Texas – Days 8-9: Still Nurturing My Nerdy Inner Child at the McDonald Observatory

Brittany Swanson   February 26, 2016   Comments Off on Texas – Days 8-9: Still Nurturing My Nerdy Inner Child at the McDonald Observatory

The drive through Central and Western Texas was surprisingly stunning. I couldn’t believe all the changes in scenery in just seven hours. It was incredible.

View on the drive through West Texas.

View on the drive through West Texas.

I made it to the McDonald Observatory with just enough time to eat my lunch before the Solar Viewing program started. During the program I learned that the next total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be on August 21, 2017 and will last approximately two and a half minutes. How freaking cool is that?! Too bad I don’t plan to be here when it happens… Oh well, hopefully someone reading this will get to see it and can tell me all about it!

Cool picture of the Sun from the Solar Viewing program, McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, TX.

Cool picture of the Sun from the Solar Viewing program, McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, TX.

Our Solar Viewing program guide, Dan, was awesome. He kept saying things like, “Everything is made out of star stuff, so when you think about the Universe don’t feel small, feel connected, because you’re made out of star stuff too.” I loved that. I also learned that the Northern Lights happen because of solar flares from the sun. Particles escape from the sun and travel through space until they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Red lights are oxygen particles, while blue lights are nitrogen. After the presentation in the theatre we got to drive up and check out the huge research telescopes.

Research Telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, TX.

Research Telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, TX.

Dan moved this telescope around to show us how it worked and explained how they clean the telescopes. From what I understood, to clean the telescopes they use dry ice. It goes directly from its gas form to a solid state, skipping the liquid one and then the solid snow sticks to the dust. Cool, right?

I’d decided if I was going to drive all the way to the middle of nowhere Texas I might as make a day of it, so I attended every program they had to offer that day… After the Solar program I had about an hour and a half to kill before the Lunar program started. I thought I was going to be productive, but I had a long day ahead of me and I was tired so I took a nap in the car and then had a snack instead.

During the Lunar program the guide, Shannon, had a couple volunteers help him demonstrate how the phases of the moon work and also why we only see one side of the moon from Earth. I love hands on learning and I was one of the volunteers – I got to be the moon – so that was pretty cool. Shannon also explained why the moon looks larger when it first comes up: the Earth’s atmosphere is thicker close to the horizon making the light on the moon dimmer, plus on the horizon we can compare it to buildings and trees and other things we see. In reality, the moon high in the sky is actually closer to us than it is when it’s on the horizon. Weird, huh?

The final event of my adventure at the McDonald Observatory was the one I was most looking forward to: the Star Party. First our guide, using a killer laser pointer that looked like it reached the stars, pointed out the different constellations to us. As he did so we saw a pretty big meteor, which he insisted we call “a meteor and not a shooting star, since it’s not a shooting star and this was a scientific facility.” Whatever you want to call it, it was awesome. Throughout the night I would see three more meteors, though none as big as that first one. The guide also pointed out a satellite flash, which is where a satellite travels directly into sunlight, so from Earth it gets really bright. That was cool. Oh, he also pointed out the Hubble Space Telescope as it passed by.

Once the presentation part was over we got to go to any one of like 10 telescopes and check out whatever they had on view for us. I won’t lie to you, I was pretty disappointed with most of the telescope views. Here I was at this fancy space research facility and all I was seeing through the telescopes was blurry images of stars. I mean, maybe I just wasn’t looking in the telescope correctly or something, but almost all of the star views were blurry. I would’ve rather just stared up into the night sky with my naked eyes. I mean, it was cool that some of what we were seeing just looked like darkness to the naked eye, but viewing a small clump of stars through a telescope just wasn’t as exciting as staring up at the innumerable stars in the sky. At least, not to me.

That being said, there was one telescope set up to look at the Orion Nebula and I could see the pinkish orangish color gas-like whatever it was around the stars and that was pretty freaking cool. Also, they had two telescopes set up to look at the moon. The first one was a high definition close up, which was really interesting, but really bright. Like so bright my eyes hurt when I first looked into the telescope and again when I looked back out into the darkness of the night. They also had a low resolution view of the moon which was freaking AMAZING! The view of the moon was so big it was like looking at a detailed picture of the moon blown up to 18” x 24” right in front of me. It was SO FREAKING COOL. It was so cool, in fact, that I waited in line again so I could look at it again. If I could have I totally would have stayed there all night and just looked at the moon through that telescope that’s how cool it was. It also really made me want to get a picture of the moon like that and hang it in my house somewhere someday.

I didn’t have a host that night because I couldn’t find anyone nearby and the closest place I did find someone was three hours away. I didn’t want to make anyone wait up for me to arrive at around midnight, so I just planned to sleep in my car. I planned to find a place to sleep nearby the Observatory, but since I didn’t have cell service I started driving toward my next stop, El Paso, so I could get service. You see, I figured a certain someone would be worried since he hadn’t heard from me all day and I also was supposed to talk to Meghan that day and I’d left a message for my aunt Calie saying I’d try her again later, so while usually I could get away with not having service for a day I suddenly found myself thinking three different people would be worried about me. Go figure. 

It took about an hour after I left the Observatory until I finally got service again. At which point, my phone blew up. I texted Alex, and Meghan, and my aunt Calie to tell them all I was alive and well, and that I’d just been stuck in a black hole of no service all day. Poor Alex was so worried that when he found out I was ok he just started laughing uncontrollably because he was so relieved. I thought that was adorable.

I managed to drive all the way to El Paso that night and found a Walmart parking lot to crash in. The next morning I ran a couple errands and then found a Starbucks to sit and be productive at. Nothing I found to do in El Paso was really striking my fancy, so I just decided to work on my blog the whole day.