MCDONALD OBSERVATORY Solar viewing programs, guided tours, and interactive exhibits available for day-trippers, $8; self-guided tour, free; star parties Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, $10; special viewing nights several times a year, reservations required (dinner included with the 82-inch and 107-inch programs), $40–$80. Overnight stays, available only to those attending special viewings,include private room and bath, plus three meals served in the Astronomers Lodge (single occupancy, $80; double occupancy, $128). Note: Heed the advice to dress warmly for night events, even in the summer. 877-984-7827 or 432-426-3640, mcdonaldobservatory.org.
I’VE NEVER HAD SO MUCH fun feeling insignificant. All it took was a clear, moonless night at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, in Fort Davis, and a knowledgeable guide to the cosmos.
I’m sure my self-importance could have been suitably shrunk at one of the observatory’s thrice-weekly star parties, where a couple hundred sky gawkers jostle for a quick peep at deep space through a variety of telescopes ranging in size from 8 to 22 inches in diameter. But I wanted my humble pie served with a scoop of entitlement, so I signed up for one of the special viewing nights, when some of McDonald’s big guns are open to small groups.
The most popular program, dinner and a viewing through the 82-inch Otto Struve, was booked months in advance. And while the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith telescope was tempting, I learned that it’s used almost entirely for stellar spectroscopy. Though this decoding of light waves is the crux of serious astronomical research—as revelatory as, say, a patient’s blood work is for a physician—I just wanted to see as many heavenly bodies as possible.
So I joined fourteen others for a night with the 36-incher. Although this smaller, fifty-year-old scope doesn’t even rate a name or a pre-viewing dinner (cookies and coffee, however, are served, and you can—should—bring your own snacks), I soon discovered it is still powerful enough to mess with my head. Especially since it’s near the top of 6,791-foot-high Mount Locke, the tallest of two peaks on the observatory grounds, in one of the darkest spots in the continental United States. And especially since our guide, Mark Cash, who efficiently pointed the telescope to a prearranged lineup of celestial wonders, enthusiastically pummeled us with a steady stream of inconceivable facts and figures. That first globular cluster we ogled, the sparkling M3, contains close to half a million stars. The photogenic Sombrero Galaxy—guess what it looks like—is approximately 100,000 light-years across and 50 million light-years away. If it’s even still there—I mean, the light I saw in the telescope left the Sombrero 50 million years ago. Oh, and what about the famous Ring Nebula M57? Sometimes likened to a moldy Cheerio, the object not only offers a glimpse 2,000 light-years into the past but also several billion years into the future, when our sun is expected to undergo the same gas-spewing death as the nebula’s central star.
Between my turns at the eyepiece, I staggered out of the dome only to be stunned again and again by the brilliance of the night sky, no magnification necessary. I’m going to spare you my lame attempts to describe it. We light-drenched city folk and suburbanites have to see it to believe it, a sky so lousy with stars that even familiar configurations like the Big Dipper are lost in the twinkling chaos. From the windy hilltop, I watched a wildfire burn on the edge of the earth and looked for satellites and shooting stars. I saw six of each.
Cash took an occasional break from spinning the scope to come out and identify constellations like Scorpius, pinpoint notable stars like Polaris, and casually blow our minds. He told us that what looked like gathering clouds near the horizon was the Milky Way—which most of us get to see only when it’s directly overhead, in the darkest part of the sky—and that the ink-black patches between the “clouds” (actually zillions of stars out on the border of our galaxy, too far to see individually) were space dust blocking our view of the stars rather than the absence of stars. And that this cosmic crud is the stuff that planets, comets, stars, everything—even the human body, including my smoking temporal lobes—are made of. We are recycled space dust. (No wonder I didn’t want to interact much with my fellow viewers.) Even if I ironed my brain out flat to the size of a kitchen tablecloth, I still couldn’t wrap it around that.
By one in the morning, after five hours of peering around in dim-to-no light, my eyeballs felt as if they were hanging from my sockets on extended springs. The perfect end to the evening would have been to check into one of the rooms in the cliff-hugging Astronomers Lodge just steps away or the newly refurbished one-bedroom cottage nestled in the forest of twisted, elfin oaks a short walk up the hillside. But professional astronomers get first dibs on accommodations, and the inn was filled with smarties. So even though I was certain I was now much too minuscule to reach the gas pedal in my car, I headed down the mountain anyway, into Fort Davis, away from the stars.