New Planets and Other Miraculous Discoveries Taking Place in West Texas

By Cierra Putman
NewsWest 9

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY - It seems like the stuff of science fiction, but it's not.

Astronomers in West Texas are trying to conquer the universe.

They're finding new planets and studying super novas and comets at the McDonald Douglas Observatory in Jeff Davis County.

They're pioneers pushing the envelope and discovering the universe without even leaving planet earth.

"It's the best job in astronomy," Resident Astronomer, Matthew Shetrone said. "It really is, to be there at the forefront of cutting edge technology, and helping out the bigger picture of astronomy."

Mathew Shetrone is different from most astronomers because he lives at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, just outside of Fort Davis.

The fact his home is tucked away in the Davis Mountains makes it a perfect location for astronomy, which means he's often on the front lines of a new discovery.

Most of his time is spent working at the Hobby-Eberly telescope doing the ground work for astronomers here in the U.S., Germany and all over the world.

"I'm sort of an astronomer's astronomer," he said. "I get to do all sorts of the fun work, do the observing and see the first results coming out of the telescope."

Right now, he and other astronomers are part of the Kepler Mission, a galaxy wide search for earth like planets.

"Our main job is to rule out stars," McDonald Observatory Superintendent, Tom Barnes, said. "We participated in weeding out all the competition that really weren't planets that were just stars behaving badly."

The mission began in March 2009 and by January, they announced the discovery of 5 new planets.

"That was pretty quick," Barnes said. "I was a bit surprised and that bodes well for how many more they're going to discover. They're looking at over 100,000 stars. Every second of every day they're looking at the same 100,000 stars."

None of the 5 were earth like, but Barnes said it's only a matter of time.

"The Kepler Mission is three and a half years long," Barnes said. "I suspect they'll have an earth like planet within a year. Now if they don't, it tells us something important, which is they're rare."

If the mission is successful, it will change the way we see the universe, maybe even help us meet other life forms and it's already getting people excited.

"That's cool I like it," Haley Payne said.

"It makes us realize just how small we are for one," Julio Barrada said. "And where we come from and where we're going."

It's nothing new, the observatory is shaking things up. It's been doing that for years now.

The Otto Struve Telescope was the first built at the observatory. Despite being built in the 1930's and being more than 70 years old it's still being used by astronomers today.

In the past, astronomers helped find water on Mars, now they're studying comets supernovas and more.

And still the best is yet to come. The observatory plans to upgrade the Hobby-Eberly telescope to study dark energy the elusive source causing our universe to expand.

"There are some planned else where on the planet, but we think we'll be the first one in operation in about 2 years," Barnes said.

Despite all the cool stuff they're doing, astronomers sometimes feel like they're the only ones who know what's going on.

"Do they realize what we're doing out here? I don't think so," Frank Cianciolo said. "Most people have a clue and it's a shame really because we are an open facility."

They are trying to keep the public in the loop by hosting weekly star parties and special programs for school children. So, they are opening some people's eyes.

"I think the next time I look up at the sky, it'll give me a better appreciation of what I'm looking at," Sheila Stein said.

Astronomers hope to continue shaking up our view of the world and the universe for years if not millennia to come.