McDonald Observatory

Posted: January 22, 2011 in Science, Travel
Tags: , , , ,

So I’m more than a bit late with this entry. Mea culpa; I’ve been busy. Things like that happen. The problem with traveling for the holidays is that when you get back, you’ve missed a whole bunch of work. Also, when you miss a whole bunch of work that means you get to catch up on it in your spare time; ergo less time to blog. Details of the trip are going to be spread over several posts so hopefully you won’t get overloaded all at once.

I already posted about the first part of our trip. Once we left Big Bend, we stopped and spent the day at the McDonald Observatory. Details and pictures are below the fold.


Big Bend 474 - Version 2.jpg

In the background you can see the dome for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. It’s one of the largest in the world (not the largest, that one is in Spain), but it has a fairly unique design. It’s not the only telescope at the observatory. They have a couple of others, but the neatest one is the 107 inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope which you can see here:

Big Bend 483.jpg

They had the scope down for servicing, and we got to see inside the tube and look at the actual mirror. If you look closely on the lower right side of the mirror, you can see three little pock marks. Those marks are bullet holes. All right, not really holes, but places where the mirror was shot. Yep. Shot. Here’s a closer picture of the bullet holes:

Big Bend 483 - Version 2.jpg

Now I can understand you saying, “Those crazy Texans!” but it wasn’t someone from Texas. It was a guy from OHIO of all places, who was working at the observatory. He went nuts and shot the mirror. Moral of the story: don’t give guns to people from Ohio.

Not too many people get to actually see the bullet holes because the mirror is not normally in the servicing position when the tours come through. We just happened to get lucky that day. I have only found Bill Keel’s picture of the holes when I looked on the intertubes. If you know of another picture of them, let me know in the comments.

We took the tour, saw the telescopes, heard the stories, and enjoyed the real-time solar observation since we were there during the day. It was pretty neat to watch things happening on the sun in real-time (all right there’s an 8 minute and change delay due to the speed of light, but who’s counting).

I’m a big fan of observatories. They are a fabulous way for the public to interact with science. A lot of what scientists do isn’t really tangible to the general public, but astronomy is–in a way that is genuinely engaging. Now I admit that the McDonald Observatory is on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. But if you want dark skies, that’s pretty much where you have to go. But if you’re going to be out in West Texas anyway, I TOTALLY recommend staying an extra day (and night if you can) to see the observatory and hit a star party.

  1. Gabriel says:

    Cool, i was thinking the whole story could be a urban legend!

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