The Frank N Bash Visitors Center is the starting point for a visit to the McDonald Observatory in Texas. The visitors center hosts a variety of tours, exhibitions, and public programs to educate the public on science and astronomy.
Guided day-time tours offer a close look at the research telescopes of the observatory and include access to the permanent exhibits and the 45-minute Solar Viewing Program, which allows guests to see the sun, our closest star, up close through the eyes of a telescopes filtered to specially view the sun. On the guided tours, guests will drive to the top of the hill to enjoy the view and learn about the surrounding Texas peaks, as well as visit two of the five telescopes of the observatory, the 107-inch telescope and the Hobby-Eberly telescope. The Harlen J Smith 107-inch telescope was the third-largest in the world when it was built in 1968. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is among the world’s largest optical telescopes and was built in 1997.
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The visitors center is open at night on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturdays for their Star Parties and Twilight Programs, which offer guests a night-time visit to the observatory to see the stars and other night-sky objects. Viewing nights on the 107-inch telescope allow guest to look through the telescope at three different objects under the guidance of a researcher. The 82-inch Otto Struve telescope and the 32-inch telescope are also used for viewing nights. Viewing nights are not suitable for children under 10 years old.
For those looking for a more intimate experience with a single telescope, the observatory offers special viewing nights. These nights are scheduled when the telescopes are not being used for research purposes, and the calendar of events may be found on the McDonald Observatory website.
The McDonald Observatory is a research arm of the University of Texas at Austin and is located approximately 450 miles west of the main Austin campus. Telescopes sit at the top of Mount Locke and the neighboring Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains. This area was chosen for its distance from the city lights and its dark night skies. The facility was born in 1926 when W.J. McDonald, a Texas banker, gifted the bulk of his fortune to the University of Texas to seed an astronomical observatory. At the time, the University of Texas had no astronomy department of its own, and thus partnered with the University of Chicago in 1932 to begin building the observatory. The land was donated in 1933, and by 1939 the observatory was dedicated, with the Otto Struve telescope, which had been completed in 1938. The telescope’s dome once housed the entire observatory and even had sleeping quarters for the astronomers. At the time, it was the second-largest telescope in the world; it is still in use today. Today’s observatory makes use of several telescopes atop the two hills on site, and is also collaborating with eleven international partners to construct the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. It is expected to be the world’s largest telescope when complete.
Ongoing Programs and Education
The Twilight Program is offered three evenings each week and is a 60-minute educational program. The Modeling the Night Sky program is typically offered when the moon is not visible. In this program guests learn about the solar system and how we view objects in the solar system from our perspective here on earth. On nights when the moon is visible, the Earth’s Companion: The Moon program is offered. The moon program educates visitors on the phases of the moon, solar and lunar eclipses, and the features of the moon that will be visible to them should they choose to stay for the Star Party. The Star Parties takes place after the Twilight Programs and offer tours of the constellations and other night-sky objects through several of the telescopes at the observatory. Star Parties last approximately two hours. Reservations are required as these popular programs almost always sell out. Guests should be aware that all programs are partially outdoors.
In addition to the Twilight and Star Party programs, the observatory offers educational programming for school groups both onsite and via video conference, as well as materials and curriculums for teachers to use in their classrooms. The Ask an Astronomer program is an online Q & A where participants may ask questions and search answers to past questions on any astronomy subject.
The McDonald Observatory is nationally known as the producer of the StarDate radio program as well as the StarDate magazine and website.
Back to: Texas
3640 Dark Sky Drive, Fort Davies, TX 79734, Phone: 432-426-3640