Friday, November 14, 2008
The stars at night are big and bright deep … in West Texas, where McDonald Observatory sits in the Davis Mountains.
My wife and I topped off a trip to Big Bend National Park by attending a Star Party at the observatory on Nov. 8. We had a quick dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Fort Davis and drove the 17 winding miles to the observatory. We knew we were getting close when we saw two white telescope domes basking in the moonlight.
We were two of the about 230 visitors at the party that night, an unusually high number for that time of year.
The party begins with the group gathered in the dark in the outdoor amphitheater near the visitors center. The temperature was in the 40s, but if you dress appropriately (it’s about the layers), you’ll be OK.
Frank Cianciolo, senior program coordinator at the Bash Visitors Center at the observatory, started things off with a talk that touched on several celestial subjects and pointed out several heavenly bodies.
He told the story of Perseus and Andromeda and how the ancient Greeks might have employed those constellations and others to depict that tale and others that make up so much of Greek mythology.
He also pointed out the things we would look at through telescopes arrayed outside the visitors center.
The Pegasus cluster was the farthest at 33,600 light years away. That means the light that we saw left the cluster 33,600 years and six days ago (as of this posting).
Why were those chosen?
“We tend to pick those objects that are reasonably large or large enough to show some detail through the telescope,” Cianciolo said. “We also pick objects that most folks will have a reasonable chance of being able to see.”
The staff did a great job of explaining what we were looking at, how far away it was and other questions that might have strained the composure of less patient people.
The longest and slowest line was the one for viewing the moon. That people would linger longer looking at the lunar surface was completely understandable once I got my eye on it. The Moon’s features could be seen in great detail.
“With constantly changing patterns of light, the Moon is an infinitely fascinating subject,” Cianciolo said.
The observatory has offered public viewings since University of Chicago astronomers went to the Fort Davis area to scope out the best peaks for astronomy. The Star Party is one of the observatory’s many outreach efforts.
It helps that astronomy is a somewhat accessible science: All you have to do is look up.
And a Star Party at McDonald Observatory, away from the big city lights, is a great place to do it.