March 5, 2008

Fort Davis & McDonald Observatory

One of the best kept secrets in Texas is the Davis Mountains State Park

Nestled high in the Mountains, overlooking historic Ft Davis, this place has it all! Beautiful views, abundant wildlife & birding, pristine isolated camping spots, excellent interpretive centers & programs, the Indian Lodge & Resturant (great food at modest prices), and one of the largest & finest observatories in the world!

We also found the locals in the town of Ft Davis to be some of the friendliest folks in Texas!
And from a few of the interesting things within the town, and alongside the highway, they also have quite a sense of humor!

Highlights of the stay included a visit to the Fort Davis Historic Site , the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and taking the 3-hour birding walk within the Park Primative Area. The walk was led by a full-timer/volunteer who had been working and birding at this park for thirteen years!

Located about 15 miles away is McDonald Observatory. This premier site is owned & operated by UT Austin, and conducts some of the world's most advanced research in astronomy.

We did the Tuesday nite star party, which started with a nice lecture and tour of the sky from the Visitor Center's ampitheater, followed by viewing through a dozen telescopes set up at the Center ranging from 8 to 20 inches.

The following day, I went on the excellent tour of the 107 inch Harlen Smith telescope and the new 400 inch Hobby-Eberly. The orginal telescope at the site, an 82 inch reflector, was installed in 1929. It and the 107 inch companion sit atop a 6800ft peak just above the Visitor Center. To give you some concept of size, here's the 82" with vehicles parked out front.

The 107 is a massive instrument, used mostly today for taking critical spectral images of distant stars and laser measurements of minute distance variations to the moon.

The tour was completed with a visit to the newer 400". This is a "low cost" design utilizing multiple mirror segements rather than a single mirror (impossible at 400"!). The entire mirror assembly is rotated effortlessly on six "air bearings" on it's bottom ring.