While this place may not go back very far in Texas history, the McDonald Observatory is the collection site for light particles that have been traveling for millions of years on their way to the Lone Star State. Located in West Texas near Fort Davis, the observatory is the product of an unexpected marriage between a businessman and the University of Texas.
In 1926 the University of Texas received a gift from William Johnson McDonald (1844—1926), who had a successful career in law and banking when he got out of the Confederate Army. McDonald, who never married, lived in Paris and studied planets and astronomy in his spare time. In his will, he left $1,000,000 to UT for the establishment of an observatory that would pursue his hobby at a higher level (his heirs contested the will, so UT received $800,000).
UT, which didn’t have much of an astronomy department, was blindsided by this gift and called the experts at the University of Chicago. Those astronomers (they eventually ran the observatory for its first thirty years) got to work picking out a suitable location. Luckily, West Texas’s very own Davis Mountains were located almost seven thousand feet above sea level, in a dimly lit region of the continent that was blessed with high rates of clear skies. What’s more, UT won its first battle with every astronomer’s worst enemy: light pollution. Jeff Davis County passed an ordinance mandating “full cut-off” fixtures that allow light to emanate down and to the side as needed, rather than into the darkness of space.
The observatory’s construction started in the thirties and has continued erratically ever since as new telescopes in white domes have been added to the spine of the Davis Mountains. Between 1933 and 1939, the Warner and Swasey Company built the observatory’s first major telescope, the Otto Struve Telescope, which was so named in honor of the observatory’s first director, a Russian refugee who had directed the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. The Otto Struve’s 82-inch mirror was the second largest in the world until 1948; today it is connected to computers to search for planetary systems like the solar system. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope was built between 1966 and 1968 with direct assistance from NASA. The Harlan’s 107-inch mirror was the world’s third largest at completion. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope has no Russians in its past, but the 91 hexagonal elements that comprise its 433-inch mirror make it the crown jewel light-catcher at McDonald. But this telescope is much more than a mirror. The light it obtains is analyzed by three spectrographs, one on the telescope and two below ground that receive light via fiber-optic cable. The telescope is equipped with state-of-the-art technology to find planets around distant suns, view galaxies and black holes, and identify supernovas to measure the acceleration of the universe. The Hobby-Eberly is engaged in research for top astronomy departments around the planet.
The observatory also operates the McDonald Lunar Laser Ranging Station, which among other things, reflects light off the moon (a three-second round-trip) to measure the drift of Earth’s continents. And UT has never forgotten that McDonald’s will called for an observatory that would not only advance astronomy but also promote it. Public viewings took place on small telescopes even before the observatory was completed. Today, the McDonald Observatory considers catering to star-savvy folks serious business. The observatory’s visitors center operates two smaller telescopes for public viewing and has a telescope park perfect for the observatory’s frequent star parties. Or consider signing up for one of the observatory’s limited viewings with the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope.