUS (with labels)

Click here to access an unlabeled version of this image.

This false-color image of the Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101) shows the power of the VIRUS instrument built for the HETDEX survey. The image is a mosaic made up of the central portion of 21 VIRUS pointings across a region of sky about half the size of the full Moon, with some small gaps in coverage. The colors show the contrast between young stars (blue/white) and older stars (red/orange).

Unlike a regular astronomical image, which is essentially made using a sophisticated camera, this image comprises more than 1 million spectra. That is, for every point on this image, VIRUS has recorded the ‘cosmic fingerprint’ of the light using one of its 32,000 optical fibers. So at each point, astronomers have information about the speed, direction, and chemical makeup of the material that produced it. This wealth of information across the entire galaxy presents an unprecedented opportunity to understand the galaxy’s evolution. HETDEX takes this amount of information for every pointing on its survey, making the largest spectral survey of the sky ever, by far.

The breakout boxes show just four examples of the ‘cosmic fingerprint’ of objects in this view. Clockwise from top left: a white dwarf in our galaxy, an active galaxy 11 billion light-years away, a star-forming region in the Pinwheel Galaxy 20 million light-years away, and a star-forming galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

Credit: G. Zeimann/HETDEX Collaboration

Pinwheel Galaxy from VIRUS (unlabeled)

Click here to access a version of this image with labels.

This false-color image of the Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101) shows the power of the VIRUS instrument built for the HETDEX survey. The image is a mosaic made up of the central portion of 21 VIRUS pointings across a region of sky about half the size of the full Moon, with some small gaps in coverage. The colors show the contrast between young stars (blue/white) and older stars (red/orange).

Unlike a regular astronomical image, which is essentially made using a sophisticated camera, this image comprises more than 1 million spectra. That is, for every point on this image, VIRUS has recorded the ‘cosmic fingerprint’ of the light using one of its 32,000 optical fibers. So at each point, astronomers have information about the speed, direction, and chemical makeup of the material that produced it. This wealth of information across the entire galaxy presents an unprecedented opportunity to understand the galaxy’s evolution. HETDEX takes this amount of information for every pointing on its survey, making the largest spectral survey of the sky ever, by far.

The breakout boxes show just four examples of the ‘cosmic fingerprint’ of objects in this view. Clockwise from top left: a white dwarf in our galaxy, an active galaxy 11 billion light-years away, a star-forming region in the Pinwheel Galaxy 20 million light-years away, and a star-forming galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

Credit: G. Zeimann/HETDEX Collaboration

HET Mirror with VIRUS Saddlebags

The two black structures to the left and right of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope's main mirror are nicknamed 'saddlebags.' They hold the dozens of spectrographs that make up the VIRUS instrument designed to undertake HETDEX, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment. Credit: Ethan Tweedie Photography

Night Sky Friendly Lighting Business Recognition Poster

Businesses and organizations recognized through McDonald Observatory's Night Sky Friendly Lighting program will receive this poster to display at their site, as well as window decals. (credit: McDonald Observatory)

Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve

The new Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve covers 15,000 square miles in west Texas and northern Mexico. It is the world's largest International Dark Sky Reserve. (Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory)

COSMOS-Webb and WDEEP

Together, the WDEEP and COSMOS-Webb large JWST first-year programs will probe reionization, the period where galaxies burnt off the cosmic haze of residual gas leftover from the Big Bang.

WDEEP, by staring at a single small patch of sky 1.5% the size of the full Moon, targets the beginning of this process, searching for the first galaxies to form out of the cosmic dark ages only 300 million years after the Big Bang. COSMOS-Webb targets the next phase of cosmic history, where massive galaxies have begun to ionize enormous regions of space, heralding the end of reionization. These observational strategies are complementary.

COSMOS-Webb probes an area 3 times the area of the full Moon to scan a wide area of space for rare, massive galaxies, while WDEEP drills 15 to 20 times fainter in a single narrow region, sensitive to the smallest, earliest galaxies.

(Credit: M. Bagley/S. Finkelstein/C. Casey (UT Austin); ESA/C. Carreau (background))

Finkelstein, Steven

Steven Finkelstein is an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (Credit: Steven Finkelstein)

Yifan Zhou

Yifan Zhou is a postdoctoral researcher with McDonald Observatory. (Credit: Yifan Zhou)

Dark Energy Explorers on Zooniverse

The Dark Energy Explorers interface on the Zooniverse online platform.

David Doss

David Doss

David Doss at a meeting of McDonald Observatory's Board of Visitors. (McDonald Observatory)

Stargazer Trailer in Terlingua

Big Bend Stargazer trailer under awning with nigh-sky friendly lights in Terlingua, Texas. photo by Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory.

Big Bend Stargazer trailer under awning with nigh-sky friendly lights in Terlingua, Texas. Photo by Stephen Hummel / McDonald Observatory.

Steven Weinberg

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (1933-2021) was a professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (Larry Murphy/UT Austin)

Marfa Gardens' Night-Sky Friendly Lighting

Marfa Gardens guest houses in Marfa, Texas, demonstrate night-sky friendly lighting practices. The Milky Way is visible above the buildings. (Stephen Hummel/McDonald Observatory)

Frank Cianciolo

Frank Cianciolo

Frank Cianciolo and 16-inch telescope. Cianciolo is retiring as Manager of McDonald Observatory's Frank N. Bash Visitors Center in August 2021. (Loyd Overcash/McDonald Observatory)

Milky Way and Satellite Galaxy Leo I

McDonald Observatory astronomers have found that Leo I (inset), a tiny satellite galaxy of the Milky Way (main image), has a black hole nearly as massive as the Milky Way's. Leo I is 30 times smaller than the Milky Way. The result could signal changes in astronomers' understanding of galaxy evolution. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC; SDSS (inset)

Bill Wren

Bill Wren has retired after 32 years with McDonald Observatory, most recently working on protecting the dark skies over the observatory and surrounding areas. (McDonald Observatory)

Brendan Bowler

Brendan Bowler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy. (Phot credit: Brendan Bowler)

GMT Exterior with Lasers

This artists's concept shows the Giant Magellan Telescope using its laser guide star system to compensate for turbulence in Earth's atmosphere, to make its images as sharp as possible. (Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope — GMTO Corporation)

GMT Enclosure Cross Section

This image shows a cross section of the Giant Magellan Telescope enclosure and telescope mount. (Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope — GMTO Corporation)

Stella Offner Receives Delta Award

Dr. Stella Offner, Associate Professor of astronomy, receives the Delta Young Astronomer Lectureship Award on March 15, 2022. (Delta Electronics Foundation)

Stella Offner

Dr. Stella Offner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. (credit: Stella Offner)

2022 NASA Hubble Fellowship Program Awardees

NASA has selected 24 new Fellows for its prestigious NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP). The program enables outstanding postdoctoral scientists to pursue independent research in any area of NASA Astrophysics. Fellows are named corresponding to three broad scientific questions NASA seeks to answer about the universe: How does the universe work? – Einstein Fellows; How did we get here? – Hubble Fellows; Are we alone? – Sagan Fellows.

The 2022 NHFP Fellows are shown in this photo montage. The Einstein Fellows (seen in the blue hexagons from top to bottom, left to right) are: Riccardo Arcodia, Jessica Avva, Tarraneh Eftekhari, Kyle Kremer, Hayley Macpherson, Bart Ripperda and David Vartanyan.

The Hubble Fellows (seen in the yellow hexagons from top to bottom, left to right) are: Elias Aydi, Emily Cunningham, Seiji Fujimoto, David Guszejnov, Sultan Hassan, Kartheik Iyer, Tharindu Jayasinghe, Arianna Long, Rohan Naidu, Kathryn Neugent, and Joel Ong.

The Sagan Fellows (seen in the red hexagons from top to bottom, left to right) are: Fei Dai, Feng Long, Ryan MacDonald, Gudmundur Stefansson, Michael Wong, and Zhoujian Zhang.

Credit: NASA, STScI, NExScI, NHFP

Seiji Fujimoto

Seiji Fujimoto is a 2022 NASA Hubble Fellow who joined UT Austin in 2022. (Credit: Seiji Fujimoto)

Arianna Long

Arianna Long is a NASA Hubble Fellow who joined UT Austin in 2022. (Credit: Arianna Long)

Milky Way Over Mt. Locke

The Milky Way soars over the domes of McDonald Observatory's Mount Locke showcasing the region's dark skies. (Stephen Hummel/McDonald Observatory)

Milky Way Over the Davis Mountains

The Milky Way soars over the Davis Mountains of West Texas showcasing the region's dark skies. (Stephen Hummel/McDonald Observatory)

Schematic of Supernova 2014C

This schematic shows the various ejecta and winds (red and purple) given off by the exploding star (left, yellow). The common-envelope disk (blue) surrounds both stars, the one exploding as a supernova and its binary partner (not shown). The boundary layer around the common-envelope disk is the source of the hydrogen the team detected. (credit: B. Thomas et al./UT Austin)  

Catalyst Midstream Partners County Line Processing Plant

The Catalyst Midstream Partners County Line Processing Plant in Orla, Texas, has been recognized for good lighting practices by McDonald Observatory. (Stephen Hummel/McDonald Observatory)

16-inch RC Telescope

A young visitor observes through the 16" Ritchey-Chretien at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center during a public star party. Credit: Nolan Zunk / University of Texas at Austin.

Constellation Tour

The Constellation Tour is always a hit at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center during a public star party. Credit: Nolan Zunk / University of Texas at Austin.

Telescope Viewing at the Star Party

Visitors queue up for telescope views during a Star Party at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center.  In the foreground is the dome housing the 22" Cassegrain telescope, while atop Mt. Locke in the background is the 107" Harlan J. Smith Telescope.  Credit: Nolan Zunk / University of Texas at Austin.

City of Alpine Visitor Center - Night Sky Friendly Lighting

McDonald Observatory recognized the City of Alpine Visitor Center for using night-sky friendly lighting. By using shielded lighting and recessing string lights so they don't shine upwards, using all soft-white and amber bulbs with appropriate intensities, and turning unnecessary lights off late at night, the Visitor Center provides more than enough light for safety without harming the night sky that attracts visitors to the Big Bend region. 

New $6 million Astronomy Science Center at McDonald Observatory To be Built for Texas, Nation

MCDONALD OBSERVATORY, NEAR FORT DAVIS, TEXAS: One of the world's best small science centers will be available to the public at McDonald Observatory in late 2001, when the new Texas Astronomy Education Center (TAEC) opens.

More than $6 million has been raised to build the TAEC, a new 12,000-square-foot visitors' center at the base of Mount Locke at McDonald Observatory. All the funds for constructing the TAEC have been provided by individuals, corporations, and foundations in Texas and the U.S.

The TAEC will house "Decoding Starlight," a unique educational exhibit explaining how astronomers use spectroscopy to understand the universe. "Decoding Starlight" is funded by a $1-million grant from the National Science Foundation. In addition, federal highway-enhancement funds for landscaping were awarded to the TAEC by the Texas Department of Transportation.

According to Frank Bash, Director of McDonald Observatory, the goal of the TAEC is to help interest children in careers in science and technology. "The Texas economy increasingly depends on highly skilled, technically trained people, but our high schools and colleges have been graduating fewer and fewer people wanting to enter technical fields," says Bash. "Astronomy is a wonderful tool for getting more children
interested in science and math, and that's why we have worked so hard to get the TAEC built. Many generous people are making investments in public outreach and education today through the TAEC that will help all Texans have a better, more prosperous future.

Adds Frank Bash: "We are very proud of the donors who are making the TAEC possible."

Among the major donors to the Texas Astronomy Education Center are Bill and Bettye Nowlin of Austin; Garland and Mollie Lasater of Fort Worth; The Convergence Institute of Austin; the Cullen Foundation of Houston; the Houston Endowment of Houston; the Cullen Trust for Higher Education of Houston; George A. Finley III of Corpus Christi; The Gale Foundation and Mrs. Rebecca Gale of Beaumont; Houston H. Harte of San Antonio; the Joan and Herb Kelleher Charitable Foundation of San Antonio; Sterling Turner Charitable Foundation of Houston; and the West Endowment of Houston.

Project Background

McDonald Observatory was founded near Fort Davis in the 1930s, through a bequest from William J. McDonald, a banker from Paris, Texas. It is a world-renowned center of astronomical research, with major telescopes built in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s.

In 1997, the innovative Hobby-Eberly Telescope was dedicated at McDonald Observatory. This telescope, the third-largest in the world, was built by a consortium including The University of Texas at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), Stanford University, and two German partners, Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and Georg-August University in Goettingen.

With its unique design, the $15-million Hobby-Eberly Telescope cost only about one-sixth as much as comparable telescopes elsewhere. It will help keep McDonald Observatory at the forefront of scientific research well into the next century.

Public Outreach Programs

McDonald Observatory has also been a leader among observatories throughout the world in public outreach. The Observatory creates and distributes the award-winning StarDate, Sternzeit (in German), and Universo (in Spanish) radio programs, which together are heard by more than 8 million people each week in the United States and Europe. StarDate magazine has 15,000 subscribers. More than 40,000 people visit the StarDate and Universo web sites each week. Thousands of teachers nationwide have used materials, in English and Spanish, provided by McDonald Observatory in teaching hundreds of thousands of students.

Visitors' Center Program

In addition, McDonald Observatory has welcomed visitors to its remote corner of Texas for the unique tours of a working observatory and the star parties and public programs that McDonald Observatory offers. Since 1980, visitors have used the W.L. Moody, Jr., Visitors' Center at the base of Mount Locke. The Moody Center was designed to accommodate 20,000 visitors per year. For the past two decades, however, the numbers of visitors have continued to climb well beyond the capacity of the Moody Center. In 1999, more than 130,000 visitors came to McDonald Observatory. Beyond that, a 1994 study by the University of Texas of the Permian Basin Center for Education and Economic Diversification estimated that there would be up to 250,000 visitors per year within the next decade.

Positive Impact on West Texas

These visitors have a major impact on the economy of West Texas: Two decades of hospitality for families and other visitors have made McDonald Observatory one of the top tourist attractions in Texas and a star among the state's cultural-tourism centers. The UTPB economic-impact study shows that McDonald Observatory annually brings about $8 million in direct expenditures to the West Texas economy, and predicts that this impact will increase to $14.5 million annually.

The Texas Astronomy Education Center

The desire to increase the size of the existing Visitors' Center facilities has also provided the opportunity to rethink the experience that visitors have at the Observatory. With the assistance of members of the McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors, planning for an expanded Visitors' Center began in the early 1990s, with a stronger emphasis on education for families with children.

Educators call astronomy "a science of wonder," because it awakens the interest of children in the world around them and strengthens interest in all the scientific and technical fields that our society needs to maintain economic growth and progress.

The Texas Astronomy Education Center is a six-phase program with a total budget of $7.7 million ($6.7 for construction and $1 million for an operating endowment). Phases I, reconfiguring the existing Moody Visitors' Center, was completed in 1995. Phase II, building the George T. Abell Gallery at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, was funded by the Abell Hanger Foundation of Midland, the Meadows Foundation of Texas, and an anonymous foundation, and was completed in 1998.

Construction of the new TAEC building and its landscaping comprise Phases III and V; they are scheduled to begin in summer, 2000. Phase IV, building the "Decoding Starlight" exhibits is underway.

Phase VI, fund-raising for an operating endowment to support expanded educational programming and for funds that will allow sharing exhibits with other science-education centers, is underway. Information on contributions to this fund is available from Joel Barna (telephone 512/471-6335; e-mail jwbarna@astro.as.utexas.edu)

Features of the TAEC

Rhotenberry Wellen Architects of Midland, Texas, designed the TAEC to be in harmony with its West Texas surroundings. The design takes advantage of the sites rolling terrain to link indoor and outdoor spaces, and it was inspired by elements of architecture from the earliest habitation of the Southwest.

Besides being five times as large at the existing visitors' center building, the TAEC will feature a number of greatly expanded educational and recreational opportunities for visitors:

  • A 74-seat orientation theater
  • "Decoding Starlight," the $1-million NSF funded exhibits on astronomical spectroscopy
  • A 2,400-square-foot exhibit hall for "Decoding Starlight"
  • A classroom for teacher training and visiting school groups
  • The Rebecca Gale Telescope Park for star parties, three nights each week, and with daytime archaeo-astronomy exhibits and walking trails
  • The Star Amphitheater, with light-protected star party seating for 350
  • An expanded gift shop
  • A new 800-square-foot cafe
  • A sheltered outdoor dining area and courtyard
  • Expanded parking facilities
  • Expanded rest rooms

Next Steps

Plans call for construction to begin on the TAEC in summer, 2000, with completion of the building and landscaping in summer of 2001. Exhibits will be installed in late summer, 2001. The grand opening of the TAEC will be celebrated in Fall, 2001.

Signing of Southern African Large Telescope Agreement Marks Major Milestone

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA/AUSTIN, TEXAS: Dr. Robert Stobie, chairman of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) Board, and Dr. Frank Bash, chairman of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) Board, signed an agreement January 26, 2000, formalizing the HET’s participation in the design and construction of the $16.5 million SALT observatory, to be built at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland, South Africa.

The South African Parliament approved the SALT project on June 1, 1998. Dr. Ben Ngubane, Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, gave the project the "green light" to begin construction, with the November 25, 1999 signing of the Science and Technology Agreement Protocol between South Africa and Poland, one of the project’s major international partners.

"SALT will enable South Africa to remain internationally competitive in astronomy well into the 21st century," says Ngubane. "SALT has become a prominent national project, exciting the minds and imaginations of our nation’s children. It is critical that we use this opportunity to get them involved with science and technology."

The nine-meter-class SALT is based almost entirely on the design of the HET, located at McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. The HET partnership is providing its innovative telescope design, software, commissioning experience, and technical expertise in exchange for 10 percent of observing time when SALT begins operations, scheduled for 2003.

"The Hobby-Eberly Telescope institutions are delighted that the SALT project has decided to copy our innovative telescope," says Bash. "We look forward to working with South Africa and the other participating institutions to create an outstanding telescope in the Southern Hemisphere."

When completed, SALT will be the largest single telescope in the Southern Hemisphere optimized for spectroscopy, affording astronomers not only unparalleled views of the southern sky’s portion of the Milky Way galaxy, but also allowing them to explore the origins of the universe; study quasars, active galactic nuclei, and galaxy populations; and conduct planetary searches.

Major financial partners for the construction of SALT include the Governments of South Africa and Poland, Rutgers University, and Goettingen University (Germany). Strong interest has been shown by Carnegie—Mellon University, University of Wisconsin, Iowa State University, and the New Zealand government.

The HET partnership is a consortium of five universities: The University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, Georg-August University in Goettingen, and Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

For more information, contact
Sandra Preston
Director, Public Information Office
(512) 475-6765
sandi@astro.as.utexas.edu

John Kormendy Fills First Vaughan Chair in Astronomy

AUSTIN, Texas: John Kormendy has been selected to inaugurate the Curtis T. Vaughan, Jr. Centennial Chair in Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. Kormendy began his appointment in the spring 2000 semester and will teach and conduct research, primarily on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory.

Kormendy brings over 23 years of research and teaching experience, most recently holding a professorship at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii. He is best known for his advanced work on the structure of galaxies and for his pioneering work on direct evidence that normal and active galaxies harbor black holes. "John Kormendy is an excellent scientist who has put his name on every topic on which he has worked," says Christopher Sneden, Chairman of the Department of Astronomy. 

As holder of the Vaughan Chair, Kormendy will lead new research efforts, particularly in the areas of dark matter, the evolution of the various types of galaxies, and the accretion flares of stars that are being swallowed by black holes. "Research on dark matter is ideally suited for the HET," says Kormendy, "since we need to get spectra of exceedingly faint structures at large radii in galaxies. With the HET, Texas can be one of the groups that ‘control the state of the art’ in this exciting area." Kormendy’s other research objectives will continue to include the search for supermassive black holes in galactic nuclei, surveying extreme dwarf galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, and fostering closer scientific ties with HET partner Ludwig—Maximilians—Universität, Munich. 

Born in 1948 in Graz, Austria, Kormendy holds a 1976 doctorate in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and received his bachelor of science in honors mathematics, physics and chemistry (astronomy division) in 1970 from the University of Toronto. Author of over 100 journal articles and conference and review papers, Kormendy is the recipient of the 1970 Gold Medal, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada; a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1970—1971; the 1988 Muhlmann Prize, Astronomical Society of the Pacific; and a 1995 Humboldt Research Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany. He is a member of the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the International Astronomical Union.

Named for long-time UT astronomy department benefactor Curtis T. Vaughan, Jr., the Vaughan Chair was established in 1979 and provides over $2 million for the appointment of preeminent astronomy faculty and additional instrumentation for the HET to support the Vaughan Chair’s research goals. "My support for the University’s McDonald Observatory grew out of my own interest in astronomy in the early 1950s – particularly in cosmology – and my friendship, in the 1970s, with Harlan Smith, then Chairman of the department and Director of McDonald Observatory," says Vaughan, a member of the McDonald Observatory and Astronomy Board of Visitors.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope Enters Early Operation Phase

Mount Fowlkes near Fort Davis, Texas: The Board of Directors of the William P. Hobby-Robert E. Eberly Telescope (HET) declared in October that the commissioning phase for the innovative telescope in West Texas had ended, and that the early operations phase had begun.

"Early operations marks the beginning of regular use of the HET for science," says Frank Bash, chairman of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Board, director of McDonald Observatory, and the Frank N. Edmonds, Jr., Regents Professor in Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. "This is an important milestone for an unique and powerful new scientific instrument, and we want the astronomical community to know about it."

"Scientists at all institutions participating in the HET have been eagerly anticipating the flow of astronomical data that early operations are now producing. Indeed, the HET is already paying scientific dividends by making contributions in the areas for which it was designed: spectroscopic surveys and time-domain astrophysics," says Larry Ramsey, the HET project scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. Ramsey is is one of the original designers of the HET concept, along with Daniel Weedman, formerly at Penn State and now at the National Science Foundation Division of Astronomical Science."

Adds Thomas G. Barnes III, associate director of McDonald Observatory, who led the commissioning team, "We are especially delighted that the early weeks of operations for the telescope have yielded exciting results that hint at the kind of capability the telescope will have when it is in full operation."

The HET contains the world's largest primary mirror, measuring 11 meters (433 inches) from edge to edge. Due to its innovative design, the HET was built and commissioned for $15 million, a fraction of the cost of other comparable telescopes. The HET was constructed and is operated by a consortium of five universities: the University of Texas at Austin; Pennsylvania State University (Penn State); Stanford University; and two German universities, Georg-August University in Goettingen and Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

Because of the way the Hobby-Eberly Telescope will be used, 9.2 meters (362 inches) of its surface will be accessible at any given time. Thus, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is effectively the third-largest telescope in the world, after the twin 10-meter (393-inch) Keck I and Keck II telescopes in Hawaii.

The HET attained "first light" in December 1996 and "first spectrum" in September 1997. It was dedicated in October 1997. The telescope's commissioning phase, during which the telescope's sophisticated optical, mechanical, and electrical systems were de-bugged, integrated, and optimized for science operations, lasted until October 1999. In early operations, the telescope will be used for scientific research for half of each month. So far, the telescope is operating with the Marcario Low-Resolution Spectrograph, designed and built by a team led by Gary Hill and Phillip MacQueen of McDonald Observatory, and the Upgraded Fiber Optic Echelle spectrograph, an instrument built at Penn State by Larry Ramsey and Penn State graduate students Jason Harlow and David Andersen. A high-resolution spectrograph, designed and built by a team led by Robert Tull of McDonald Observatory, will be installed in early 2000, to be followed by a medium-resolution spectrograph, being constructed under the direction of Larry Ramsey.

Users of the HET report exciting results. The first paper based on observations with the HET was recently accepted by the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and will appear in the January 2000 issue. Donald Schneider, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State; Gary Hill, of Texas; and Xiaohui Fan, a graduate student at Princeton University, have led a project to obtain HET spectra of high-redshift quasar candidates found by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). During this past spring, five quasars with redshifts between 2.9 and 4.2 were discovered by observations with the LRS. This work has continued through the fall, and the HET has observed more than a dozen distant quasar candidates in the past few weeks.

Edward L. Robinson, the William B. Blakemore II Regents Professor in Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, has used the HET to observe a new X-ray star in visible light. The X-ray properties of the new star, named J1859+226, show that it is probably a black hole that has begun to swallow gas pulled off a normal star orbiting around the black hole.

New X-ray stars, called X-ray transients, are rare. About one X-ray transient erupts per year in our galaxy. J1859+226 erupted a week after the beginning of Early Operations on the HET. Because objects observed with the HET are chosen dynamically and in real time (the HET is "queue scheduled"), Robinson was able to begin observing J1859+226 as soon as it was identified at visible wavelengths, several days before the peak of the eruption. He continued observing J1859+226 every one or two days for the next six weeks. The HET observations are a unique contribution to understanding how black holes attract and swallow matter.

The namesakes of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope are William P. Hobby, the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, and Robert E. Eberly of Pennsylvania, an industrialist and philanthropist. The HET stands on Mount Fowlkes at McDonald Observatory in far West Texas, which has the darkest skies of any major observatory in the continental United States.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope: A joint project of The University of Texas at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), Stanford University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and Georg-August-Unversität Göttingen

University of Texas-led Team Discovers Unusual Multi-Planet System with NASA's Kepler Spacecraft

The top graphic shows the orbits of the three known planets orbiting Kepler-18 a

NANTES, France — A team of researchers led by Bill Cochran of The University of Texas at Austin has used NASA’s Kepler spacecraft to discover an unusual multiple-planet system containing a super-Earth and two Neptune-sized planets orbiting in resonance with each other. They will announce the find today in Nantes, France at a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Science and the European Planetary Science Conference. The research will be published in a special Kepler issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series in November.

Cochran’s team is announcing three planets orbiting Kepler-18, a star similar to the Sun. Kepler-18 is just 10 percent larger than the Sun and contains 97 percent of the Sun’s mass. It may host more planets than the three announced today.

The planets are designated b, c, and d. All three planets orbit much closer to Kepler-18 than Mercury does to the Sun. Orbiting closest to Kepler-18 with a 3.5-day period, planet b weighs in at about 6.9 times the mass of Earth, and twice Earth’s size. Planet b is considered a “super-Earth.” Planet c has a mass of about 17 Earths, is about 5.5 times Earth’s size, and orbits Kepler-18 in 7.6 days. Planet d weighs in at 16 Earths, at 7 times Earth’s size, and has a 14.9-day orbit. The masses and sizes of c and d qualify them as low-density “Neptune-class” planets.

Planet c orbits the star twice for every one orbit d makes. But the times that each of these planets transit the face of Kepler-18 “are not staying exactly on that orbital period,” Cochran says. “One is slightly early when the other one is slightly late, [then] both are on time at the same time, and then vice-versa.”

Scientifically speaking, c and d are orbiting in a 2:1 resonance. “It means they’re interacting with each other,” Cochran explains. “When they are close to each other ... they exchange energy, pull and tug on each other.”

Kepler uses the “transit method” to look for planets. It monitors a star’s brightness over time, looking for periodic dips that could indicate a planet passing in front of the star. A large part of the Kepler science team’s work is
proving that potential planets they find aren’t something else that mimics the transit signature (such as a perfectly aligned background star, specifically either an eclipsing binary star or a single star orbited by a giant planet). That follow-up work to Kepler is done by scores of scientists using ground-based telescopes the world over (including several at The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory) as well as Spitzer Space Telescope.

Kepler-18's planets c and d did astronomers a favor by proving their planet credentials up front via their orbital resonance; they had to be in the same planetary system as each other for the resonance to occur.

Confirming the planetary bona fides of planet b, the super-Earth, was much more complicated, Cochran says. His team used a technique called “validation,” instead of verification. They set out to figure out the probability that it could be something other than a planet.

First, they used the Palomar 5-meter (200-inch) Hale Telescope with adaptive optics to take an extremely high-resolution look at the space around Kepler-18. They wanted to see if anything close to the star could be positively identified as a background object that would cause the transit signal they had attributed to a super-Earth.

“We successively went through every possible type of object that could be there,” Cochran says. “There are limits on the sort of objects that can be there at different distances from the star.” Astronomers know how many of different types of objects (various kinds of stars, background galaxies, and more) are seen on average in the sky. They didn’t find anything in the Palomar image.

“There’s a small possibility that [planet b] is due to a background object, but we’re very confident that it’s probably a planet,” Cochran says. His team calculated that the likelihood the object is a planet is 700 times more
likely than the likelihood that it’s a background object.The process is called “planet validation,” rather than the usual “planet verification.” Cochran says it’s important to understand the difference — not just for this system, but for future discoveries from Kepler and other missions.

“We’re trying to prepare the astronomical community and the public for the concept of validation,” he says. “The goal of Kepler is to find an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone [where life could arise], with a one-year orbit.
Proving that such an object really is a planet is very difficult [with current technology]. When we find what looks to be a habitable Earth, we’ll have to use a validation process, rather than a confirmation process. We’re going to
have to make statistical arguments.”

Kepler was selected as the tenth NASA Discovery mission. NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., is the home organization of the science principal investigator, and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts, and distributes the Kepler science data. For more information about the Kepler mission, visit http://www.nasa.gov/kepler.

— END —

Media Contacts

Rebecca Johnson, McDonald Observatory Press Officer, 512-475-6763

Michele Johnson, Kepler Press Officer, NASA Ames Research Center, 650-604-4789

Vishnu Reddy, AAS Division of Planetary Sciences Press Officer, +49 555-15787579623

Anita Heward, European Planerary Science Congress Press Officer, +44 (0) 7756 034243

Science Contact: Dr. William Cochran, 512-471-6474

Jets, Not Neutrinos, May Cause Supernova Explosions, Scientists Say

Austin, Texas: Astrophysicists at the University of Texas at Austin and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., have developed a new theory of how supernovae explode, based on observations made at the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory. The results were published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on October 20 by Alexei Khokhlov, Elaine Oran, and Almadena Chtchelkanova of NRL and Peter Hoeflich, Lifan Wang, and J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas.

"Combining Texas observations with the cutting-edge numerical techniques at NRL has pointed the way to a new idea," says Wheeler, the Samuel T. & Fern Yanagisawa Regents Professor in Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. "We think that jets cause a major class of supernova explosions."

Supernovae are caused by the explosion of a massive star, and the explosions have been thought to arise through one of two mechanisms. In the first type, called Type Ia, massive stars can explode like a stick of dynamite, leaving no collapsed remnant. Astronomers use Type Ia supernovae as "standard candles" to measure distances in the Universe, and studies of Type Ia supernovae have suggested that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.

Other types of supernovae involve the collapse of the center of an especially massive star to form an extremely dense object, either a neutron star or, perhaps in some circumstances, a black hole. The formation of a neutron star is thought to be more common. These types of supernovae are called Type Ib and Ic and Type II.

Astronomer Lifan Wang, a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied all types of supernovae for several years, primarily using the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Wang's work has focused on determining whether the light of supernovae is polarized that is, if the light waves given off by supernovae are aligned in certain directions. If a supernova's light is expanding uniformly in all directions, there is no polarization. There will be measurable polarization if light from the parts of the supernova is spreading asymmetrically.

All the supernovae Wang has examined that are thought to arise from core collapsethe Type Ib and Ic and Type II supernovaehave been substantially polarized, and hence substantially "out-of-round." At the same time, all the Type Ia supernovae have shown little or no polarization.

For the polarized supernovae, Wang has identified a trend suggesting that the closer one looks to the center of a supernova explosion, the larger the asymmetry found. In many cases, his data suggest, the explosion must be occurring strongly along a preferred axis. The explosion must be bipolar. "These observations cannot be explained by current theory," says Wang, "so a new theory was needed."

When the core collapses, a neutron star forms before any explosion can occur. Up to now, the theory of core-collapse supernovae has been focused on the production of neutrinos that are generated within the newly formed neutron star. These ephemeral particles carry off more than a hundred times the energy required to trigger the explosion of the star. The question has been whether they carry too much and spoil the explosion, or leave enough energy behind to cause the explosion.

To help with a new theory that explains supernova formation and takes polarization into account, Wang and his Texas colleagues turned to Khokhlov, Oran, and Chtchelkanova of NRL, who used computer modeling to test scenarios that could explain the newfound polarization of these supernovae. Their models tested the idea that collapsing supernovae begin by expelling mass and energy from the new neutron star in a strongly directional process.

"Moving mass and energy in a single direction is the operational definition of a jet," says Wheeler. "These are jet-induced explosions."

If the new jet theory is right, the traditional questions about neutrinos and supernovae may be irrelevant. In their calculations, Khokhlov and his associates found that the jet punches out of the star, but also sends shock waves sideways, sharing some of the energy throughout the star. The result is that the entire star is blown up by the jet and the neutrinos do not need to play any obvious role. The ejected matter is sent out in the jet and in a pancake containing other star material. "The result is just what we need to explain the polarization," says Peter Hoeflich, a Research Scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, who is an expert on the flow of radiation from supernovae.

The numerical techniques to compute the effect of a jet on a star were developed by Khokhlov when he was at the University of Texas at Austin and have been refined and applied to this problem at the Naval Research Laboratory, where he is currently a Research Scientist. The computer code developed by Khokhlov is fully three dimensional and has an "adaptive-mesh" capability, so that it automatically computes most carefully just where the need is greatest. This code was used by Khokhlov and his colleagues to compute the propagation of a jet from near the surface of a newly formed neutron star to its eruption into space.

"The next task is to better understand the origin of the jet," says Wheeler. "The most plausible cause is the rapid rotation of the neutron star and its strong magnetic field. We have begun to look into how the newly formed neutron star can channel its energy up the rotation axis by magnetic jets or intense pulsar radiation."

For Additional Information, contact:

Astrophysical issues to be explored by researchers from Texas and Mexico during UT Austin conference

AUSTIN, Texas: The Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin will host the Seventh Texas–Mexico Conference on Astrophysics, April 6–8, 2000. The biennial meeting brings together professional astronomers and astrophysicists and graduate students from several institutions in the greater Texas–Mexico region to discuss current astrophysical problems and present their own research in various disciplines of astronomy and astrophysics.

"The conference provides the opportunity for researchers and students to discuss topics of mutual interest. These are neighborhood meetings, but they have an international flavor," said Dr. Greg Shields, the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor in Astronomy at the University of Texas and chair of the scientific organizing committee. He added that the first conference by this group was held in 1986.

Although this year’s conference theme—Flows, Blows, and Glows—highlights the series’ traditional emphasis on nebular and interstellar studies, the meeting includes a wider range of topics. Over the three-day event, six topics will be presented: ionized nebulae, interstellar medium and star formation, cosmology and the evolution of the galaxies, active galactic nuclei and black holes, supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, and stars.

The sessions consist of invited talks of 30–40 minutes, contributed talks of 15–20 minutes, and poster presentations. Proceedings will be published in Revista Mexicana de Astronomia y Astrofisica. In addition to Shields, the scientific organizing committee comprises Dr. Reggie Dufour, Rice University; Drs. Manuel Peimbert and Silvia Torres-Peimbert, National Autonomous University (Mexico); and Drs. Paul Shapiro and Craig Wheeler, University of Texas. The local organizing committee, chaired by Dr. Cecilia Colomé, includes Shields and Yancy Shirley.

For more information, contact Shields at 512-471-1402
(shields@astro.as.utexas.edu) or Colomé at 512-471-3451
(cc@astro.as.utexas.edu

Telescopes, Terrain, and Technology Unite Twin Towns

SUTHERLAND, SOUTH AFRICA/FORT DAVIS, Texas: The west Texas town of Fort Davis, in Jeff Davis County, and the rural South African town of Sutherland, announced this week that they intend to enter into a "twin town" agreement.

As twin towns, Fort Davis and Sutherland will establish a working relationship between the Commissioners' Court of Jeff Davis County and the Council of Sutherland, with the goal of sharing experiences and potential economic benefits as "observatory towns."

Fort Davis is home to the University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Sutherland is known for the South African Astronomical Observatory, where the largest single telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – the 9-meter Southern African Large Telescope – is being built over the next five years. The Southern African Large Telescope is based almost entirely on the innovative design of the 11-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

The scientists and engineers who built the Hobby-Eberly Telescope are collaborating with their South African counterparts working on the Southern African Large Telescope. "This twin town agreement demonstrates how scientific cooperation often leads to cooperation in other areas also," said Dr. Peter Martinez of the South African Astronomical Observatory.

"Not only do our two towns share a similar size and environment," said Judge Peggy Robertson, Jeff Davis County Commissioners' Court, "we enjoy international exposure because of our world-class observatories. It seems only fitting that both the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and the Southern African Large Telescope are technological 'twins' as well."

Alletta van Sittert, Chief Executive Officer of Sutherland Municipality, also cited the mutual educational and economic advantages that the towns derive from their observatories. "McDonald Observatory is known for its Visitors' Center and the planned Texas Astronomy Educational Center," van Sittert said. "And as part of the agreement between our observatory and the Local Council of Sutherland, we will work jointly toward the economic development of the town of Sutherland and surrounding areas. One of our efforts will be to develop a Science Visitor Center similar to the one at McDonald Observatory."

Supermassive Black Holes Reveal New Clues to Galaxy Formation

AUSTIN, Texas: An international team of astronomers, including Dr. John Kormendy of the University of Texas at Austin, has discovered eight new supermassive black holes, revealing important new clues to the process of galaxy formation. The discoveries will bring the total number of black holes so far found in the universe to at least 33. The findings were being announced Tuesday, June 6, at the 196th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Rochester, N.Y.

The team includes Kormendy, who holds the Curtis T. Vaughan, Jr. Centennial Chair in Astronomy at UT Austin's Department of Astronomy, Dr. Karl Gebhardt, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Dr. Douglas Richstone, a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan's Department of Astronomy, and an international team of collaborators.

"With the new black hole findings, we have left the 'Gee whiz!' discovery phase of this subject and entered the phase of doing science with supermassive black holes," Kormendy said. "In the early days of the search, from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, all the emphasis was on finding out whether these black holes really exist."

Black holes are so compressed that their surface gravity is strong enough to keep even light from escaping. Some black holes have masses several times the mass of the Earth's Sun. These are formed when massive stars die. Supermassive black holes, in contrast, are a million to a billion times the mass of the Sun and are found at the centers of galaxies.

Because black holes are invisible, scientists can detect and study them only by observing the movements and velocities of the stars swirling around them. The first supermassive black hole was discovered in 1984, although astrophysicists for years had been predicting black holes on the basis of their theories of how the galaxies operate.

"Supermassive black holes were predicted by our theory of what powers quasars, the brightest objects in the universe. An enormous amount of work on quasars had been done," Kormendy said. "But an important piece of the puzzle was missing. Nobody was sure that supermassive black holes really exist."

Kormendy started his search in 1985 and discovered the second, third, and fourth supermassive black holes while observing at the Canada­France­Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Since then, new discoveries have been made at a rate of one or two per year. The discoveries being announced at the Rochester AAS meeting are the result of 18 months of data collected by the new Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, analysis methods have improved and measurements have become more accurate.

Kormendy said that at least six new black holes have been discovered by other scientific teams. "Suddenly the number of black holes available to us has doubled. This has happened, basically, in the last few weeks as people, including our team, rushed to prepare for this meeting," Kormendy said. "The new spectrograph is a much more efficient way to look for black holes. Many people have been gearing up to find them."

With 33 black holes available for research, scientists have enough material to develop a much clearer picture of how galaxies form and how black holes grow. For example, the latest discoveries reveal a fundamental new correlation between black hole mass and galaxy formation, as measured by the random velocities of stars.

Galaxies exist in two basic forms, with variations. Kormendy explained that there are disk or Frisbee-shaped galaxies, such as the Milky Way, and denser, rounder galaxies bulging like partially deflated beach balls. Black holes appear to be closely connected with the properties of the elliptical or bulge-shaped galaxies, but pure disk galaxies do not seem to contain supermassive black holes. The properties of black holes suggest that they grow to their present sizes as part of the galaxy formation process.

Contact: Dr. John Kormendy
(512) 471-8191

Interstellar Clouds Yield Clues to the Origins of the Element Lithium

AUSTIN, Texas: Scientists seeking to understand the origins of the chemical elements have found important new clues to the methods of production of the element lithium by observing gas clouds between the stars. The discoveries appear in the June 8 issue of the British journal Nature.

Dr. David L. Lambert, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading authority on the composition and evolution of stars; David C. Knauth, a graduate student at the University of Toledo at Toledo, Ohio; Dr. Steve R. Federman, a professor of astronomy at the University of Toledo; and Dr. Phil Crane, an astrophysicist at NASA in Washington, D.C., conducted their research at UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory. They used the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith telescope and a spectrograph built by Robert G. Tull and Phillip J. MacQueen.

Their research provides novel information on the presence and production of lithium in space. Astronomical observations of the ratios and abundance of the elements and their isotopes throughout the universe are used to learn more about the processes by which elements were formed.

"The overall goal of almost all of my work is to discover the origins of the chemical elements," said Lambert, who holds the Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy. "We are trying to understand how the chemical elements were made. The Big Bang that started the universe provided hydrogen, helium, and very small amounts of one form of lithium—the isotope 7Lithium."

"With the exception of the three light elements—lithium, beryllium, and boron—all the other elements, we believe, are made in stars by one mechanism or the other. The origins of these three light elements have long been a mystery," Lambert said.

According to Lambert, scientists in the 1970s proposed that the three elements are formed when high-energy particles called cosmic rays smash into carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen nuclei in interstellar clouds and break the nuclei up into lithium, beryllium, and boron. On the basis of these predictions, two forms of lithium produced by this process, 6Lithium and 7Lithium, should be found in roughly equal amounts.

But in the very few places where measurements are possible, the two forms of lithium are found in far different ratios. For example, in meteorites, the ratio of 7Lithium to 6Lithium is 12:1, not the roughly 1:1 ratio predicted if the lithium had been formed by cosmic rays, Lambert said. "This tells us that there is another process making a lot of lithium. That process probably involves stars."

Scientists conducting the research over the last two winters at McDonald Observatory discovered for the first time a pair of interstellar clouds in which the ratio of the two forms of lithium was close to 1:1 for 7Lithium to 6Lithium.

"That’s the prediction of the cosmic ray value," Lambert said. "This is the first time—in interstellar clouds or in any other stellar source—that the ratio has been found so close to the cosmic ray prediction."

"It’s been known for a long time that cosmic rays were a substantial contributor to the origins of lithium and the other two light elements. Also, the cosmic rays themselves have a ratio of about 1:1 for 7Lithium to 6Lithium. But this is the first time we’ve seen gas where the cosmic rays dominated production of lithium," Lambert said.

After earning a doctorate in philosophy in solar physics at the University of Oxford in his native England, Lambert was a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology. He joined the UT Austin faculty in 1969. In 1988, he received the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics from the American Astronomical Society and the American Institute of Physics for setting new standards of precision in the quantitative analysis of the spectra of stars, work basic to the understanding of the evolution of stars and galaxies.

New Lighting Ordinance Promotes Darker Skies, Safer Streets

ALPINE, Texas: On May 23, 2000, the Alpine City Council unanimously approved a new lighting ordinance, which took effect June 22. The ordinance represents a successful collaboration by several people, including Alpine City Manager Doug Lively; James Walker of the Big Bend Astronomical Society; Mark Adams and Bill Wren of the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory; and Roland Pena, Manager of Community Services for AEP-West Texas Utilities in the Big Bend and Western Regions.

Officially known as "An Ordinance to Improve Outdoor Lighting in the City of Alpine, Texas," the ordinance preserves the darkness and clarity of the night sky that make this part of west Texas such an ideal locale for astronomy, while providing safer, more efficient outdoor lighting that conserves energy and reduces waste.

"It’s a real credit to the hard work of the City of Alpine and everyone involved that such a positive piece of legislation came out of this process, ensuring quality outdoor lighting for citizens and dark skies for the Observatory and other star gazers," said Wren, Public Affairs Specialist II at McDonald Observatory, the darkest professional observing site in the continental United States.

"I believe we have a good ordinance that is enforceable and is fair to everyone," added Walker, area resident and secretary of the Big Bend Astronomical Society. "Our new lighting ordinance will reduce light pollution, keep the sky darker so we can see the stars better, and conserve energy."

Search For Extrasolar Planets Hits Home

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND: Today, a team of astronomers will announce the discovery of a Jupiter-mass planet orbiting a star, Epsilon Eridani, 10.5 light-years away, making it the first such planet found this close to our own solar system. Dr. William Cochran, of the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, will present the team’s findings at the symposium on "Planetary Systems in the Universe," as part of the 24th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, in Manchester, England.

"Detecting a planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani, a star very similar to our own Sun and only 3.22 parsecs from Earth, is like finding a planet in our own backyard -- relatively speaking," said Cochran. "Not only is this planet nearby, it lies 3.2 AU (478 million kilometers, or 297 million miles) from its central star -- roughly the distance from the Sun to the asteroid belt in our own solar system."

The planet of Epsilon Eridani has between 0.8 and 1.6 times the mass of Jupiter and an orbital period of just under seven years -- about 60 percent the orbital period of Jupiter but longer than that of most other extrasolar planets discovered recently. In fact, the planet could qualify as the first "Jupiter analogue" were it not for its highly eccentric (elliptical) orbit of 0.6. (The orbits of planets in our solar system are more circular.)

To arrive at its discovery, the team studied nearly 20 years of high-precision radial velocity (RV) measurements of Epsilon Eridani, the fifth brightest star in the constellation Eridanus, the river. A bright K2 V star (approximate magnitude of 3.7), Epsilon Eridani is slightly less massive than our Sun (0.85 solar mass) and slightly cooler (5,180 degrees Kelvin). The team noted that the star’s high level of chromospheric activity is consistent with its relatively young age, less than a billion years old.

"We looked very hard at several years worth of spectrophotometric data for Epsilon Eridani, to make sure that the star’s low RV -- 19 meters per second -- was not due to periodic stellar cycles," stated Dr. Artie Hatzes of the McDonald Observatory. "Especially helpful were the Ca II H and K S-index measurements that Dr. Sallie Baliunas, our collaborator at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had made and analyzed of 100 lower main sequence stars, Epsilon Eridani among them. Earlier data that showed an RV amplitude higher than what we found had led some researchers to attribute the RV variations to the star’s activity cycle. After studying the relative flux in the Ca II H and K emission cores from this star, however, we concluded that there is no significant periodicity in the Ca II spectrophotometric measurements that matches the period of the Doppler variation."

"We also ruled out the possibility of a stellar companion," Hatzes added. "There is just no strong evidence to suggest that Epsilon Eridani is a binary star."

The team’s data represent a combination of six independent data sets taken with four different telescopes and with three different measurement techniques. In addition to their own observations made with the 2.7-meter telescope at McDonald Observatory, Cochran and Hatzes drew from data collected by three other planet search groups, including the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory and the European Southern Observatory.

Asymmetric, primordial dust rings made up of 1-mm-size particles extend 60 AU from Epsilon Eridani. The irregular shape of this ring may be due to another, undiscovered planet. "If there is indeed a second planet, the asymmetry of the disk would suggest that the planet is orbiting just inside the ring, at a distance of 30 AU -- much farther out than the planet we have found and with a much longer orbital period than the one we’ve discovered," according to Hatzes. "Thus, it might also be responsible for the possible overall slope in our velocity measurements. And where there’s one planet, there may be more."

The discovery of the planet around Epsilon Eridani raises the likelihood of detecting planets with longer orbital periods and multiplanet systems like our own. "Given its close proximity to Earth, a one-arcsecond separation between the planet and its central star, and the relatively large degree of perturbation -- about 1.4 milli-arcseconds -- of the star from its orbiting planet mean that we could very likely resolve the true mass of this planet, using both direct imaging and space-based astrometric measurements with Hubble Space Telescope," Cochran noted.

In addition to Cochran and Hatzes, team members consist of Barbara McArthur, McDonald Observatory; Gordon Walker, University of British Columbia; Alan Irwin and Stephenson Yang, University of Victoria; Bruce Campbell (formerly of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria); Sallie Baliunas, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Martin Kürster, Michael Endl, and Sebastian Els, European Southern Observatory; Geoffrey Marcy, University of California, Berkeley; and Paul Butler, Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Contact: Dr. William Cochran
(512) 471-6474
wdc@astro.as.utexas.edu

Long Foundations support Universo

AUSTIN, Texas: Mr. Joe R. Long and Dr. Teresa Lozano Long of Austin, through the Long Foundations, have made a $100,000 gift to McDonald Observatory to support the innovative Universo radio program.

Started in 1995 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Universo is a daily two-minute Spanish-language radio program on astronomy heard on 175 radio stations in the U.S. and Central and South America, with 3.5 million listeners each week. Produced in the studios of KXCR-FM in El Paso, it is the most widely syndicated daily Spanish-language program on any subject in the United States, airing in markets that are home to 90 percent of the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. Universo is the sister program of StarDate radio, which has 5.7 million weekly listeners across the country.

Says McDonald Observatory Director Dr. Frank Bash, "This generous gift from Joe and Teresa Long through the Long Foundations helps advance one of strongest goals for the observatory and the University of Texas at Austin. It allows us to reach out to young people throughout Texas and the country and excite them about the world around us, so that they will become interested in careers in science and technology."

Universo also includes a web site (http://universo.utexas.edu) that draws hundreds of visits each week. In addition, it encompasses teacher’s materials used by hundreds of teachers with tens of thousands of students each year. Recent sponsors include the American Honda Foundation; Harcourt General Corporation, based in Boston and San Antonio; National Instruments, Inc., of Austin; and the American Astronomical Society.

Says Robert W. Milkey, Executive Officer of the American Astronomical Society, "Universo is instrumental in improving science literacy in the Spanish speaking population of the United States and in inspiring talented youth in this community to pursue careers in science. The increasing use of minority talent will be essential in increasing the strength of the country's technical workforce for the new century."

McDonald Observatory is currently seeking a national sponsor for Universo: A national sponsor for Universo could gain daily access to Universo’s audience of technologically curious listeners, who would hear a 15-second sponsorship message as an integral part of 180 two-minute programs each year. The Universo web site and classroom materials also present opportunities for sponsorship. National sponsorship costs $180,000 per year.

"This gift from the Long Foundations continues their wonderful tradition of support for The University of Texas, the arts, and our community," adds Bash.

Long Foundations provide support for Universo, Spanish-language sister program to StarDate radio broadcasts

AUSTIN, Texas: The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory has received a $100,000 gift from Joe R. Long and Dr. Teresa Lozano Long of Austin, through the Long Foundations. The gift will support the innovative Universo radio program, the sister program to StarDate radio.

 

Begun in 1995 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Universo is a daily, two-minute Spanish-language radio program devoted to astronomy. The program is broadcast on 175 radio stations in the United States, Central America, and South America, with 3.5 million listeners each week.

Produced in the studios of KXCR-FM in El Paso, Universo is the most widely syndicated daily Spanish-language program on any subject in the United States, airing in markets that are home to 90 percent of the Spanish-speaking population in the nation. The Universo Web site is: http://universo.utexas.edu/ (StarDate radio has 5.7 million weekly listeners in the United States.)

"This generous gift from Joe and Teresa Long through the Long Foundations helps advance one of strongest goals for the observatory and The University of Texas at Austin," said Dr. Frank Bash, director of McDonald Observatory. "It allows us to reach out to young people throughout Texas and the country and to excite them about the planets, galaxies, and stars around us. The program is an excellent tool to interest young people in careers in science and technology."

Bash added that funding "from the Long Foundations continues their wonderful tradition of support for the University of Texas, the arts, and our community."

The Web site makes Spanish language educational materials available to thousands of teachers and students each year. Recent sponsors of the Web site include the American Honda Foundation; Harcourt General Corporation, based in Boston and San Antonio; National Instruments Inc. of Austin; and the American Astronomical Society.

"Universo is instrumental in improving science literacy in the Spanish-speaking population of the United States and in inspiring talented youth in this community to pursue careers in science," said Robert W. Milkey, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society. "The increasing use of minority talent will be essential in increasing the strength of the country's technical workforce for the new century."

McDonald Observatory officials said they would welcome new national sponsors for Universo or the Universo Web site and classroom materials. A national sponsor provides $180,000 and also a provides 15-second sponsorship message, which is featured on of each of the 180 programs per year.

Touching the Stars: UT Astronomer Honored for Inspiring Teachers, Students

AUSTIN, Texas: Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway, a research associate and senior lecturer in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, has been selected to receive the Honorary Life Member award from the Science Teachers Association of Texas (STAT). The award honors Dr. Hemenway’s years of dedication and significant contributions to science education in Texas, and will be presented October 13 as part of the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching, at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

Hemenway received news of her selection while preparing a set of astronomy education presentations for the three-day conference. "I am honored to be recognized by STAT, the organization of the most outstanding science educators in our state," Hemenway said.

Dr. Barbara ten Brink, Chair of the Awards Committee, praised Hemenway for inspiring elementary, middle-school, and high-school science teachers and for her commitment to instilling the love of learning and teaching astronomy in her fellow educators. "Dr. Hemenway’s Astronomy Institutes, workshops, and conference presentations have influenced the teaching of astronomy and physics to hundreds of classroom teachers," Ten Brink said. "As a participant on one of her field trips to McDonald Observatory, I can attest to the value of the experience."

"McDonald Observatory is very privileged to have Dr. Hemenway associated with it," added Dr. Frank Bash, Director of UT’s McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. "She is the nation’s leading expert in teaching astronomy in grades K–12, and she has made a major contribution to the scientific education of Texas school children."

Hemenway is currently creating the K–12 educational programs for the new Texas Astronomy Education Center, scheduled to open at McDonald Observatory in the fall of 2001. The programs consist of professional development workshops for teachers and field experiences for students. "Our goal at the Observatory is for the Texas Astronomy Education Center to become the hub for K–12 astronomy programs for teachers and students in Texas," said Hemenway. The programs will align with the Texas education standards for science and will offer teachers continuing education credits.

Hemenway is an internationally recognized expert on creating and implementing innovative training for science teachers and on using science as a catalyst to improve teaching and curricula from grades K to 16. She received her doctorate in astronomy from the University of Virginia before coming to the University of Texas in 1974. Hemenway, who has been the Department of Astronomy’s Director of Educational Services since 1980, holds the office of Secretary of the Board of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and implements federally supported programs with secondary-school science teachers.

World’s Top Observatories to Collaborate for Public Education

Educators from many of the world’s top observatories are heading to Cape Town, South Africa, this week, in an effort to strengthen international ties in public science education. Beginning Friday, they will attend a workshop to discuss the creation of an "International Collaborative for Educational Outreach for State-of-the-Art Telescopes."

Currently, no such international collaboration exists. Workshop attendees will discuss the goals, mission, and priorities for such a group.

"This workshop will enable all participants, especially the staff of the South African Large Telescope (SALT), an opportunity to learn from, and collaborate with, colleagues in the field of astronomy education and outreach," said Sandra Preston, workshop organizer and Director of McDonald Observatory’s Public Information Office at the University of Texas. SALT, now under construction, is a southern-hemisphere near-clone of the innovative Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory.

Observatories participating in the workshop include: the Gemini Project, the W. M. Keck Observatory, Japan’s Subaru Telescope, the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array and Arecibo radio telescopes, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the South African Large Telescope, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Great Britain’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, and Spain’s Gran Telescopio Canarias.

Following the workshop, the presentations and discussions will be published in the form of conference proceedings. Information on how to obtain copies will be made available at that time.

The U.S. National Science Foundation provided travel funds for participants from U.S. observatories. The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of the South African government provided funds for the hosting of the workshop in Cape Town.

Case Rijsdijk
South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO)
case@saao.ac.za

American Electric Power Sponsors StarDate, Bringing Astronomy Lore to Millions

American Electric Power Company (AEP) has made a grant to the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory to sponsor its StarDate radio program. By doing so, AEP becomes StarDate’s exclusive national sponsor for 2001.

American Electric Power is a multinational energy company based in Columbus, Ohio. AEP owns and operates more than 38,000 megawatts of generating capacity, making it one of America’s largest generators of electricity. The company is also a leading wholesale energy marketer and trader, ranking second in the U.S. in electricity volume. AEP provides retail electricity to more than 9 million customers worldwide and has more than $55 billion in assets, primarily in the U.S. with holdings in select international markets. Wholly owned subsidiaries are involved in power engineering and construction services, energy management and telecommunications.

According to Tom Shockley, vice chairman of AEP, "The McDonald Observatory is one of the leading astronomy education and research facilities in the world. On-going study in key disciplines such as astronomy is absolutely critical to our country maintaining its leadership worldwide in the fields of science and technology. AEP is extremely pleased to have this opportunity to partner with the University of Texas and the McDonald Observatory to bring StarDate to life in 2001 for millions of listeners across the country."

Now celebrating its twenty-second year on the air, StarDate is a daily two-minute radio program on astronomy heard on 215 radio stations across the United States, with some 5.7 million listeners each week. The program encompasses instructional materials used by hundreds of teachers with tens of thousands of students each year. StarDate’s Spanish-language sister program, Universo, is heard by more than 3.7 million people each week in markets that are home to 90 percent of the Latino population of the U.S.

Says McDonald Observatory Director Dr. Frank Bash, "This generous gift from American Electric Power helps advance several important goals for the observatory and the University of Texas at Austin. Specifically, it allows us to reach out to young people across the country and excite them about careers in science and technology."

For more information, contact
Joel Barna, Development Officer
Univ. of TX McDonald Observatory
512-471-6335, jwbarna@astro.as.utexas.edu

SBC Foundation supports radio outreach for science education

The SBC Foundation has made a $150,000 gift to the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory to support the innovative Universo radio program.

Started in 1995 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Universo is a daily two-minute Spanish-language radio program on astronomy heard on 156 radio stations in the U.S. and Central and South America, with 3.5 million listeners each week. It is the most widely syndicated daily Spanish-language program in any subject in the United States, airing in markets that are home to 90 percent of the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. Universo is the sister program of StarDate radio, which has 5.7 million weekly listeners across the country.

According to Nancy Gerval, president of the SBC Foundation, "This is an important educational program that reaches one of the fastest-growing segments of our diverse community. We are pleased to support a project that is in keeping with our corporate commitment to strengthening our communities while getting young people energized about career opportunities in the fields of science and technology."

The SBC Foundation addresses community needs in the areas of education, community economic development, health and human services, and culture and the arts. Since its formation in 1984, the SBC Foundation has distributed nearly $600 million in grants, United Way support, and employee outreach programs focused primarily within SBC’s core service areas. It is an independent foundation funded by SBC Communications Inc. and its family of companies.

The generous grant from the SBC Foundation will help support production and distribution of Universo nationwide in 2001 and 2002.

Says McDonald Observatory Director Dr. Frank Bash, "This generous gift from the SBC Foundation helps advance one of the most important goals for the observatory and the University of Texas at Austin. It allows us to reach out to young people throughout Texas and the country and excite them about the world around us, so that they will become interested in careers in science and technology."

Universo also includes a web site (http://universo.utexas.edu) and it encompasses teacher’s materials used by hundreds of teachers with tens of thousands of students each year. Recent sponsors of Universo include the Long Foundations; the American Honda Foundation; Harcourt General Corporation; National Instruments, Inc., of Austin; and the American Astronomical Society.

Adds Frank Bash, "This gift from the SBC Foundation continues a wonderful tradition of support for The University of Texas, for education, and for our community. Millions of people each week will learn more about our universe because of this support."

For more information, contact
Joel Barna, Development Officer
Univ. of TX McDonald Observatory
512-471-6335, jwbarna@astro.as.utexas.edu

Missing Molecule Holds Clues to Comet's Origin

Dr. Tony L. Farnham, a planetary scientist at The University of Texas at Austin studied comet C/1999 S4 along with collaborators Drs. David G. Schleicher and Laura M. Woodney of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ; Dr. Peter V. Birch of Perth Observatory in Western Australia; Dr. Clara A. Eberhardy of the University of Washington in Seattle; and Dr. Lorenza Levy of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

 

The researchers used telescopes at UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory, Lowell Observatory, and Australia’s Perth Observatory to observe it both before and after break-up. They determined that the comet is deficient in the molecule carbon-2, which indicates that the comet formed near Neptune, billions of years ago when our solar system was forming.

"We usually get a look at the surface of a comet, but this time we got to look inside," Farnham said. Farnham is the Harlan J. Smith Planetary Post-Doctoral Researcher at UT Austin’s department of astronomy. Because the opportunity to study the inside of a comet is so rare, it’s essential that astronomers know what type of comet it is, so they can use the information in their models of solar system formation.

Comets are sometimes referred to as "dirty snowballs," because they are made up of dust and rocks held together by ice. Astronomers know that comets generally formed in two places in the early solar system: in the region around Neptune, and the region around Jupiter. Generally, Neptune-origin comets ended up in the Kuiper Belt, a band of comets just beyond that planet’s orbit. Jupiter-origin comets ended up in the Oort Cloud, a halo of comets surrounding our solar system far beyond the orbits of the planets.

Different lines of evidence may indicate another history for the comet. Other researchers found that 1999 S4 is missing other carbon-chain molecules, Farnham said, indicating that the comet may have formed near Jupiter.

The discrepancy in results "may be telling us is that it has a surface material different from what’s inside," Farnham said. "That may be an explanation of what happened, that the comet formed around the Jupiter region, and other materials formed on the surface as it migrated out," into the outer solar system. "We don’t have any proof of that," he cautioned.

Farnham also calculated a lower limit for the length of the comet’s nucleus before break-up: about 0.4 kilometers.

They are useful for studying the history of our solar system because they are believed to be relatively unchanged since the solar system formed, unlike planets, whose geological processes continually re-write their surfaces.

"Comets have been in storage, especially dynamically new comets, like this one," Farnham said. A dynamically new comet is one that has never been near enough to the Sun to have any of its materials vaporize off its surface.

Comet C/1999 S4 was never visible to the naked eye.

For more information, contact

Dr. Tony L. Farnham in the UT Austin department of astronomy at 512-471-1483.

UT Austin scientists find evidence that all radio-loud quasars may be blazars

AUSTIN, Texas — Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found new evidence to suggest that all radio-loud quasars may be blazars — and the differences between them may be related to the angle from which they are viewed. Quasars are quasi-stellar objects found in distant reaches of the universe and blazars are much brighter types of quasars.

After a spectroscopic survey of 62 quasars using the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory, astronomers Dr. Feng Ma and Dr. Beverley Wills say there is new ultraviolet evidence suggesting that radio-loud quasars are simply blazars seen from the side. Their work will be published Friday (June 15) in the journal Science.

"A blazar is a special type of quasar that beams an intense jet of radiation in our direction. It’s as if we’re looking into a searchlight beam," said Wills, a McDonald Observatory research scientist. A quasar is a star-like object that emits more energy than 100 giant galaxies combined and is among the most distant objects found so far in the universe. The brilliance of a quasar is believed to originate from swirling gas and stars in the process of falling into a gigantic black hole at the quasar’s center.

About ten percent of all quasars catalogued by astronomers are referred to as radio-loud quasars because they are more luminous (or louder) at radio wavelengths than optical wavelengths. The strong radio emission of a radio-loud quasar results from two jets of energetic particles shooting away from the center of the quasar in opposite directions. Wills explained that some of the radio-loud quasars are much more luminous than other quasars "and randomly change their brightness, even from hour to hour. These are classified as blazars."

Ma, a graduate research assistant in the Microelectronics Research Center in the UT Austin College of Engineering, said the blazar’s powerful radiation also could be compared to a flashlight beam. "For most quasars, we are looking from the side, not directly into the beam, so we don’t really see the jets. But some have their beams pointing at us and we call them blazars," Ma said.

Wills said the scientists found evidence from spectra of several quasars suggesting that the unseen jets "heat up the gas swirling around the center and we see this glowing gas. This is like seeing light from a searchlight beam as the beam pierces a cloud, even though the searchlight may not be pointing in our direction. This is new, direct evidence from ultraviolet light that every radio-loud quasar has jets."

Ma said this phenomenon was predicted in the Astrophysical Journal Letters in a paper titled "Does Every Quasar Harbor a Blazar?" that he and Wills published in 1998 before observations were completed. "Our work will also have an influence on a method astronomers use to study cosmology," Ma added. "Because blazars are highly variable, radio-loud quasars should all be excluded when using (the brightness of) quasars to measure distances in the universe."

For more information, contact:
Dr. Beverley Wills at (512) 471-3424 or email <bev@astro.as.utexas.edu>
or
Dr. Feng Ma at (512) 471-3644 or (512) 232-4690.
For a PowerPoint presentation, see: http://pancake.as.utexas.edu/feng/Blazar/index.htm

Texas Teachers to Benefit from $35K Gift to McDonald Observatory

Midland oilman and investor Joe Parsley has given $30,000 to McDonald Observatory to enable West Texas teachers to attend professional development workshops at the Observatory, near Fort Davis.

"I want to get young students interested in science and engineering," Mr. Parsley said. A petroleum engineer, Mr. Parsley is a 1951 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Martha Jan Groebe of Dallas, Mr. Parsley’s daughter, has given an additional $5,000 to the Observatory. Their gifts will help teachers bring the wonders of astronomy back to their West Texas classrooms.

"We’re excited that these gifts will help us promote science education to our neighbors in the communities surrounding the Observatory," said Marc Wetzel, Education Coordinator for McDonald Observatory. "Teachers who come here will be totally immersed in astronomy, staying for two to five days — attending workshops by day and observing the stars at night. We hope to share with them the fun and fascination of science, and that they will pass it on to their students."

Teacher workshops will be given at the Observatory’s new Visitors Center, which will open in early 2002. Workshop leaders will use astronomy-based activities to promote both the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the National Science Education Standards. The State Board of Educator Certification recently authorized McDonald Observatory to offer continuing education credits to Texas teachers.

The new 12,000-square-foot Visitors Center also includes a large laboratory-style classroom with advanced audio and video capabilities, the $1.1 million interactive "Decoding Starlight" exhibit that explains how astronomers learn the secrets of the heavens, and a 90-seat theater with state-of-the-art audio and video technology. Outside, the Visitors Center includes two large telescopes in 20-foot domes, and a large amphitheater of rock benches where Observatory personnel will offer tours of the constellations under one of the darkest night skies in North America.

In addition, teachers will be able to tour the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (one of the largest telescope in the world) and the Harlan J. Smith 2.7-meter telescope (a large research telescope used every clear night of the year).

Mr. Parsley has been involved with McDonald Observatory for the past several years as a member of the Board of Visitors, an independent philanthropic and lobbying organization which supports the Observatory and UT Austin Department of Astronomy. Members of the Board have created or helped to create the Department’s endowed chairs and professorships and the Observatory’s post-doctoral fellowships. Their efforts and support helped to make both the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and the new McDonald Observatory Visitors Center possible.

Meadows Foundation Grant to Benefit McDonald Observatory

The Meadows Foundation of Dallas is granting McDonald Observatory $105,000 to support its K-12 educational programs over the next three years.

The grant will fund teacher professional development workshops and presentations, demonstrations, and hands-on activities for students at the new McDonald Observatory Visitors Center near Fort Davis. Programs at the Center will use astronomy-based activities to promote both the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the National Science Education Standards.

"We want to excite Texas students about careers in science and technology, and to provide teachers with the tools and information to do the same," said Sandra Preston, Director of Public Information and Education for McDonald Observatory. "This grant will go a long way toward enabling us to fulfill our public education mission."

The new 12,000-square-foot Visitors Center will begin hosting teachers and students when it opens early next year. Inside, a large laboratory-style classroom with advanced audio and video capabilities will be used for teacher workshops, as well as student field-trip activities. The Visitors Center also contains the $1.1 million interactive "Decoding Starlight" exhibit that explains how astronomers learn the secrets of the heavens, and a 90-seat theater with state-of-the-art audio and video technology. Outside, the Visitors Center includes two large telescopes in 20-foot domes, and a large amphitheater of rock benches where Observatory personnel will offer tours of the constellations under one of the darkest night skies in North America.

In addition, teachers and students will be able to tour the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (one of the largest telescopes in the world) and the Harlan J. Smith 2.7-meter telescope (a large research telescope used every clear night of the year).

The Meadows Foundation is a private philanthropic institution established in 1948 by Algur H. and Virginia Meadows to benefit the people of Texas. The Foundation’s mission is to assist the people and institutions of Texas to improve the quality and circumstances of life for themselves and future generations.
Foundation grants support work in fields of art and culture, civic and public affairs, education, health, and human services. The foundation also has a particular philanthropic interest in three areas: public education (particularly in the areas of early child development, enhanced reading skills and teacher preparation), mental health and the environment.

Give the StarDate Sky Almanac this season and support science education in Texas!

The 2002 edition of the StarDate Sky Almanac is now available for $4 from McDonald Observatory. The guide contains a year’s worth of skywatching information — how to find planets, bright stars and constellations, and when to watch for nature’s beautiful meteor showers. It’s brought to you by the folks who produce StarDate, the longest running science program on radio, and StarDate magazine. All proceeds benefit the public education programs of McDonald Observatory.

The Almanac contains month-by-month details on what to look for in the night sky. It also outlines what’s coming up in space exploration in 2002, including new telescopes for Earth orbit, launches to the Moon and comets, and the continuing saga of Mars. Next year’s anniversaries in astronomy and space exploration, including the discovery of Martian satellites and the last day humans stood on the Moon, are also listed.

To order, visit StarDate Online or send a check or money order made out to The University of Texas for $4 to: StarDate, 2515 Speedway C1402, Austin, TX, 78712. (Texas residents add $0.33 sales tax.)

Radioactive decay of elements gives age of stars, points to evolution of the Milky Way

Austin, Texas – Gold, silver, platinum and other exotic heavy elements forged in the explosions of massive stars are leading the way to understanding the birth of elements in our Milky Way galaxy. According to Christopher Sneden, professor of astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, supernova explosions were the main influence on the earliest formation of elements in the Galaxy. Today, Sneden will review his work in an invited lecture at the 199th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C. Entitled "Early Galactic Nucleosynthesis of the Heaviest Elements," the talk will highlight recent high-resolution spectroscopic studies of the oldest Milky Way stars.

The observations were done with the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope at the UT-Austin McDonald Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Keck I Telescope in Hawaii. To work out the Galaxy’s element-formation history, Sneden studies the oldest stars in the Milky Way. To find the ages of his target stars, he uses a sleuthing method usually known for its archeological applications: the radioactive decay of elements. Sneden focuses on extremely heavy elements like precious metals, lead, europium, barium, and thorium. "For example, we can detect thorium in the earliest stars," he said. "Thorium has a half-life of 14 billion years. So we observe how much thorium the star has now, and compare that to how much we think it was born with. Thus, we have a clock," Sneden said. "This method gives us the ages of these stars directly: 12 to 16 billion years. These numbers are very similar to what other scientists are saying is the age of the Galaxy." Sneden then compares the amounts of different heavy elements in these old stars. These heavy elements are made by two distinct processes, so such comparisons offer a unique way to gain insight into exactly how elements formed early in our galaxy. "All of the elements of the Periodic Table heavier than iron are mostly made in what are called neutron bombardment reactions," Sneden said. "That means adding neutrons to the nucleus of an atom to make a different, heavier isotope." There are two ways this can happen. In each case, there must be a source of free neutrons. The slow process (s-process) occurs inside highly-evolved, late-type stars. These stars have exhausted all of their hydrogen fuel, and have begun to burn helium. The helium burning creates free neutrons, which hit seed nuclei of ordinary metals. The neutrons have no electrical charge, so they aren’t repelled. They enter the nucleus of the atom, turning it into an isotope. This neutron-capture continues until there are too many neutrons inside the nucleus for the isotope to remain stable. Then beta decay occurs: The isotope emits an electron, and is now a stable atom of the next element on the Periodic Table. The rapid process (r-process) is quite different. When a massive star dies in a supernova explosion, it creates an enormous blast of neutrons that pulverize atomic nuclei. These nuclei have no chance for beta decay. This creates incredibly neutron-rich nuclei, which then rapidly decay. "The slow process can create some isotopes, the rapid process creates others, and some are formed both ways," Sneden said. "For example, the s-process builds almost no europium, but lots of barium," he said. "We find that the most metal-poor stars -- these are the oldest stars in the Milky Way -- contain more europium than barium." Thus we know that the early formation of elements in our galaxy was more influenced by supernova explosions than anything else. "Contributions from the s-process came later," Sneden said. "This is shown by the generally higher metallicity levels of stars that have neutron-capture element abundance ratios that are more nearly like those of the Sun." Sneden and colleagues from UT-Austin and other institutions will be presenting several posters on various aspects of this research at American Astronomical Society meeting. These include: "HST-STIS Spectra of the R-Process-Rich Halo Giant CS 22892-052," in poster session 137.10, by Sneden and colleagues. "The Abundances and Age of the Galactic Halo Star BD +17°3248," in poster session 137.06, by J.J. Cowan (University of Oklahoma), Sneden, and colleagues. "The Rise of the S-Process," in poster session 91.10, by UT-Austin graduate student J. A. Simmerer, Sneden, and colleagues.

Radiation zaps Mars and extrasolar planets, affects biological evolution

Austin, Texas -- Calculations by a team of astronomers at The University of Texas at Austin show that jolts of radiation from space may affect biological and atmospheric evolution on planets in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars. The work by David Smith (a former UT-Austin undergraduate, now a graduate student at Harvard University) and UT-Austin astronomers John Scalo and J. Craig Wheeler is presented today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

Bursts of radiation that can cause biological mutations, or even deliver lethal doses, can come from flares given off by the planet’s parent star or from more remote cosmic events (e.g., supernovae and gamma-ray bursts). The magnitude of the effect on life and evolution on a planet is related to how much protection it gets from its atmosphere. The work presented today concentrates on the transmission of high-energy X-rays and gamma-rays through planetary atmospheres.

"It’s a multi-level calculation," Scalo said. "First you have to determine the spectrum of the source [flare star, supernova, or gamma-ray burst], then you must calculate how the radiation propagates through and disrupts a planet’s atmosphere. Then you follow the radiation down to the surface of the planet, even underwater, eventually calculating how strongly it interacts with cellular material. The calculation presented today follows the paths of individual photons as they scatter off electrons bound in molecules and gradually lose energy until they are absorbed by atoms. The result shows just what fraction of the radiation reaches a planet’s surface (as function of the intensity and energy of the source and the thickness of the planetary atmosphere)."

Today, Mars has a thin atmosphere -- about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. More than 10 percent of the incident energy reaches its surface for photons with energies above about 100 kiloelectron volts (high energy X-rays and gamma-rays). "Any organisms unprotected by sufficient solid or liquid shields should have been lethally irradiated by cosmic radiation sources many times in the last few billion years," David Smith said.

According to John Scalo, "It may have been safe on Mars during the first few billion years, when the planet had a much thicker atmosphere, but today, and probably for the past billion years or so according to current climate evolution models, the planet has had little protection from high-energy radiation. When the atmosphere thinned, any life on the surface was exposed to high-energy radiation from exceptionally strong solar flares and occasional stronger bursts from different astronomical sources throughout the Galaxy."

The radiation need not be lethal, but may instead induce episodes of intense mutational damage and error-prone repair, leading to interestingly different evolution than on Earth. Mutations are usually deleterious, but they provide the diversity necessary to drive evolution. "Radiation bursts may spur evolution by intermittently enlarging the genomic diversity upon which natural selection is believed to operate," Scalo said. "As an example, chemical pathways adapted to a rapidly fluctuating radiation environment might result in organisms whose signatures of biological activity may be very different from those of terrestrial organisms.

"Gamma-ray bursts only last 10 seconds or so," Scalo said, "so the mutations they cause are unlikely to produce direct evolutionary effects." Exposure to gamma-ray bursts will tend to sterilize life on the exposed side of the planet that is not protected under enough rock or water; however gamma-ray bursts may cause long-lived changes indirectly by affecting planetary atmospheres. Significant gamma-ray irradiation from supernova explosions are more frequent and have a much longer duration and may be capable of driving evolutionary effects directly. Both of these distant cosmic sources are capable of delivering atmospherically and biologically significant high-energy radiation jolts every hundred thousand or million years -- possibly hundreds or thousands of such events over the history of a planet.

This picture of sporadic zaps of radiation is quite different than when a planet is constantly bathed in radiation from its parent star. "Most stars in our galaxy aren’t like the Sun," Scalo said. "Most are red dwarfs." These stars have little ultraviolet radiation that can cause mutations, but they flare violently, mostly in X-rays. "Conventional wisdom said that planets orbiting these stars couldn’t have atmospheres, that any atmosphere would freeze out because the planet’s rotation would be tidally locked," Scalo said. "More recent calculations show these planets can have atmospheres. What might life be like on a planet orbiting a red dwarf with powerful flares and continuous intense coronal X-rays? One possibility is that most of the biosphere would need to be underground or underwater; another is that the challenging mutational radiation environment would accelerate the evolution of life."

Future work will focus on the reprocessing of the lost gamma-ray and X-ray energy to ultraviolet radiation that can reach the ground. The high-energy photons lose energy to electrons that in turn excite atoms and molecules in the atmosphere. When those atoms de-excite, they can produce substantial ultraviolet radiation that can also affect the biosphere on the surface of the planet. In this case, bursts of cosmic irradiation would be important even when there is a thick atmosphere (like Earth’s) that will stop the original X-rays or gamma-rays. These jolts of irradiation can cause the formation of a "second ionosphere" at fairly low altitudes and disrupt a planet’s atmospheric chemistry. Smith, Scalo, and Wheeler are adding these effects into their calculations.

HET Goes “Back to Nature”

Fort Davis, Texas -- McDonald Observatory staff are cutting garage-door-sized holes all around the enclosure of the 9.2-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), and fitting them with giant steel “venetian blinds” called louvers. This should allow the HET, one of the world’s largest telescopes, to operate at the same temperature as the outside air.

“You can’t beat Mother Nature,” said HET Chief Engineer John Booth. “This should go a long way toward allowing the HET to produce sharp astronomical images.

“The problem is heat. As the temperature drops outside at night, the walls of the dome keep the air inside warmer than the air outside,” Booth said. “When the warm air and cool air mix, at the location of the dome opening, they bend the light rays coming into the telescope. This mixing creates what we call bad ‘seeing’ -- it blurs the images of stars and galaxies we want to study.”

So after consultations and tests, McDonald Observatory decided to ‘open up the dome,’ to allow wind to blow through the building. This is being done by cutting 15-foot by 17-foot windows in the bottom half of the building, called the ring wall. The first cut was made on January 8. After each opening is cut, a pair of louvers – which looks like a huge venetian blind with four blades – is lifted by a crane attached to the rotating portion of the dome. Each pair of louvers weights 5,000 pounds – about the same as a large sport utility vehicle. The first louver was lifted into place on February 1. In all, 26 louvers (12 pairs and two singles) will be installed at the HET by May.

This is the first stage in the $500,000 HET dome ventilation project. Smaller heat sources, including a few instruments on the telescope itself, will also be shielded or moved out of the dome. Later, smaller louvers will be installed in the upper, geodesic part of the dome.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is a joint project of The University of Texas
at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), Stanford
University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and
Georg-August-Unversität Göttingen.

Bash to Step Down as McDonald Observatory Director

Austin, Texas -- Frank Bash, Director of the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory, has announced that he will resign his directorship effective August 31, 2003. “I think it’s time,” Bash said. “It’s said that an observatory director has one telescope in him or her, and I’ve built mine,” he added, alluding to the 9.2-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The search for a new director will begin immediately.

“In going, I want to stress the importance of public outreach, and the growing importance of our K-12 education programs. I’m very proud of both,” Bash said. “I hope and expect that my successor will continue these efforts, which are designed to excite Texas teachers, and, in turn, students, about careers in science and technology. They are the folks on whose shoulders the future of this state depends.

“The state of Texas should be very proud that it supports one of the best observatories in the world. Through the legislature and through Texas foundations, we’ve built one of the world’s great telescopes,” he added.

“I’m also pleased and proud that the HET is being copied, with our help, by an international partnership based in South Africa,” Bash said, alluding to the HET-near-twin Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), now under construction near Sutherland. “I’m equally pleased that they are copying our educational and public outreach efforts.”

Bash has been the Director of McDonald Observatory since 1991, and was its Interim Director from 1989 to 1991. He came to the University of Texas at Austin as a postdoctoral researcher in 1967, after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He joined the University faculty in 1969, and served as Chairman of the astronomy department from 1982 to 1986. He has won numerous teaching awards, and currently holds the Frank N. Edmunds Regent’s Professorship in Astronomy.

NOTE: The McDonald Observatory Director's Office may be contacted at 512-471-3303.

Media Representatives Invited to April 6 Preview of New McDonald Observatory Visitors Center

Fort Davis, TX -- McDonald Observatory has long been one of the most-visited travel destinations in Texas, and there's even more to enjoy now with the April 6 official opening of the new McDonald Observatory Visitors Center! The Center will welcome as many as 130,000 visitors each year to its bilingual (English/Spanish) exhibits, theater, cafe, and gift shop.

"I'm pleased to report that Jeff Davis County, Texas now has one of the best small science centers in the country," McDonald Observatory Director Frank Bash said.

Members of the media are invited to an April 6 slate of events to celebrate the Center's opening. These include a 2:30 p.m. tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, a 3:30 p.m. welcome meeting with Frank Bash, a 4:00 p.m. preview of the new Center, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. with The Honorable Pete P. Gallego (State Rep., D.-Alpine) and University of Texas at Austin President Larry R. Faulkner. At 6:00 p.m., media representatives are invited to a press dinner at the StarDate Cafe at the Visitors Center, and are welcome to attend the public star party outside the Center afterward, weather permitting. We invite the general public to a free-admission Open House on April 7 to celebrate the Center's opening.

Press kits will be available on March 18. An electronic press kit, including publication-quality photos of the Visitors Center, will be available online at http://mcdonaldobservatory.org/news on March 18. Contact Rebecca Johnson to request a hard copy of the press kit and directions and information on lodging near McDonald Observatory.

Background
The new 12,000-square-foot Visitors Center houses an interactive exhibit, 90-seat theater, the StarDate Cafe, and an astronomy gift shop. Expanded outdoor venues surround the building, and will accommodate more visitors than ever before at McDonald's famous star parties, constellation tours and solar viewing. Guests will view sky objects through large telescopes in the two new 20-foot domes of the public telescope park, and attend constellation tours in the outdoor amphitheater -- while marveling at some of the darkest night skies in North America.

McDonald is home to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the largest telescope in the world specializing in the study of light through spectroscopy. The "Decoding Starlight" exhibit inside the new Visitors Center explains spectroscopy -- basically, how astronomers break light into its wavelengths to unlock its secrets -- in both English and Spanish. More than five years of planning and a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation went into producing this exhibit. Exhibit highlights include:

  • a live two-meter-wide, detailed projection of the Sun's spectrum,
  • interactive displays that explain how astronomers crack the code embedded in light from stars and galaxies,
  • an introduction to the tools and technology that astronomers use,
  • and a behind-the-scenes look at life at McDonald Observatory.

In addition to welcoming thousands of families and vacationers to the Observatory, the new Center will take on a larger role in K-12 education. "It's important to McDonald Observatory to promote K-12 science education," Bash said. "This new facility will help us excite students about science and technology, and is designed to inspire them to pursue careers in those fields."

Teacher workshops will be given at the Visitors Center's laboratory-style classroom, which is equipped with advanced audio and video capabilities. Workshop leaders will use astronomy-based activities to promote both the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the National Science Education Standards. The Texas State Board of Educator Certification recently authorized McDonald Observatory to offer continuing education credits to Texas teachers.

"Teachers who come here will be totally immersed in astronomy, staying for one to five days -- attending workshops by day and observing the stars at night," said Marc Wetzel, Education Coordinator for McDonald Observatory. "We hope to share with them the fun and fascination of science, and that they will pass it on to their students." Pre- and post-visit support, funded by a grant from NASA and designed with the help of teachers, will be available through a free web site, teacher guides, and other materials.

The new Visitors Center replaces the existing W.L. Moody, Jr. Visitors' Information Center, which will be converted to office space for Visitors Center staff. The Moody Center, along with its adjacent 14-inch telescope and dome, will also become a resource for amateur astronomers.

Built in 1980 to handle 20,000 visitors per year, the Moody Center was handling 130,000 visitors per year by 1988. At that time, McDonald Observatory decided to begin raising funds for a new facility. More than $6 million has been raised in contributions from donors, foundations, grants, and revenues to fund the construction, which began with a ground-breaking ceremony in late July, 2000. The Observatory continues to raise operations funds for its K-12 education and public outreach programs.

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Note: RSVPs for the media events of April 6 would be greatly appreciated, but are not required.

Texas Astronomer uses Hubble Space Telescope to Solve Mystery of Favorite Galaxy

Austin, TX -- For more than a quarter-century, Fritz Benedict's thoughts have been 40 million light-years away, focused on a distant cosmic pinwheel in the constellation Coma Berenices. Now, his findings about spiral galaxy NGC 4314 constitute the cover story of the March 31 issue of The Astronomical Journal. Benedict is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory.

It began in the bicentennial year of 1976, when Benedict was at McDonald Observatory in West Texas, using the 2.7-meter telescope to track Earth-orbiting satellites for the U.S. Air Force. He found a window of opportunity to point the telescope at other things, and began leafing through the Hubble Atlas of Galaxies for an interesting object.

"I came upon NGC 4314 -- a remarkably smooth galaxy, with not much star formation. It had a bar running through it with a spiral arm attached at each end, and what looked like another little spiral galaxy right in its center," Benedict said. "This piqued my curiosity." He measured the light coming from the central part of NCG 4314 with the 2.7-meter.

"I discovered that the spiral at its center was really a ring of recently formed stars. This raised more questions for me than it answered," he said, "because this galaxy is anemic, relative to star formation -- a condition probably brought on by a collision with another galaxy." Collisions strip the combatants of almost all their gas and dust, leaving them mostly unable to form new stars.

However, simulations predict a small amount of the gas falls back into the galaxies, enough to form a nuclear ring like the one seen in NGC 4314. "Its bar has collected most of that material and delivered it to the nuclear ring and is processing this gas into stars," Benedict said.

Back in 1976, as now, Benedict spent his spare time and weekends puzzling over his 'favorite galaxy,' while officially working on other projects. "We were ramping up for HST," he explains. Since 1977, Benedict has been a member of the Hubble Space Telescope Astrometry Science Team. (He became its Deputy Principle Investigator in 1993.) But as luck would have it, an added bonus of working on Hubble was that Benedict was awarded time to use the newly launched instrument in 1991 -- time he would dedicate to NGC 4314.

To prepare for the HST observations, he began to study NGC 4314 from the ground. This work resulted in the first of a series scientific papers, this most recent being the fourth. "I've used NGC 4314 like a spider web," said Benedict, "to ensnare the help of other astronomers whose understanding of galaxies would increase the scientific value of these observations."

The subject of the next paper was a couple of short exposures obtained with HST in 1991. "Hubble's original WFPC [Wide Field and Planetary Camera] resolved the ring around the galaxy's nucleus into individual star clusters," Benedict said. "I saw a dust pattern there and a hint of another bar, inside the nucleus, in addition to the main bar already seen."

Several years later, a UT-Austin postdoctoral researcher named Beverly Smith (now of East Tennessee State University) suggested looking at Benedict's galaxy in a different light -- literally. Smith and another new collaborator, Jeff Kenney of Yale University, made radio-wavelength observations with the six-antenna Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) array.

Smith and Kenney helped Benedict to map the distribution of carbon monoxide (CO) gas in the galaxy. CO is a marker of star-formation sites. "We saw that the CO distribution matched the dust distribution, and saw what we interpreted as inflow of gas into the center of the galaxy from a bar," Benedict explained. "We identified the delivery method for the raw material, the gas and dust, required to fuel the star formation in the nuclear ring of NGC 4314."

HST received its first major upgrade in 1993, and in late 1995, Benedict spied on 'his galaxy' once again. He and collaborators (now including D. Andrew Howell of Lawrence Berkely Labs and Inger Jorgensen of Gemini Observatory) studied 76 star clusters in the ring around NGC 4314's nucleus. "Their blue color and hydrogen emission tell us that they're between one million and 15 million years old – very young compared to the age of the galaxy, which is around 10 billion years," Benedict said. His team also concluded that most of the galaxy's star formation occurs in such clusters, and that the formation of new stars has been more or less continuous over the last 20 million years.

Benedict's HST studies of the two spiral arms just outside the nuclear ring reveal that they seem to be in an outer ring. The arms' colors indicate that the stars there are 50 to 200 million years old, he said.

"The age difference between the inner ring of young stars and the larger oval-like feature containing the blue arms makes us think that the inner region around the nucleus contains a reservoir of gas that's becoming more compact over time," Benedict said. He speculates that as the gas concentrates more and more, it has entered two special locations near the nuclear ring, triggering two distinct epochs of star formation. These two special locations are called resonances. "Just as a child on a swing oscillates with a unique cadence, stars and gas orbiting the center of a galaxy sway in and out. At a resonance we find the gravitational attraction of the swaying stars combining to trap gas and concentrate it," Benedict said.

Benedict plans a future paper based on observations with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii to uncover new details about the star formation process in NGC 4314.

 

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Texas astronomer brings infrared space telescope team to UT-Austin

Austin, TX -- A team of astronomers led by UT-Austin’s Neal Evans will meet in Austin today and tomorrow to plan their Legacy Science Project with NASA’s next major Earth-orbiting observatory. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility, or SIRTF, is scheduled for launch January 9, 2003. Evans heads one of six Legacy teams selected to complete major survey projects, which will produce data freely available to all astronomers, with SIRTF.

About a dozen astronomers, along with UT-Austin graduate students, will meet to fine-tune their observing plan, develop teams to work on different science aspects of their project, and discuss how to deal with their SIRTF data, Evans said. His collaborators include Paul Harvey of the UT-Austin astronomy department, and astronomers from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, The California Institute of Technology, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, The University of Pennsylvania, The University of Maryland, and The University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

The main idea of the Legacy Project, called ‘From Molecular Cores to Planet-Forming Disks,’ "is to get as complete a sample as possible of things that are forming stars like the Sun," Evans said. "We’ll be surveying large areas of molecular clouds, to find anything that will form a star or even something smaller," he said. This range encompasses failed stars (called brown dwarfs) all the way through to young proto-stars that may be surrounded by forming planets.

The team will make 400 hours of observations with SIRTF. Their sample will be about 1,200 light-years deep. A light-year is the distance light travels in one year, about 5,880 billion miles.

"The great strength of SIRTF is sensitivity," Evans said. "It will be sensitive to wavelengths emitted by dust orbiting newly forming stars at the same distance that Earth orbits the Sun. Right now, there’s nothing tracing that particular range of distances, which is crucial for the formation of planets like Earth. Other techniques probe either hotter or colder dust" Evans said.

Dust at that distance is heated to about 300 Kelvins (degrees above absolute zero). "At that temperature, dust will emit [light] very effectively at 10 microns," Evans said. "SIRTF is sensitive to light ranging in wavelength from 3.6 microns to 160 microns."

Neal J. Evans, II is the Edward Randall, Jr. Centennial Professor in Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. His project proposal was selected as a SIRTF Legacy Science Project in November 2000.

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NEWS MEDIA AVISORY UT-Austin astronomer's black hole discoveries subject of NASA news conference

EVENT

Televised and Webcast news conference on a University of Texas at Austin astronomer’s black hole discoveries

WHEN

11 a.m. (CST), Tuesday, Sept. 17.

WHERE

The news conference, called a Space Science Update, will originate from NASA headquarters in Washington and will be carried live on NASA TV with two-way question-and-answer capability for reporters covering the event from participating NASA centers. It will also be Webcast live on the Internet at: http://www.nasa.gov.

NASA TV is broadcast on the GE2 satellite, Transponder 9C, at 85 degrees West longitude, frequency 3880.0 MHz, audio 6.8 MHz. Audio of the broadcast will be available on voice circuit at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on 321/867-1220.

 

BACKGROUND

The latest findings from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope confirm for the first time that a previously undetected class of black holes has been found in an unlikely place — implying black holes are more common than previously thought. A press release from The University of Texas at Austin to follow at time of broadcast.

PANELISTS INCLUDE

Dr. Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Roeland Van Der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore
Dr. Marcia Rieke of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tucson
Dr. Steinn Sigurdsson, of the Astronomy Department at Pennsylvania State University, University Park
Dr. Anne Kinney, director of the Astronomy and Physics Division in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters, Washington (Panel Moderator)

CONTACT

Rebecca Johnson, University of Texas at Austin (512-475-6763)
Ray Villard, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore (410-338-4514)

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NEWS MEDIA AVISORY UT-Austin astronomer's black hole discoveries subject of NASA news conference

EVENT

Televised and Webcast news conference on a University of Texas at Austin astronomer’s black hole discoveries

WHEN

11 a.m. (CST), Tuesday, Sept. 17.

WHERE

The news conference, called a Space Science Update, will originate from NASA headquarters in Washington and will be carried live on NASA TV with two-way question-and-answer capability for reporters covering the event from participating NASA centers. It will also be Webcast live on the Internet at: http://www.nasa.gov.

NASA TV is broadcast on the GE2 satellite, Transponder 9C, at 85 degrees West longitude, frequency 3880.0 MHz, audio 6.8 MHz. Audio of the broadcast will be available on voice circuit at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on 321/867-1220.

 

BACKGROUND

The latest findings from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope confirm for the first time that a previously undetected class of black holes has been found in an unlikely place — implying black holes are more common than previously thought. A press release from The University of Texas at Austin to follow at time of broadcast.

PANELISTS INCLUDE

Dr. Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Roeland Van Der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore
Dr. Marcia Rieke of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tucson
Dr. Steinn Sigurdsson, of the Astronomy Department at Pennsylvania State University, University Park
Dr. Anne Kinney, director of the Astronomy and Physics Division in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters, Washington (Panel Moderator)

CONTACT

Rebecca Johnson, University of Texas at Austin (512-475-6763)
Ray Villard, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore (410-338-4514)

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UT-Austin astronomer discovers massive black holes in two star clusters

NOTE TO EDITORS: For high-resolution images to accompany this release, see: http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pr/2002/18

 

AUSTIN, Texas — University of Texas at Austin astronomer Karl Gebhardt and colleagues have discovered the first black holes lurking in the hearts of two giant clusters of stars. The research provides clues to how the much-heavier "supermassive" black holes, which exist at the centers galaxies like our Milky Way, formed.

A black hole is an infinitely dense region of space, with such high gravity that not even light can escape. For many years, astronomers have known two types — supermassive black holes at the centers of large galaxies and the so-called "stellar-mass" black holes that result when a star about 10 times the Sun’s mass ends its life in a supernova explosion. Both types have been detected and measured, Gebhardt said, but a black hole with a mass in between these two has not been detected before.

Gebhardt, Michael Rich of UCLA and Luis Ho of the Carnegie Institution of Washington recently used the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to spy on G1, a so-called "globular star cluster" in the nearby Andromeda galaxy. Globular clusters are spherical conglomerations of hundreds of thousands to millions of stars. (In contrast, a galaxy like our Milky Way contains about 200 billion stars.)

The team measured the speeds of the stars near the center of the cluster. The faster the stars move, the heavier the object they’re orbiting has to be. They deduced that G1’s central object weighs 20,000 times more than our Sun. This means it must be a black hole.

Gebhardt is also working with another group, including Roeland van der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and others, who similarly studied the globular M15 in our own Milky Way galaxy with HST. They found that M15 harbors a black hole about 4,000 times the Sun’s mass.

"The black holes in G1 and M15 have masses in between stellar-mass and supermassive black holes," Gebhardt said. "They provide an important link that may hold the clue to how supermassive black holes form in galaxies."

Astronomers studying nearby galaxies have discovered a relationship between the size of a galaxy and the mass of the black hole at its heart: The bigger the galaxy, the more massive the black hole. Unfortunately, there are not enough small galaxies nearby to test the relationship at that end of the scale. Gebhardt said that globular star clusters are a good substitute for small galaxies. And the masses of the black holes in G1 and M15 fall in line with the black hole mass/galaxy mass relationship demonstrated in the past by Gebhardt and others.

"This evidence has major consequences about how we think black holes formed in galaxies," Gebhardt said. "Galaxies form out of a large collapsing cloud of gas. And the first things to form in that cloud are globular clusters. Those globulars are very stable, and very likely contained black holes in them at the time of their formation.
"There are two main theories about how galactic black holes form," Gebhardt said. "You could either make the black hole all at once, when the galaxy is forming, by dumping a lot of material in the middle, or you could start with a seed black hole that subsequently grows over time. The observational evidence now points to the idea that you start out with a small seed black hole."

The fact that globular clusters have these small black holes implies that they are excellent candidates to act as the seeds for the supermassive black holes that lurk in the centers of nearly all galaxies.

The G1 research will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The M15 research will be published in two articles in an upcoming issue of The Astronomical Journal.

Gebhardt is studying other globular clusters, looking for more black holes. He will also do follow-up studies of G1 and M15 at The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis.

Gebhardt is an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Astronomy. He may be reached at 512-471-1473 or via email at: gebhardt@astro.as.utexas.edu.

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McDonald Observatory Planet Search finds first planet orbiting close-in binary star

Austin, TX— Astronomers with the McDonald Observatory Planet Search project have discovered the first planet orbiting a star in a close-in binary star system. The discovery has implications for the number of possible planets in our galaxy, because unlike the Sun, most stars are in binary systems. The team will announce their finding this week in a news conference at the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Birmingham, Ala.

Artie Hatzes (Thueringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg), Bill Cochran (UT-Austin McDonald Observatory), and colleagues found that the planet orbits the larger star of the binary system Gamma Cephei, about 45 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus. The primary star is 1.59 times as massive as the Sun. The planet is 1.76 times as massive as Jupiter. It orbits the star at about 2 Astronomical Units (A.U.), a little further than Mars’ distance from the Sun. (An A.U. is the distance from Earth to the Sun.) The second, relatively small star is only 25 to 30 A.U. from the primary star — about Uranus’ distance from the Sun.

Astronomers have found planets orbiting stars in binary systems before, but the stars in those binary systems were a hundred times farther apart than those of Gamma Cephe