Sky & Telescope - February 2021 - 37

Magic Nights on Mount Locke
McDonald Observatory in Texas is a mecca for research astronomers . . .
and for lucky amateurs.

O

ne of the first things you learn as an amateur
astronomer is that deep-sky objects don't quite
look like you imagined. What you see in your
telescope's eyepiece definitely doesn't match pretty Hubble Space Telescope photographs. Even on a good night,
the Crab Nebula is just a pale smudge in the average
backyard scope. The Whirlpool Galaxy? A diffuse patch
of light lacking clearly defined spiral arms. And you've
probably never seen the Horsehead Nebula.
But what if you could harness the aperture of one of
the world's premier research telescopes under pristine
dark skies?
Amazingly, you can.

Splendid Texas Skies
Deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, situated
atop 2,070-meter (6,790-foot) Mount Locke, stands
McDonald Observatory. Here, the same telescopes that
astronomers often wait months to gain access to are
periodically made available to the general public on
Special Viewing Nights. These are rare but well worth
waiting for since they provide the opportunity to view
the heavens through historic observatory instruments,
including the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope, or even the
107-inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope.

However, getting to McDonald Observatory requires
serious commitment. The closest municipal airport is
177 miles away in Midland, Texas. If you travel by car, be
prepared for a 5- to 7-hour drive from the nearest major
city. (Those who attend the annual Texas Star Party,
which is held nearby, will be familiar with the observatory's remoteness.) Roads can become icy in winter, and
at night you have to watch out for the ubiquitous javelina, a kind of wild pig that runs in herds. Despite these
obstacles, the observatory continues to attract more
than 40,000 visitors each year. Astronomers often call
McDonald the " tourist's observatory. "
Why do people continue to make this pilgrimage?
Probably for the same reason that Otto Struve, the
observatory's first director, was initially attracted to the
region. The Davis Mountains in West Texas have some of
the darkest and clearest night skies in the United States
and so are ideal for astronomical research. McDonald
is also a great destination for amateurs, as outreach has
always been a part of the observatory's story. In addition to the Special Viewing Nights, observatory staff and
volunteers host star parties three times a week at the
nearby Frank N. Bash Visitors Center.

E TH A N T WE E D IE PH OTOG R A PH Y

STARS OF MOUNT LOCKE Two of the most important and historic
instruments at McDonald Observatory are the 82-inch Otto Struve
Telescope (housed in the left dome) and the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith
Telescope (right dome). The telescopes are sited at Mount Locke in
West Texas - a location prized by both professional and amateur
astronomers for its pristine sky conditions.

sk yandtelescope.org * FEBRUARY 2 021

37


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Sky & Telescope - February 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - February 2021

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