Comments, Questions, and Internet Links

Here are some questions that people frequently ask when planning a visit to McDonald Observatory.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are your recommendations for places to stay while visiting McDonald Observatory?
  2. Are Star Parties canceled on cloudy or rainy nights?
  3. How do I get to McDonald Observatory?
  4. What can I do if I visit McDonald Observatory?
  5. Is the Observatory handicap-accessible?
  6. Will the Observatory/Visitors Center be open on (holidays, special dates, etc.)?
  7. Can you mail me some/all of this information?
  8. Can I get a nighttime tour of the Observatory?
  9. Do your public programs require reservations?
  10. What is the best time to visit the Observatory?
  11. I'm traveling with young children. Why do the Star Parties have to start so late in the Summer?
  12. I don't have a telescope, can I still join a Star Party?
  13. I have my own telescope, can I set up during the Star Party?
  14. What is your policy on pets at your programs?
  15. Are there waiting lists for your Special Viewing Nights programs?
  16. What is the nearest airport and car rental to the Observatory?
  17. Are there places to eat at the Observatory?
  18. Are there RV hook-ups and/or camping facilities at the Observatory?
  19. How far in advance do I need to make reservations for a private program?
  20. Can large groups join the regular public programs?
  21. I'm interested is seeing the Aurora Borealis, when can I come to the Observatory to see them?
  22. How many people typically attend one of the Star Party programs?
  23. Do you offer a discount for students/faculty/staff of the University of Texas?
  24. Why don't you show us live views from the research telescopes?
  25. Why don't you use cameras and video displays to show objects being viewed at the Star Parties?
  26. Can I refuel my vehicle (gas/diesel/electricity) at the Observatory?

Answers to the FAQs

What are your recommendations for places to stay while visiting McDonald Observatory?

An up-to-date listing of all accommodations in the Fort Davis area is available through the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce web site.

Are Star Parties canceled on cloudy or rainy nights?

No, Star Parties are held rain or shi ... er ... well ... clear skies. If it's too cloudy/rainy/windy/dusty/humid (we get strange weather up here sometimes) to do our observing, we conduct indoor programs instead. These may include "virtual" Sky tours, spectroscopy demonstrations (an activity designed to give our visitors a better understanding of how astronomers learn about the universe), or presentations on satellite viewing. Occasionally, research astronomers will join us to provide talks on their current research programs. Because we have such a wide array of interesting, educational programs to present on these nights, many visitors who've joined both clear-night and cloudy-night programs tell us that they feel like they learned even more about astronomy on the cloudy-night. We do understand that some folks, for whatever reason, may not want to stay for these indoor programs. For those who decide NOT to participate in any of our indoor activities, rain-checks are typically offered and reschedules are offered to those who made online reservations. Refunds, minus a small processing fee, are typically also made available on completely cloudy/rainy nights. The rain-checks, reschedules, and refunds process will be discussed at the beginning of the program or at whatever time it is deemed that a nominal Star Party program cannot be offered. Rain-checks, reschedules, and refunds are typically only offered at the beginning of the program ... after the talks, demos, etc., have begun, we assume those remaining plan to stay.  For more on what happens at our Star Parties, be sure to read the "Learn more about what happens at the Star Parties ..." drop-down text available on the Star Party & Twilight Program page.

How do I get to McDonald Observatory?

Directions to the Observatory from the major highways in the area are available in the Visiting section of our site.

What can I do on a visit to McDonald Observatory?

We offer Daytime Programs and multiple Star Party programs a week as well as occasional Special Viewing programs on our research telescopes. While access to the research telescopes outside of the guided tours is limited, visitors are welcome to explore the grounds 10:00a - 5:00p daily with a self-guided tour map ($1 suggested donation) that you can pick up at the Information Desk.

Is the Observatory wheelchair accessible?

Most spaces are ADA accessible. Our 36" Special Viewing Night and 82" Special Viewing Night are NOT wheelchair accessible. If you're considering joining this program and have accessibility concerns, please call our Visitors Center at (432) 426-3640. In late summer of 2010, we unveiled a spectacular new telescope at our Visitors Center which is specifically designed for wheelchair access.

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

The Visitors Center is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years' Day. Star Party programs are not scheuled on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve. The Gift Shop is closed one day each year near the end of August in order to conduct an annual inventory. If you are wondering if this may happen on the day you're planning to visit, feel free to call us (432-426-3640). Other than these times, the Center is open 10:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. every day.

Can you mail me some/all this information?

Our web site is designed to provide the most current information in the most timely way. We have little printed information which is much more generic than what appears on these pages. What we do have printed can be obtained by calling the Visitors Center at 432-426-3640.

Can I get a nighttime tour of the Observatory?

Tours of our facility are conducted every day at 11:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. Nighttime access is generally restricted to our Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the Frank Bash Visitors Center where Star Parties are conducted and occasional Special Viewing programs on our research telescopes.

Do your public programs require reservations?

All programs are subject to capacity limits. Reservations are STRONGLY encouraged. Check our online reservations system for our regular weekly programs, the Guided Tours, Solar Viewings, Twilight Programs, and Star Parties. Reservations are also required (typically months in advance) for our Special Viewing Nights on the 107", 82", and 36" research telescopes.

What is the best time to visit the Observatory?

There's no easy way to answer that one ... it depends on what you want to do or see. To see the research areas, you'll want to visit between 10:00 A.M. and 4:30 P.M. daily (particularly, the Guided Tours.) For nighttime telescope viewing, our Star Parties are your best bet. If you're asking for the best time of year to visit us, typically Autumn brings us our most consistently clear skies. Over the next few years, Spring/Summer will be the best time for seeing Saturn and Jupiter.  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.

I'm traveling with young children. Why do the Star Parties have to start so late in the Summer?

As much as we'd like to start the Star Parties in the Summer at an earlier time, it is just not dark enough to do so 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.

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.)

I have my own telescope, can I set up during the Star Party?

The Observatory welcomes volunteers. However, University policy requires volunteers to have a current background check on file with the Observatory before volunteering with the public. If you plan to be in our area and would like to volunteer either with your telescope or using one of ours, please email our volunteer coordinator to find out more about volunteering and the background check process. If, after the background check process, you do plan to set up your own telescope, understand that the public Star Parties frequently accommodate 300-500 attendees. If you would rather not have that many people around your expensive equipment, volunteering to use one of our telescopes is more than appreciated and welcome.

You are also welcome set up your telescope on non-Star Party nights and/or well away from the public telescope park facility. Do note that the Observatory is not a campground or park. If you’re observing, you’re welcome to be on-site. Please do not plan to over-night either with a camper/trailer, RV, or tent.

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 waiting lists for your Special Viewing Nights programs?

Our online reservation system gives an up-to-date status on the availability of all of our programs.  If the status is showing in red, it means the program is sold out .. green means there are passes available.  If the program in which you're interested is showing as sold out, you may add yourself to an automated waiting list by clicking on the "Waiting List" link.  However, the waiting list does not guarantee you a place on the program in the event of a cancellation.  All the waiting list does is notify you via email in the event of a cancellation.  Once you receive such an email, you'll still need to sign up for the program before anyone else does to secure your spot(s).  You might also find our regular Star Party programs to be quite enjoyable.  While we do occasionally receive requests for cancellations, such requests are rare .. particularly for the various Special Viewing Nights.  We do not maintain call-back lists for our programs.

What is the nearest airport and car rental to the Observatory?

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).

Are there places to eat at the Observatory?

The StarDate Cafe offers various freshly prepared hot & cold sandwiches as well as various snacks, cold drinks, coffee, hot chocolate, etc. There are many restaurants in Fort Davis offering a reasonably wide variety of food. There are several roadside picnic tables 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.

How far in advance do I need to make reservations for a private program?

Private programs must be arranged at least 45 days prior to the date you are requesting. 

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. On occasion, we can offer private activities that may better suit your group's needs. If you have any questions concerning your group's visit, please feel free to contact us.

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 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.

How many people typically attend one of the Star Party programs?

Star Party attendance varies throughout the year, but 300-500 visitors is not unusual in the high season. Please see the Star Party averages page for more information on this subject.

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.

Why don't you show us live views from the research telescopes?

When an astronomer does research with a large telescope, the majority of the time, they're not using cameras to produce a pretty picture that would be suitable for displaying on a screen at the Visitors Center or on your computer at home. 80% of the time, astronomers at McDonald are using spectroscopy ... splitting the light of an astronomical object up into its component colors and carefully analyzing that spectrum. The telescopes are generally used to produce large data sets.

Why don't you use cameras and video displays to show objects being viewed at the Star Parties?

We beleive there are other sources of viewing astronomical features online. Star Parties and other events hosted at the Visitors Center provide an opportunity to view features through large telescopes under clear dark skies. There aren't that many places where that's possible. Producing a live image of an astronomical object on a screen requires highly sensitive (and very expensive) cameras to capture the faint light of, say, a distant galaxy. While there are cameras that can do this ... albeit with exposure times of many seconds so the view is not, technically, "live" ... the images that are produced with such devices are generally nowhere near the quality of the images that are produced by cameras that take many minutes to hours of exposure time and a great deal of image-processing work. The human eye, under dark conditions and allowed to fully dark-adapted, is exquisitely sensitive to light and is capable of seeing subtleties of intensity and structure that are lost in video images. We find that most of our visitors want to view directly through our telescopes, so that's what we do. 

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

No. The nearest standard fueling stations (i.e, gasoline and diesel) to McDonald Observatory are in Fort Davis, which is 15 miles from the Observatory.  There are no fuels available at 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.