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mcdonald observatory8/27 Ruth Campbell<br>Staff WriterMidland Reporter-Telegram 08/23/2006FORT DAVIS -- McDonald Observatory visitors often come out starry-eyed and just a bit more knowledgeable than when they arrived. Star parties are held year-round, running from just after sunset to an hour past on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. The starting point is a 500-seat outdoor amphitheater. Also, there are daily solar viewings in the theater at the visitors' center and periodic observatory tours. "We have connectivity with the telescope on the grounds of the visitors' center that brings live video feed into the theater," said Frank W. Cianciolo said, senior program coordinator. People have asked about looking through the telescopes astronomers use, but that's not feasible because they work nights. "We get 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a year. We get a huge spike in the spring right at spring break, usually in mid-March where we will have 800 to 1,000 at a star party," Cianciolo said. "But for big star parties like that, we bring in people from an amateur group in Alpine (Big Bend Astronomical Association), extra people from Austin and do extra tours," he said. Although the installation hosts people from all over the world, they don't see many from the Permian Basin. "We see lots of folks from Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. We'd like to see more people from Midland and Odessa. It is a resource we'd like to see people take advantage of," he said. "There are very few major observatories that are as publicly accessible as McDonald. On a day-to-day basis, we are the most open to the public ...," he said. To help attract more visitors, a new telescope being constructed on the visitor center grounds will be wheelchair accessible. An anonymous contributor donated the $100,000 for the telescope, which is expected to be operational by next spring. "This telescope has been designed from the ground up. ... I think this will be a great improvement on what we have to offer to mobility-challenged folks," Cianciolo said. "It should actually provide awesome views. The design of it makes for a very impressive image. Views of the telescope will be the best we have to offer at the visitors' center," he said. Nick Smith, a summer student worker who is attending Carleton College in Minnesota, was a tour guide on a recent summer afternoon. He explained the history of the observatory to a group of visitors from all over the country and globe. The observatory originated in 1926 when Paris, Texas, banker and amateur astronomer William J. McDonald left his estate to the University of Texas to build an observatory. He didn't have a strong connection to UT and did not know the school didn't have an observatory. At the same time, the University of Chicago was looking for new observatory facilities and made a 30-year deal with UT to put it near Fort Davis. The location was chosen because it had the darkest skies in the continental United States with clear nights more than two-thirds of the year, the remote location and 6,800-foot elevation, Smith said. The dome of the 107-inch telescope weighs about 1 million pounds. Astronomers view their work on computers without looking through the eyepiece of a telescope. Out of half a dozen computer screens, one is always on Doppler radar for weather. The Hobby Eberly Telescope, fronted by the George T. Abel Viewing Gallery, is made up of 91 different mirrored segments that fit together like floor tile. Jan and Charlie Hardy of Rising Star took the tour recently. "We just wanted to see the observatory and see the telescopes," Charlie Hardy said. Patricia Velez of El Paso said she and her family mostly visited the area to go camping. "I thought it was interesting this is the third largest telescope in the world," she said. "I think it's really neat," Rick Lindberg of Dallas said. "A friend of mine told me about it and said it was something we couldn't miss. We were in Santa Fe and changed our trip at the end." "I think it's phenomenal. I think it's great. ... I love this stuff," Lindberg said. In addition to teaching visitors about the heavens, the observatory also hosts teacher workshops to show instructors how to teach astronomy. One room in the old visitors' center was converted into a studio for distance learning so the observatory can do outreach to schools anywhere in Texas, virtual tours of the observatory and other guided activities, he said. "At this point, we've concentrated on Texas curriculum, but we've also tried to align these activities and what we're teaching to national standards as well," Cianciolo said. "... We get people from all over the country ... not just Texas teachers." 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. 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 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.©MyWestTexas.com 2006
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