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Star Search: The McDonald Observatory opens new center for visitors

The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, which welcomes thousands of visitors each year to its bilingual (English/Spanish) exhibits, theater, cafe and gift shop, has opened a new Visitors Center in a more than $6 million effort to expand its outreach and educational opportunities.

Visitors enjoy the Sundial Court at The McDonald Observatory Visitors Center.
Photo: Hester + Hardaway Photographers
Visitors enjoy the Sundial Court at The McDonald Observatory Visitors Center. The domes of the Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve Telescopes are visible atop Mt. Locke in the distance.
more Visitors Center images . .
“I’m pleased to report that Jeff Davis County, Texas, now has one of the best small science centers in the country,” McDonald Observatory Director Frank Bash said. “The state of Texas should be very proud that it supports one of the best observatories in the world. Through the legislature and through Texas foundations, we’ve built one of the world’s great telescopes."

The new 12,000-square-foot Visitors Center will be able to accommodate the 130,000 visitors McDonald Observatory receives every year. In addition to hosting families and vacationers to the observatory, the new center will take on a larger role in K-12 education.

“It’s important to McDonald Observatory to promote K-12 science education,” Bash said. “This new facility will help us excite students about science and technology and is designed to inspire them to pursue careers in those fields.”

Visitors in watching an orientation presentation.
Photo: Hester + Hardaway Photographers
Visitors watch an orientation presentation inside the theater at The McDonald Observatory Visitors Center.
more Visitors Center images . .
Teacher workshops will be given at the Visitors Center’s laboratory-style classroom, which is equipped with advanced audio and video capabilities. Workshop leaders will use astronomy-based activities to promote both the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the National Science Education Standards. The Texas State Board of Educator Certification recently authorized McDonald Observatory to offer continuing education credits to Texas teachers.

“Teachers who come here will be totally immersed in astronomy, staying for one to five days, attending workshops by day and observing the stars at night,” said Marc Wetzel, education coordinator for McDonald Observatory. “We hope to share with them the fun and fascination of science, and we hope they will pass it on to their students.”

Pre- and post-visit support for teachers, funded by a grant from NASA and designed with the help of teachers, will be available through a free Web site, teacher guides and other materials.

For vacationers and other visitors, the new Visitors Center offers an interactive exhibit, a 90-seat theater, the StarDate Cafe and an astronomy gift shop. Expanded outdoor venues surround the building and will accommodate more visitors than ever before at McDonald’s famous star parties, constellation tours and solar viewing. Participants of the star parties and constellation tours take a tour of the constellations and view the moon, planets, stars, galaxies and other objects through large telescopes — while marveling at some of the darkest night skies in North America. Solar viewing occurs during the day, when visitors use a 16-inch telescope with a Hydrogen Alpha filter to provide a safe view of the many features of the Sun.

McDonald is home to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the largest telescope in the world specializing in the study of light through spectroscopy and the third largest single structure optical telescope in the world. The “Decoding Starlight” exhibit inside the new Visitors Center explains spectroscopy — basically, how astronomers break light into its wavelengths to unlock its secrets — in both English and Spanish. More than five years of planning and a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation went into producing this exhibit.

For further information contact: Rebecca Johnson, McDonald Observatory, (512) 475-6763.

Office of Public Affairs
P O Box Z
Austin, Texas

(512) 471-3151
FAX (512) 471-5812

  Updated 2014 October 13
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