McDonald Observatory celebrates 75th anniversary with a year of events

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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.