Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some questions that people frequently ask when planning a visit to McDonald Observatory.
Planning your trip:
- Will the Observatory/Visitors Center be open on (holidays, special dates, etc.)?
- When is the best time to visit the Observatory?
- How do I get to McDonald Observatory?
- Where can we stay while visiting McDonald Observatory?
- What is the nearest airport and car rental to the Observatory?
- Are there places to eat at the Observatory?
- Are there RV hook-ups and/or camping facilities at the Observatory?
- Can I refuel my vehicle (gas/diesel/electricity) at the Observatory?
- Why do the Star Parties start so late in the Summer?
- Is the Observatory handicap-accessible?
- What is your policy on pets at your programs?
- Can I see the Aurora Borealis from the Observatory?
About our programs:
- What can I do if I visit McDonald Observatory?
- Do you require reservations?
- Can large groups join public programs?
- Are Star Parties canceled on cloudy or rainy nights?
- I don't have a telescope, can I still join a Star Party?
- How many people typically attend one of the Star Party programs?
- Do you offer a discount for students/faculty/staff of the University of Texas?
- Will we see live views from the research telescopes?
Answers to the FAQs
An up-to-date listing of all accommodations in the Fort Davis area is available through the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce web site.
For our current reduced-capacity 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 is expected during the program, we will cancel the Star Party and attempt to contact (phone, text message, email) you approximately three hours before program start time. In this case, you would receive a full refund for your program.
If it turns out that our weather forecasting isn't accurate and we end up with rain/hail/lightning/high winds/high dust during the program, that will bring an end to the program and visitors must shelter in their cars. If we end up with merely cloudy skies, then we may offer alternative programming in lieu of live views of astronomical objects.
Directions to the Observatory from the major highways in the area are available in the Visiting section of our site.
At this time, The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center is open only for Star Parties. Beginning October 24, 2020, limited Guided Tour programs will also be held. Star Parties and Guided Tours will only occur on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
All spaces at the Visitors Center are ADA accessible.
The Visitors Center is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Day, and New Years' Eve and Day.
Reservations are required for programs and to be present on Observatory grounds; no exeptions will be made. To ensure program participation, make advance reservations online. All programs are subject to capacity limits.
Typically Autumn brings us our most consistently clear skies. July and August tend to be the rainy season. 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, Spring/Summer will be the best time for seeing Saturn and Jupiter.
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.
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.)
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
Private airstrips are avialable in Marfa and Alpine (both about 40 miles from the Observatory). Both have car rental services. For commercial flights, the nearest airports are in El Paso (185 miles) and Midland-Odessa (170 miles). Although you can count on roughly 2.5 to 3 hour drives from either, when driving from El Paso you'll lose an hour going from Mountain time (El Paso) to Central time (McDonald).
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.
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.
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. If you have any questions concerning your group's visit, please feel free to contact us. Please note that our current reduced-capacity programs will sell out quickly so groups will want to make reservations as early as possible.
The Aurora Borealis is only rarely seen at latitudes below 35 degrees. The Observatory is at 30 degrees north, so seeing the aurorae here is quite rare ... happening perhaps only a half of a dozen times every solar cycle (approx. 11 years.) Typically, solar and geomagnetic activity must be at an extreme maximum for us to see any activity at all and is difficult to predict at best. An excellent resource for learning more about such activity is the NASA supported site called SpaceWeather.com.
Currently, our Star Parties have a reduced capacity of 50 people. Reservations are required; no exceptions will be made.
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.
No. Astronomers at McDonald use spectroscopy for their reserach. This involves splitting the light of an astronomical object into its component colors and carefully analyzing that spectrum. The output are large data sets. While these data are beautiful to the scientists, they're pretty boring for the general public.
No. There are no fuels available at the Observatory. The nearest standard fueling stations to McDonald Observatory are in Fort Davis, which is 15 miles from the Observatory.
There are currently three electric car charging options in the wide area "near" McDonald Observatory. One is at El Cosmico in Marfa (https://elcosmico.com, 38 miles from the Observatory), Stable Performance Cars in Alpine (http://thestablealpine.com, 45 miles from the Observatory), and the Balmorhea Visitors Center (50 miles from the Observatory). As of this time, all of these are the slow chargers that require overnight charging. Please verify these services before traveling to west Texas.