A West Texas Gem- The McDonald Observatory - KWES NewsWest 9 / Midland, Odessa, Big Spring, TX: newswest9.com |

A West Texas Gem- The McDonald Observatory

Max Crawford

NewsWest 9

DAVIS MOUNTAINS- Not three hours away from Midland/Odessa, south of the Pecos River, lie the Davis Mountains. The gateway to the Big Bend not only boasts incredible topography and weather, but is also home to one of the largest institutions of astronomy observation and research in the entire world.

Bill Wren, a multi-year veteran to the observatory, showed us around the beautiful campus. In the distance behind him, Atop Mt. Locke stands the 82 inch telescope, the first and smallest of the historic telescopes. 

Since 1939, when it was the second largest telescope in the world, it's been in constant use. 

Right next to it, built in 1969 was the 107'' telescope, and finally, in 1997, The Hobby-Everly telescope rounded out the trifecta, once again giving the Observatory the second largest telescope in the world.

The team of telescopes played a part in discovering the atmosphere around Saturn's moon, Titan, discovering the largest black hole that's ever been seen, (at seventeen billion times the mass of our Sun) and has confirmed hundreds of planets orbiting other stars beyond our own solar system.

"This is all going on here in West Texas," Wren said. "This is one of the premiere astronomical research institutions in the world."There's no doubt that the Observatory is filled with scientific achievements, but it also boasts beautiful weather and scenery, with hiking trails and cycling routes that have people visiting from all across the nation. "I am from the North Shore of Hawaii," said Heidi Schmitt, who was visiting her friend Teri Tokar, from Austin."We're both big cyclists and there's a bike ride out here," Tokar said. "People were telling me about this place, and the Big Bend. 

[It is] intriguing to me. We did the bike ride as well as find out there was an observatory." "I just think observatories are amazing and having the opportunity to look through telescopes and look at the sky is just wonderful," Schmitt said."People in Austin said, you've got to get out here, its beautiful, there's no traffic, the hills are great, it's quiet. Big sky."

Not a hiker or cyclist? That's ok! If they view alone doesn't take your breath away, there's plenty more to see at the observatory."We do open the larger telescopes up for the public to look through for education and for fun, several nights a month," Wren said. "You can get reservations to come out here and do that; it's really a lot of fun. We hold public star parties here 3 nights a week, every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. We've got telescopes in the back that we look through visually for fun. We do guided tours twice a day, every day year round. So, we do a lot of informal science education."

The coveted star parties that the observatory puts on gives the average suburban Texan an opportunity to see the entire night sky: something that this Dallas meteorologist major was in awe to see. 

In addition to the star parties, the observatory hosts presentations and instructions on what exactly you're seeing in the night sky, mapping out the cosmic world to view at your own convenience. All you need to do is look up.

The observatory also takes its science very seriously, and is a huge research for educators in science all around the country."..Three day, three night residential workshops. Get science teachers fired up to return back to their classrooms," Wren said. "The idea being not to raise another crop of astronomers necessarily but, given all the different technical and engineering fields that come together to make astronomy happen, we hope that early interest in astronomy will spur kids to follow technical disciplines in their studies and in their careers.""So it's the gateway subject?" I asked."It's the gateway subject, exactly right."Of course, we're not without our limitations. "McDonald Observatory enjoys some of the darkest skies of any astronomical facility in the world," Wren said. "We've got what amounts to largest dark sky reserve in the world. 28000 miles surrounding McDonald Observatory that is legislatively protected for the science ongoing around the observatory."

In the past few years, however, nighttime oil and gas companies have presented a new challenge to keeping the skies dark. Thankfully, the story doesn't end there. 

Companies that Bill has spoken with have been very understanding at new lighting techniques that would allow them to be better neighbors, and even increase visibility on their own work sites."It's a win-win situation, oil and gas can have better lighting on their night time activities and we can have darker skies."

Well, there you have it. An amazing gem of West Texas can still coexist with all the boom and technology around it."Why would the typical person want to travel out here?" Bill asked. "Well, look around! The Davis Mountains are Absolutely beautiful. Well kept secret. I've met people that are native Houstonians that come out here after retiring and never know there were mountains in Texas! It's absolutely a beautiful setting, there's no doubt about that.""The dark skies are phenomenal. There are people I have met in their40'ss and50'ss who will just be in awe, aghast, they've never seen so many stars in all their life, never seen the Milky Way before. 

And I don't know if you've ever seen the rings of Saturn through a telescope before, but it'll knock your socks off."Despite its challenges, McDonald Observatory and the surrounding Davis Mountains remain a true gem in West Texas. The best part? It's right in our own backyard.

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