Monthly Archives: February 2015

McDonald Observatory

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The Green-tailed Towhee, another new bird to add to our list.

The Green-tailed Towhee, another new bird to add to our list.

Tuesday Evening – February 10

It’s about 6 PM as we load Trixie and Eddie in the truck to head over to the McDonald Observatory for this evening’s Star Party. It’s 15 miles away along the the 75 mile scenic loop drive through the Davis Mountains region. The Observatory is a University of Texas at Austin research facility and is open to the public. It’s Tuesday night, we’re in the middle of nowhere, the campground is almost empty, and we appear to be the only car on the road. I suspect we’ll have the Star Party to ourselves.

University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory located about 15 miles north of Ft. Davis, TX.

University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory located about 15 miles north of Ft. Davis, TX.

Where did all these people come from?

Boy, was I wrong! We arrive at sunset and the parking lot is crammed with cars. We head inside to buy our tickets and there’s hundreds of people waiting in the lobby for the show to begin. This must be one popular event. I still wonder where these people are staying.

Once the sun fully sets and the stars come out, we along with a few hundred other folks, head over to the outdoor arena. Before we leave the lobby, a volunteer tells us not to turn on any flashlights, smartphones or tablets. Red downward-facing lights, which do not impact your night vision, illuminate the walkway to the arena. I always knew your pupils dilate in the dark but tonight I learn there’s a chemical released in your eyes which makes your vision much more sensitive in the dark. This chemical takes about 30 minutes to fully form and the presence of white light can cause it to instantly disappear.

The night sky is amazing this evening. We’ve never seen so many stars before. We’re about 6000 feet above sea level, there’s not a cloud in the sky and being so far from civilization, there’s minimal light pollution. There’s a glow in the western sky which most of the audience incorrectly attributes to El Paso, 200 miles to the west, but we learn it’s actually sunlight reflecting off space dust far above the earth. The presenter uses a powerful laser to point out constellations and planets in the sky. He also points out a few satellites passing overhead, one of which suddenly emits an iridium flare, or bright white flash caused by the sun reflecting off its solar panels. The audience cries out, “ooh, aah” and even the presenter is surprised by this.

After an hour or so, the presentation ends and we head over to the many telescopes that have been set up for the audience. One is trained on a comet, another displays a cluster of four stars in Orion’s belt that appear as a single star to the naked eye, and another is focused on an area of the sky where stars are being born. There’s a few other telescopes as well but our favorite is the one focused on Jupiter where we can see its streaked gaseous surface and 3 of its 4 large moons. The fourth moon is directly over Jupiter tonight and by looking closely we can see its shadow passing over the planet’s surface. Jupiter has over 60 moons and I learn that 4 are visible with a good set of binoculars. Sure enough, I am able to clearly see 3 moons with our Canon Image-Stabilized 18×50 binoculars. This is so cool.

Cindy and I have never been all that interested in astronomy. Before this evening, we could identify a few well known constellations and have spotted the International Space Station flying overhead. But tonight’s Star Party inspires us to spend more time exploring the nighttime sky, especially as we travel throughout remote regions of the western United States and Canada. Over the next few nights, I plan to photograph Jupiter and its moons.

A few nights after visiting the McDonald Observatory, I took this photo of Jupiter with a Canon 5D using a 800mm lens. The image has been severely cropped to show the streaked atmosphere of Jupiter’s surface.

A few nights after visiting the McDonald Observatory, I took this photo of Jupiter with a Canon 5D using a 800mm lens (the same lens I use for bird photography). The image has been severely cropped to show the streaked atmosphere of Jupiter’s surface.

In this photo, I had to overexpose the planet of Jupiter to capture Jupiter’s large moons. All 4 were visible the night this photo was taken.

In this photo, I had to overexpose the planet of Jupiter to capture Jupiter’s large moons. All 4 were visible the night I took this photo.

Leaving Texas

It’s Monday, February 16th and it’s time to leave Davis Mountains State Park. We had planned to stay only 3 nights but enjoyed the area so much we ended up staying 10. We’ll definitely be back.

Today we’re headed to Guadalupe National Park. Our route takes us through the town of Marfa, TX an unlikely art oasis in the middle of nowhere. We pass by the Prada Marfa Store which is a permanently installed sculpture north of Valentine TX on Highway 90. It’s bizarre to see this in the middle of the desert.

The Prada art sculpture is starting to naturally deteriorate which is an intentional aspect of this work.

The Prada art sculpture is starting to naturally deteriorate which is an intentional aspect of this work.

We never made it back after dark to see if the lights of Marfa were visible. Perhaps next time.

We never made it back after dark to see if the lights of Marfa were visible. Perhaps next time.

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