Sky & Telescope - February 2021 - 40

Observing Adventures

S OLD GIANT Completed in 1939, the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope is
one of the last large telescopes designed primarily for visual observing.
When it saw first light, the Struve ranked as the world's second-largest
telescope - only the 100-inch on Mount Wilson, in California, was bigger. In 1966, the instrument was named after McDonald Observatory's
first director.

40

FEBRUARY 2 021 * SK Y & TELESCOPE

W BRIGHT INTRUDER For deep-sky
enthusiasts, the Moon is a notoriously
unwelcome presence, lighting up the night.
Even mountaintop observatories far from
city lights aren't immune, of course. While
visiting McDonald, the author captured this
view of the dome of the 107-inch telescope
partially eclipsing the lunar disk.

Biding My Time
There was certainly a lot to see while
I waited. I was allowed to tag along
with the engineering team I'd met at
the Lodge when they upgraded the spectrograph on the 107inch. They were installing a new pivoting mirror at the base
of the telescope to allow astronomers to easily choose which
spectrograph slit to use. I got to see the telescope moved into
unusual positions as the engineers tried to correct a slight
shift in alignment that occurred when the telescope's orientation changed.
Although clear skies are the site's main attraction, rainy
nights can prove interesting, too. On one such occasion I was
invited to visit the Hobby-Eberly Telescope on nearby Mount
Fowlkes for a close-up look at the 91 hexagonal mirrors that
make this 433-inch instrument so unique. It's rare to get an
opportunity to see the scope up close and walk around on
the observatory floor. Everything about the Hobby-Eberly is
different. Unfortunately, one difference is that there's no
eyepiece to look through!
At the end of my week on Mount Locke I'd managed to
see every nook and cranny of the observatory's four major
telescopes. The dark skies of the Davis Mountains were everything I'd imagined they'd be. The only thing left was to peer
into the eyepiece of the 82-inch.
Sadly, this wasn't meant to be. Shortly after I finished my
first week on the mountain, the university decided to close
the entire facility to visitors and non-essential staff. The
coronavirus ended my quest. I was disappointed, of course,
but I was also extremely grateful that everything worked out
as well as it did. As I said my goodbyes and prepared to leave, I
realized that if my visit had been scheduled for just one week
later, I probably wouldn't have gotten to see anything.
The night the university canceled the star parties turned
out to be the best observing opportunity of my life. I can
understand why the 36-inch is a favorite among the resident
astronomers. It's a remarkable instrument - I can't wait to
get behind the eyepiece again.
The observatory is quiet now, but the telescopes are still
there, waiting. When the world returns to normal, I'll be
back. There's so much more to see.

„ JOHN SEALANDER is a writer and photographer based in
Dallas, Texas. After a 40-year career in the advertising industry, he now spends his time rescuing Dalmatians, visiting
observatories, and attending rocket launches at the Kennedy
Space Center.

JOHN SE AL ANDER (2)

bright, slightly oval nebulous ring
that gives the object its name. Gemini's famed planetary NGC 2392 was
equally impressive. I couldn't detect
the colors presented in Hubble
images, but the planetary's intricate
features were clearly evident. The
Owl Nebula (M97) in Ursa Major
even looked like its namesake. I
could appreciate why Lord Rosse
compared its features to the face of
an owl when he observed it with his
72-inch telescope in 1848.
One of the most exciting objects we viewed that evening
was M46. This bright open cluster in Puppis is beautiful, but
what makes it a fine target for the 36-inch is NGC 2438,
a small planetary nebula seemingly embedded within the
cluster. The juxtaposition of the distant open cluster with the
much closer planetary was fascinating.
I could have easily spent the rest of the night observing
familiar targets, but eventually the Moon rose and viewing faint deep-sky objects became difficult. It looked like
conditions might be better later in the week, so Stephen and
I agreed to return to the 36-inch then to continue observing. There was even a good chance that the 82-inch scope
might be available if I was willing to stick around. Since I
had already waited years for this opportunity, staying on the
mountain a little longer seemed like a very good plan.



Sky & Telescope - February 2021

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

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Sky & Telescope - February 2021 - 1
Sky & Telescope - February 2021 - Contents
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