We found out a couple of months ago that many scientific celestial observatories are open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights. How could I have lived my whole life never knowing that fact? Oh, well, I know now. So, I’d been trying to coordinate an observatory night into our schedule.
On our last night in Texas, we visited the McDonald Observatory in the far west. www.mcdonalobservatory.org It’s part of the University of Texas, Austin and is used to research the chemistry of stars and planets. White dwarf stars, the composition of gas clouds in space and supergiant stars, among other things. The two immense telescopes are used for research. We were going to look through the smaller, though still awesome to us, telescopes.
We signed up for a Star Party. Sounds good doesn’t it? McDonald Observatory is at the top of a mountain.
So, in consideration for our fellow attendees, we started on the road up an hour early, so as not to cause a mile-long traffic jam behind our slow-moving rig. Marfa (we finally named our 4Runner) did a good job dragging the Tramper up the mountain as the sun set.
We suited up for the outdoor Star Party. The weather was unseasonably cold. Lows in the teens!
We had a large, jolly group on this Christmas break weekend. Ten more folks and we would have had a record crowd! We sat in an outdoor amphitheater. The nearly full moon was the brightest light for miles around. Low, red lights were all the artificial light there was on the mountain. Even the surrounding towns had ordinances forbidding excessive outdoor lighting.
So, even though the shining moon masked lots of stars that night, we still had a beautiful show above us.
The Star Party began with a lecture in the amphitheater.
The astronomer giving the tour of the sky had a green laser pointer that seemed to extend a line all the way up to the individual star he was talking about! He pointed out Jupiter and the zodiac constellations. I have imagined that I saw red and orange in Orion’s left shoulder this whole trip as we gazed at night into starlit skies in the wild places. I got validated at the Star Party. Betelgeuse is actually a red supergiant, with visible color!
Belatrix is his right shoulder. Also, I finally saw Polaris, the North Star.
After the lecture, we went around to ten different telescopes focused on amazing things in the sky. We saw Jupiter’s bands of clouds.
We saw four of Jupiter’s most visible moons. Io, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.
We saw the surface of the moon.
As it was not quite full, we saw a profile of one surface.
We saw the Andromeda galaxy, the closest galaxy outside out Milky Way.
The Orion nebula.
After we had seen our fill, we went back to the Tramper for the drive down the other side of the mountain. We met a UT policeman who drove by to tell us he liked our trailer. He was the only security for miles around and he suggested a picnic spot off the mountain road where we could camp for the night. Not what we expected! Security usually makes sure that no one camps where they’re not supposed to, not encourage us to do it!
It was a lovely spot. The next morning, we hit the road, bound for New Mexico.
On this highway across the desert, within three minutes of each other, we saw a coyote and we saw a road runner! No joke! It was coincidentally ironic. (Can you use those two words together?). Maybe they were engaged in the classic cartoon battle?!