McDonald Observatory: Jewel of the night sky in West Texas

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by JOHN McCAA

Bio | Email | Follow: @johnmccaa

WFAA

Posted on May 28, 2014 at 10:10 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 3 at 3:41 PM

WEST TEXAS — The same stars that fascinated Galileo... that guided Columbus... are there for all to see.

However, if you look up from most any backyard in North Texas, you will fail to witness the night sky in all its glory.

The reason: Our insistence on coaxing light into every nook and cranny of the night means stars are disappearing nearly every place in the United States.

Except one.

In almost no other place in America is the sky darker than above the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis in the Big Bend area of Southwest Texas. Each clear night, without the aid of any telescope or binoculars, you can see more stars than anywhere else in the state.

Now, the secret is getting out.

While the observatory sits in the most remote area of the state, 68,000 people come here each year, just to visit or to attend events like McDonald's "Star Parties."

That's when people like you and me who aren't scientists can see the stars and the planets and the massive telescopes like the 107-inch Hobby Eberly... or the 75-year-old Otto Struve telescope... or one of the many others peeking into the galactic night from this near-perfect viewing oasis.

Frank Cianciolo has been on staff here for years. He reminds every visitor that there was a time when the same view of the Milky Way and every constellation seen over McDonald was available to see nearly everywhere.

“Long before there were big towns and cities create that light pollution, we were seeing these dark skies. That’s why we have constellations, and why those constellations have stories," he explained.

From those stars, he says, developed many of the myths and legends we still hear today. Those "stories" still fuel stargazers who come here to see what their grandparents saw, now hiding in plain sight.

The good news for astronomy lovers is that a special state law governs the 28,000 square miles surrounding the observatory. It gives the staff some input about lighting in the region.

They work with neighbors in seven counties, protecting the darkness and protecting their research by recommending the correct lights to use and how to point them down — not up or out.

It seems to be working.

They showed us example after example of proper lighting that lets people and businesses be seen without causing any problems with excess light (and affecting what the telescopes can “see”), which they call light pollution.

“The lighting here on the sign at the Hotel Lympia is a perfect example of dark sky-friendly lighting," one observatory staffer told us. "It's a well-lit sign. You can read it.”

However, it's not just that type of light pollution that's a problem. A few years ago, wildfires scorched thousands of acres across the state and near the observatory, limiting visibility through the telescopes and producing an astronomer’s nightmare.

“When you consider the fact also that there was lots of smoke in there, lots of particulate matter, these things are very bad for the optics of the telescope," Cianciolo said.

Add to that the boom in oil and gas exploration and the bright lights of drillers. Drilling in the Permian Basin, according to McDonald Observatory superintendent Thomas Barnes, is beginning to have an impact.

"If you stand on our mountaintops and look off to the north and east at night, you will see a glow on the horizon," he said.

Looking northwest from Fort Davis on a clear night, the lights of El Paso can be seen, 200 miles away. In another direction, the town of Pecos and some of the nighttime drilling sites come into focus.

Protecting the darkness has motivated researchers to reach out to the public. They reason that the better people understand what they do, the stronger their argument for more funding and further research at McDonald.

It's already led to some practical benefits.

"One of the best things that I think that astronomy has given us as a tangible is digital cameras," said Jeffrey Silverman, a UT Austin postdoctoral researcher. "Your cell phone camera was because astronomers thought that photographic plates were not good enough for science.”

Matthew Shetrone graduated years ago from W.T. White High School in Dallas and earned a Merit Badge during his pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout.

Now he works at the observatory, studying the big bang theory and something researchers call “dark energy” that he explained this way: “All parts of gravity should be pulling on each other and slowing down the expansion of the universe. And when they actually went out and measured it, they found that the universe is actually accelerating.”

Shetrone and others want to understand why that is happening.

And that's why researchers argue that while there may be black gold in the ground out in West Texas, the real treasure is in the skies.

E-mail jmccaa@wfaa.com

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