McDonald Observatory

Photo Credit: Hanna Bernbaum | Daily Texan Staff

I learned to find beauty in the violent stillness of the night sky from the catwalks of the McDonald Observatory.

For the first few minutes, the west Texas sky appears unimpressive as through the haze of a dense city like Austin. The sheer darkness is impressive, like swimming at the bottom of the deep end. But only after the first ten minutes do your pupils fully dilate, bringing into full focus a sky wet with stars.

Ursa Major, what looks like just seven stars arranged as a big dipper from inside the city, reveals itself as a thousand points of light. The Milky Way arches across the sky, the center of our host galaxy a brilliant but soft blanket of gas, dust and countless stars.

Standing still atop an ocean of darkness in west Texas, where street lamps and car headlights are few and far between, the slow pace of our Universe becomes overwhelmingly evident. The cascade of stars sits idle, each silently burning, and the gusty mountain winds are the only soundtrack to yourmidnight vista.

Occasionally, there is a flash. It is so dark that your eyes can see a bounty of meteors on their kamikaze trips through the Earth’s atmosphere. But there is a steadiness to the sky that belies its beauty.

It is easy to forget that we are standing atop a blue marble that is hurtling through space, rotating at more than 900 miles an hour. That rotation causes the stars to inch along in the night, offering a fresh face to the sky every few hours. But even the stars themselves never sit perfectly still. They roil at the surface from convection or are occasionally eclipsed, starlight momentarily blocked by an orbiting star or perhaps even an alien planet. These are the quirks in the light that allow astronomers vastly more information into stars so far away it takes light hundreds or thousands of years to reach our fair planet.

Through some perversely lucky twist of fate, I ended up spending more than 220 nights over four years in west Texas, training the 75-year-old, 2.1-meter Otto Struve telescope at the heavens. I was mostly looking at white dwarfs, the burnt-out cores of stars like our Sun, and I spent my nights watching the brightness of these dying stars change in far more detail than available to my small set of eyes.

So while I was inspired by the thrill of discovering new things about the Universe, using star-quakes to peer below the surface of these extremely dense objects or watching a rare pair of stars orbiting each other every 12.75 minutes slide closer together as a result of the normally puny effects of gravitational waves, I often found more perspective in just staring up at the cloudless west Texas sky.

The 450-mile drive out to McDonald Observatory can be a touch intimidating, but cruise control and a few episodes of “This American Life” make the time melt by. It is certainly worth the momentary escape from city life, for a dip in the refreshingly clear waters of Balmorhea State Park, for some inspiration in Marfa.

And there’s no better place in Texas to look up into the darkness, to slow your breathing and to sink into the rhythm of the violent stillness of the night sky.

Hermes is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick. He completed a PhD in astronomy at the University of Texas in 2013, and as an undergraduate, served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan from 2006-2007. Some of this column was adapted from the textbook “We’re Texas: Astronomy,” published by Kendall Hunt.

The University’s McDonald Observatory, one of the tops centers for research and education, is located in the Davis Mountains of West Texas making for ideal star gazing conditions. The observatory is currently facing threats of light pollution from growing industries in the surrounding community. 

Photo Credit: McDonald Observatory | Daily Texan Staff

The University’s McDonald Observatory rests in a seven-county light ordinance zone, deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, protecting it from the light pollution that plagues most cities and making for some of the darkest skies in the country.

Founded in the 1930s, the observatory is one of the leading centers for astronomical research, education and outreach, boasting more than six advanced telescopes.

Bill Wren, a spokesman for the observatory, said on any given night you can see thousands of stars there.

“The places you can go to see a naturally dark sky are vanishing,” Wren said. “We are raising people that have never seen a naturally dark sky.”

Wren said this is because light pollution, created when light is shone upward into the sky, interferes with our ability to see clearly.

Irresponsible lighting wastes energy and costs Americans an estimated $2.2 billion a year, according to the International Dark-Sky Association. The initiative was launched in 2010 to raise awareness about the effects of light pollution.

“This is not an anti-light campaign,” Wren said. “It’s about putting the light where it’s needed.”

Light ordinances encourage shielding light, aiming it downward and using solar-powered, LED lights when possible.

The biggest threat to dark skies at the observatory is the growing oil and natural gas industry in the Permian Basin region, Wren said. According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, more than 9,000 drilling permits were issued in the Permian Basin in 2012 alone.

“In the spectrum of environmental concerns, light pollution is probably low on the list for oil and natural gas companies,” said Colt McCarthy, who owns a drilling supply company. “People don’t really pay attention until it affects their pocketbooks.”

Chevron spokeswoman Dolores Vick said McDonald approached the energy company earlier this year to discuss its lighting practices near the observatory.

“We are researching current lighting practices used in our West Texas operations to determine if there are ways to safely reduce light that emanates from our operations,” Vick said.

In Austin, more than 400 miles away from the observatory, the city set aside $15 million in 2012 to replace the bulbs and fixtures on approximately 70,000 street lamps to combat light pollution in Central Texas.

By 2015, Austin Energy anticipates all the city’s street lamps will be automated, with LED bulbs and flat-glass lenses that focus light downward instead of scattering it toward the sky. The “smart street lights” will conserve energy, as well as reduce light pollution.

“We are one of the few cities in the country that are both automating their street lights and making them dark sky compliant,” Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said.

With the observatory more than a six-hour drive away, Wren said the best place to see a dark sky in the Austin area is at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Wren said pilots are particularly opposed to bright lights and use shielded lighting to safely depart and land planes.

The astronomy department also hosts Wednesday night public viewings with its telescope on the roof of Robert Lee Moore Hall, as well as Friday and Saturday night viewings at Painter Hall.

Photo courtesy of Todd Mason/Mason Productions 

The Giant Magellan Telescope, designed in part by UT faculty, has passed reviews and is now ready for construction, according to an announcement by the McDonald Observatory last week. Once constructed, it will be the world’s largest visual telescope.

The telescope underwent five separate weeklong reviews over the past 12 months with five panels. The panels reviewed technical aspects, design and cost plans, according to Patrick McCarthy, director of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, commonly known as the GMTO.

“All of the review teams returned very positive results, and the project passed all of our reviews,” McCarthy said. “We have a rigorous program for testing components of the telescope.”

McCarthy said, in addition to serving on the advisory committees and in the board of directors for GMTO, University faculty are contributing to the building of the telescope by designing and eventually constructing one of the instruments to be used on the telescope. 

David Lambert, director of the McDonald Observatory and member of GMTO’s board of directors, said the telescope will be a great benefit to the University’s astronomy department.

“Access to the world’s largest telescope will enable us to attract and attain the very best faculty, the very best graduate students and even the very best
undergraduate students,” Lambert said. “In the United States, we are part of a very small group of universities with access to this telescope.”

According to McCarthy, the telescope will primarily be used to study planets that aren’t easily visible with existing technology, and, particularly, planets that could potentially support life. Lambert also said the telescope will be able to capture images of galaxies that have never before been closely observed.

“Because it’s a large telescope, you can look at very faint things,” Lambert said. “So, we’re looking at the very first stars and galaxies that were formed after the Big Bang … . You can image — very crisply and sharply — nearby stars and identify planets.”

Karl Gebhardt, astronomy professor and associate chair of the University’s astronomy department, said he believes the telescope will be the greatest advancement for astronomy in his lifetime.

“Having UT involved in such an important endeavor is an example of the excellence this university provides,” Gebhardt said. “I look forward to many years of using the GMT, trying to understand the formation of the universe, the long-term fate of the universe, and finding the largest black holes throughout the universe.”

Astronomy professor Don Winget gives a lecture at the O'Donnell Jr. Building on Saturday afternoon. 

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

At the 22nd Annual Great Lecture in Astronomy that was held Saturday, professor Don Winget said a white dwarf is a star simple enough to hope to understand but complex enough to help researchers learn something new.

A white dwarf is the core of a star left over after its outer layers have been shed.

Winget said this talk was particularly important to him because this year marks the 75th anniversary of the McDonald Observatory, where he conducts most of his observational research.

“It’s the grand old lady of the mountain and it’s still doing cutting edge work and beating competitors with the largest telescopes on the planet,” Winget said.

Winget, whose research at the observatory focuses on white dwarfs, said white dwarfs are the endpoint of evolution for most stars.

“97 to 98 percent of all stars either are or will become white dwarf stars,” Winget said. “That includes our own Sun, so as we look at white dwarf stars we’re looking at our own future.”

Winget said part of his research with white dwarfs involves cosmochronology, a field of study that attempts to define the age and evolutionary history of our galaxy.

“You can measure the age of a population [of stars] from the temperature of the coolest white dwarf stars there,” Winget said.

Winget said the participation of undergraduate and graduate students in research is important. 

Don Flournoy, a UT alumnus and Ohio University professor who has donated to the McDonald Observatory, said he thought the new information he learned about white dwarfs was interesting because he hadn’t fully understood their behavior previously.

“I didn’t realize they were binary stars,” Flournoy said. “I thought white dwarf stars existed by themselves, but evidently that’s not the case. There’s always another white dwarf beside it.”

Winget said the true allure of science is being able to discover what no one else knows.

“We do science for one real reason,” Winget said. “It’s that moment, when it’s a theoretical calculation you do [or] an observation you make, it doesn’t matter how large or small it is, but there’s one moment where you know something about the universe that no human being who’s ever lived before has ever known.”

Astronomer Taft Armandroff was announced as the new director of UT’s McDonald Observatory on Monday.

Armandroff will replace current director and astronomy professor David Lambert, who announced his plans in April to retire after serving as director for 10 years. Armandroff, who will be the fourth director of the observatory, will take over as director in June. Armandroff is currently director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale University, Armandroff also worked at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Ariz., for 19 years.

Armandroff said he has two primary missions for his first five years on the job, including keeping the technology and research at the McDonald Observatory on the cutting edge.

“The other area that I’m really interested in, as well as the rest of the astronomy faculty, is to have Texas firmly commit to building an even larger telescope in Chile,” Armandroff said. “It’s called the Giant Magellan Telescope. It will have an effective diameter of almost 24 meters, so that’s a huge increase in the collecting area compared to the biggest telescopes we have today.”

Armandroff said he is looking forward to continuing Lambert’s work on the Hobby-Eberly project, a major experiment to search for dark energy. Upon his retirement, Lambert said he hopes the project will contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy. Armandroff said the natural features of the observatory are similar to those at the Keck Observatory. 

“It’s really, really dark out there, way far away from the cities,” Armandroff said. “You can get these incredible images of the spectra of objects in the night sky.” 

In addition to pursuing research, Armandroff said he is looking forward to working alongside UT students at the observatory.

“I like the idea that [the McDonald Observatory] presents an opportunity for students being involved, whether it’s through a class or a research project or employment,” Armandroff said. “I think we’re a lot stronger of an observatory because of our involvement with the students.”

The observatory, located in Fort Davis, is one of the top astronomy research facilities in the country. According to Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at McDonald, there will be special events offered at the observatory through August 2014 intended to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Johnson said these events would include a variety of guest speakers from across the country with a special focus on new discoveries happening in astronomy.

Although Armandroff said he is looking forward to the transition, he said he will miss the natural beauty of Hawaii. 

“The Summit of Mauna Kea is just an amazing place,” Armandroff said. “Going up there is really magical.”

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is located at the McDonald's Observatory in Fort Davis.

Photo taken by Bill Nowlin Photography.

Photo Credit: McDonald's Observatory | Daily Texan Staff

Astronomer Taft Armandroff was announced as the new director of UT’s McDonald Observatory on Monday.

Armandroff will replace current director and astronomy professor David Lambert, who announced his plans in April to retire after serving as director for 10 years. Armandroff, who will be the fourth director of the observatory, will take over as director in June. Armandroff is currently director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale University, Armandroff also worked at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Ariz., for 19 years.

Armandroff said he has two primary missions for his first five years on the job, including keeping the technology and research at the McDonald Observatory on the cutting edge.

“The other area that I’m really interested in, as well as the rest of the astronomy faculty, is to have Texas firmly commit to building an even larger telescope in Chile,” Armandroff said. “It’s called the Giant Magellan Telescope. It will have an effective diameter of almost 24 meters, so that’s a huge increase in the collecting area compared to the biggest telescopes we have today.”

Armandroff said he is looking forward to continuing Lambert’s work on the Hobby-Eberly project, a major experiment to search for dark energy. Upon his retirement, Lambert said he hopes the project will contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy. Armandroff said the natural features of the observatory are similar to those at the Keck Observatory. 

“It’s really, really dark out there, way far away from the cities,” Armandroff said. “You can get these incredible images of the spectra of objects in the night sky.” 

In addition to pursuing research, Armandroff said he is looking forward to working alongside UT students at the observatory.

“I like the idea that [the McDonald Observatory] presents an opportunity for students being involved, whether it’s through a class or a research project or employment,” Armandroff said. “I think we’re a lot stronger of an observatory because of our involvement with the students.”

The observatory, located in Fort Davis, is one of the top astronomy research facilities in the country. According to Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at McDonald, there will be special events offered at the observatory through August 2014 intended to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Johnson said these events would include a variety of guest speakers from across the country with a special focus on new discoveries happening in astronomy.

Although Armandroff said he is looking forward to the transition, he said he will miss the natural beauty of Hawaii. 

“The Summit of Mauna Kea is just an amazing place,” Armandroff said. “Going up there is really magical.”

Photo Credit: UT System | Daily Texan Staff

For seven years, Joseph Michael Pasqua has worked as a police officer and safety coordinator at the McDonald Observatory as the sole representative of UTPD in Fort Davis.

The observatory — intentionally located in a place far from bright city lights for prime star gazing — puts Pasqua about 430 miles from his UTPD peers.

Pasqua’s duties are wide-ranging. He serves as the operations chief for the Emergency Response Team, an animal control officer and a volunteer firefighter for the Fort Davis Volunteer Fire Department.

“I am on-call 24/7 when I am on site,” Pasqua said. 

Pasqua started working for the observatory in 2006, coordinating with other law enforcement and emergency response teams, including the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Wardens, Jeff Davis County EMS and other emergency care providers.

In December of 1990, Pasqua lost his partner after a shootout in the line of duty. Pasqua sustained injuries after being shot four times. Afterward he went on to help create the Big Bend Area Law Enforcement Fallen Officer’s Memorial.

Pasqua said Jeff Davis County, which is a sparsely populated area of roughly 2,300 residents, is one of the largest counties in Texas and the small, but spread out nature of the area means community support is important. 

“All of our firefighters and emergency medical personnel are volunteers,” Pasqua said. “This is another way we give back to the citizens of our county and provide a safe place to live, work and visit.”

According to UTPD Capt. Julie Gillespie, nearly every officer working on campus knows about Pasqua — or Joe Mike, as they refer to him — even if they have not personally worked with him.

“He’s just a hard worker and he gives a lot of his time, both on duty and with volunteer work that he does out there with the fire[s],” Gillespie said. “He’s one of those guys that everyone likes to be around.”

UTPD Capt. Don Verett met Pasqua when he came to work for the police department and has gone to visit Pasqua at the observatory on multiple occasions.

“He’s hardworking, dedicated, he has a great sense of humor, he’s just an all-around good guy,” Verett said. “I think [what I admire most about him is] just his varied skill set that he has with being an all-around first responder … [and] his dedication to the people of McDonald Observatory and Jeff Davis County.”

Pasqua said he loves the diverse nature of his job but is most proud of the work he does engaging with the community.

“The most rewarding part of my job is being able to assist people in their time of need and being able to give back to the community in which I live,” Pasqua said.

Seventy-five years ago, UT’s McDonald Observatory opened with the mission of studying and promoting astronomy. This year, as part of its anniversary celebrations, the observatory will focus on its history of scientific accomplishments, even as it looks to the future with a search for a new director.

The observatory is offering special events through August 2014 as part of its anniversary celebration. Former observatory director Frank Bash kicked off the year of events with a presentation Saturday night, where he spoke about the observatory’s position at the forefront of scientific exploration. 

“In 1939 McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, north of what is now the Big Bend National Park, was in a remote part of Texas … where the skies are very dark,” Bash said. “It was the frontier. Today the skies are still very dark, and McDonald is still remote. But I picture McDonald at a different kind of frontier today. It’s at the border that separates the surface of the earth from the sky — the frontier that leads into the universe.”

Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at the observatory, said the McDonald researchers are currently focused on the study of dark energy, a form of energy that is believed to be causing the universe to expand rapidly.

“We know the universe is expanding, but we don’t know why,” she said.

Johnson said the observatory is working to renovate its Hobby-Eberly telescope to make it capable of examining more than one million galaxies for the purpose of obtaining information about dark energy.

While the dark energy experiment is moving forward, the observatory is also in the process of looking for a new director, as the current director David Lambert is preparing to retire by August 2014.

“I’ve been the director for 10 years,” Lambert said. “Next year I’ll be the same age as the observatory.”

Lambert said the search for his replacement is ongoing.

During Lambert’s time as director, the observatory discovered the most powerful supernova ever recorded and began upgrading its telescopes to make them usable for dark energy research.

“In my own small way, I’ve helped bring about the [Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment],” he said.

Johnson said the anniversary celebrations will focus on the new discoveries happening in astronomy with a speaker series featuring astronomers across the country. The observatory is also celebrating the past with several news pages on its website including a timeline of accomplishments and an interactive blog for people to share stories of experiences they have had at the observatory.

“Alien Rescue,” a game set in a science-fiction world designed by a UT professor for sixth graders, is working to educate students on space science. 

“Alien Rescue” is created by Min Liu, a professor in College of Education with support from the McDonald Observatory. According to Prof. Liu, “Alien Rescue” is an immersive multimedia-enhanced problem-based learning (PBL) environment for space science. It is designed for sixth graders to learn science by providing educational video games.

Liu said “Alien Rescue” serves a part of the science curriculum and may play a crucial role in sixth graders' science performance.

“Numerous research studies […] have shown sixth graders’ science knowledge scores increased after using it and they are highly motivated in using it,” Liu said 

Mary Kay Hemenway, a researcher at McDonald Observatory, said the goal of “Alien Rescue” is to help students learn basic science in many areas.

“Science affects their lives in so many ways, and as citizens, they will be asked to make decisions based on logic, reason and their scientific knowledge,” Hemenway said. “Science can be an awarding subject just for its own sake.”

Graduate students in the College of Education’s Learning Technology program are also using “Alien Rescue” for research.

Lucas Horton, a doctoral student working for the center, said through this project, students explore theories related to teaching and learning.

“It allows students to get a first-hand view of how instructional innovations can be designed and used, […] and understand how to best design learning environments,” Horton said. “It allows us to explore the relationship between theory and practice in ways that are very tangible.”

Horton said the work on “Alien Rescue” encourages people to use it.

“I expect that Alien Rescue will continue to be a useful tool for teaching space science. At the same time, we will continue to learn from our experiences in sixth grade classrooms to refine and expand the program to make it an even more robust and useful tool for learning,” he said.

Follow Gefei Liu on Twitter @gefeiliu. 

He first developed an interest in astronomy as a high school junior in Kent, England. He joined the UT Faculty in 1969. Now, after 10 years as director of UT’s McDonald Observatory, David Lambert is planning to retire. 

“When I step down, I shall be 75, and that sounds old enough to let someone younger have a shot,” Lambert said. “It will be nice to get fresh blood into the system.”

Lambert, who is also an astronomy professor, will step down by August 2014. He said he has not yet decided if he will continue to teach. Astronomy professor Chris Sneden is chairing the search committee to find a new director — he said the committee has already compiled a shortlist which includes candidates who already work at UT. 

“The ideal director has to lead a major research enterprise and hopefully improve it through the years, but the director has got to be more than a good scientist,” Sneden said. “The director must be a person who is able to work with people, and share a vision for how the observatory will prosper in the future.” 

Lambert also emphasized the leadership aspect of the director role and said it was one aspect of the job that he had not anticipated. 

“I think I didn’t understand how interesting and complex dealing with an organization this size would be, especially in terms of personalities,” Lambert said. “People come in all different flavors, and that presents all different kinds of challenges.” 

Lambert said his proudest accomplishments as director include his work securing funding for the Hobby-Eberly Dark Energy Experiment, which the Observatory hopes to begin next year. 

Dark energy, a term used to represent the unknown force causing the universe to expand faster than scientists predicted it would expand in the 1990s, is not yet understood in the scientific community. 

“Normally, when something explodes, it eventually slows down, but the universe sped up again,” chemistry senior Pablo Alvarez said. “It’s like a car running when we don’t know what’s fueling it.” 

“Even astronomers and physicists don’t know what dark energy is,” biology junior Nicole Vojnovich said. “We can’t calculate it definitively.”

The Hobby-Eberly project, the first major experiment to search for dark energy, will use the McDonald Observatory’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope to collect data on at least 1 million galaxies over 9 billion light-years away, creating a map of the universe larger than anything that exists in the world today. The map will allow astronomers to chart the growth of the universe through different periods in history. Lambert said he hopes the project will help contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy.

“My hope is that we will carry out the observations for the Dark Energy Experiment, and really make a very, very serious contribution to understanding what dark energy is,” Lambert said. 

Lambert, who came to UT almost 45 years ago in order to use the McDonald Observatory’s telescopes, said he appreciates the full-circle nature of his work. 

“I’ve had great fun using the telescopes at McDonald – basically made my career using them,” Lambert said. “It’s fun to continue to improve the facilities and enlarge them in such a way that the next generation of young people can make their own careers here.” 

Though he is ready to retire, Lambert said he will look back fondly on his years as director. 

“I’ve enjoyed it,” Lambert said, laughing. “I hope I’ve contributed a little.”