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Visit a Dark Skies Park Before They’re All Gone!

Visit a Dark Skies Park Before They’re All Gone!

Worried about getting to see a glacier before they all melt?  Dark starry nights are vanishing almost as quickly and are almost as magnificent (some say more magnificent) than glaciers calving.  And unlike glaciers which most of us must travel a long distance, dark skies are available (in varying degrees) in almost every state.

Unfortunately human expansion with the associated light pollution is quickly invading the dark skies of our country, just as global warming is shrinking the glaciers.

McDonald Observatory, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin, is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, teaching, public education and outreach. The coolest thing about McDonald Observatory is that the gentleman that donated the land and money for the observatory specified that it must be open to public education.  That’s one reason McDonald Observatory has so many programs open daily to the public!  THANKS MR McDONALD!!!

The Hobby-Eberly BIG telescope at McDonald Observatory — although there were several about this same size. They “sleep” during the day and do most of their business/science by night.

This is the Hobby-Eberly telescope which is involved in  preparing for a major experiment to define dark energy, a theoretical repulsive force that counteracts gravity and causes the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.  This discussion was beyond the scope of my scientific knowledge, but we definitely learned something!

Where we live in rural Illinios (yes, there is such a thing), I always thought the night skies were fairly impressive…..  I can see the milky way, lots of stars, some constellations and even falling stars from time to time.

Night skies at our Ft Davis State Park campsite.  I can see Orion – even his shoulders and sword with the naked eye.  Of course, the photographer needs a bit of a learning curve …

But nothing can beat stargazing at a dark skies park!  We deliberately took a bit of a detour to visit the McDonald Observatory just outside Ft Davis, Texas.  We were not disappointed!  Even the campground at Davis Mountain State Park  (13 miles-ish from the observatory) was one of our favorites from our Winter Texas trip!

Long way in the middle of nowhere … maybe that accounts for the dark dark skies!

I only wish that when they closed the doors and kicked us at (after 11 PM) that it wasn’t ending … NO!!!  not yet!!!  We’d been there since 8 PM, taken in the constellations presentation outside in the telescope “garden” and then wandered the “telescope garden” to view each of the 17 individual telescopes amazing sights.

We saw dark stars, orbiting satellites and even two other solar systems – which was almost beyond my comprehension.   I kept wanting to go back and back and back — but it was spring break and hundreds of others had the same idea.  Despite the crowds, we got to look in 17 different telescopes set up to show us different stars and tell their tales.

The Visitor Center with the sundial out front telling the time – someone must have forgotten to tell it about daylight savings time!

Wonderous night!  Not having enough, we also went to two of the day programs — the day small group tour had an orientation movie, then a trip up the hill to the biggest of the three observatories.  Then we were led inside and allowed to operate the mechanism that controls the giant telescope.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to open the big viewing door because the daylight might burn out the mirrors.

The outside auditorium for the Starry Nights party. Telescopes surrounded the outside edge during our party.

Back at the Visitor Center, we had a live solar viewing – the auditorium is set up with a telescope connected so we can actually SEE the sun – sunspots, solar flares and all kinds of interesting science.  Unfortunately while we were there, the sun must have been sleeping because there was absolutely nothing happening.  Instead the scientist showed us tape from earlier in the month of some of the best sun activity.  Almost made up for not seeing it live.

The original Otto Struve telescope, constructed in 1938 survives as one of the integral research telescopes. Fascinating to me that the technology is not totally outdated, but we were informed that they change out parts as technology advances – primarily the computerized viewing components.

Back at the Ft Davis State Park Campsite, we sat outside and star gazed, putting some of newfound expertise to work identifying star constellations we’d previously only known by name.  Very fun, now if I can just remember enough to try and identify them from the dock at the lake this summer!

Isn’t our campsite at Davis Mountain State Park amazing?  We identified two different new to us birds here – a Says Phoebee  and also an Acorn Woodpecker.  Plus there was space to breath and enjoy the starry nights and surroundings!  Great state park campground!

If you want to go…  be sure to get tickets for at least the starry starry night program in advance – they were sold out every day we were there.  Here’s a link:  McDonald Observatory.    And if you want to camp close by the Davis Mountains State Park campground is everything you could ever want!    For a list of National Park recommended Where to Stargaze resources, click here.

Where have you been most amazed by starry starry nights?  Please leave a comment and share so I can add your special places to our list!  Cheers!  Jan





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