The Bandera Courier
Bandera Courier
Thursday December 7, 2017
 
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2014-01-16

Seeing stars

Carolyn B. Edwards

According to the November 1934 Bandera New Era highlighted in the Courier's History Corner in B Section this week, progress was being made on the construction of McDonald Observatory out at Fort Davis at that time.
Perched on the top of Mt. Locke, just west of Fort Davis, where the skies were clear and the stars were bright, McDonald Observatory was the result of a bequest to the University of Texas from banker WJ McDonald.
This year, the observatory celebrates its 75th anniversary.
The New Era reported that the domed housing for the first telescope and the construction of living quarters for the astronomers was progressing.
That first telescope, now known as the 2.1 m Otto Struve telescope, named for its manufacturer, began being constructed in 1933 and was installed in 1939. It takes a long time to pour, cool and polish a large telescope lens.
Like many things built by Americans in those days, it has lasted well and is still being used! At the time of its dedication, it was the second largest telescope in the world.
Today, the top of Mt. Locke is also home to the 9.2 m Hobby Eberley telescope, the 2.7 m Harlan J. Smith telescope and a 0.8 m telescope.
While it is situated on what was once the frontier of Texas, the observatory has been at the forefront of developments and discoveries in astronomy for all of its 75 years.
As part of its extensive education program, McDonald heads up the Dark Skies Initiative, promoting awareness of light pollution and offering simple solutions to decrease it.
Recently, the observatory has been discovering a lot about dark energy, or dark matter, which may be the Gorilla Glue that holds the universe together. Scientists have been working on a long-term project to map a million galaxies, hoping to find facts to bolster dark matter theories.
Even more exciting, McDonald scientists are part of a global consortium working to build the Giant Magellan Telescope, consisting of seven 8.3 m mirrors. When complete, the monster scope will look deep into the heart of the universe to get closer to its beginnings. It will also search for planets with a lens that should provide even sharper images than the gorgeous ones we've been seeing with the Hubble space telescope.
Of course, studying the stars can have its challenges, too. On a visit to the observatory some years ago, we saw one telescope's housing open for cleaning. The back of the big mirror showed scars from several bullets fired at it by an astronomer who had apparently reached the end of his scope!