The night skies of Texas offer an excellent gateway to exploring the heavens. The stars are big and bright, and the planets look close enough to reach out and touch in the inky darkness. To get an even better peek at our celestial neighbors, visit one of the observatories that offer public access.
The big news in stargazing this summer has been the close encounter with Mars. The red planet was a mere 35 million miles from Earth on Aug. 27 before it began its gradual journey back into deep space. We won't get another chance to see the planet so vividly with backyard telescopes, binoculars, or the naked eye for another 284 years. As the moon slowly builds its reflective size, Mars should be easily visible in the southeast sky through much of September.
The granddaddy of all observatories in Texas is the McDonald Observatory outside of Fort Davis. The mountain site was selected for its remoteness and lack of light pollution, and the beauty of the location was an added benefit. The West Texas darkness seems to press in from all angles like the ocean on a scuba diver.
A world-renowned research center, the McDonald Observatory provides world-class facilities for visitors who travel the 16 miles north of Fort Davis to Mount Locke. The Visitors Center opens daily from 9am to 5pm and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Along with gifts and souvenirs, the center also offers dining in the StarDate Cafe.
During the day, the observatory offers a variety of programs that unlock the mysteries of the skies. One of the best values is the guided tours of the telescopes that happen at 11:30am and 2:30pm. The guides are usually professional astronomers who tell about the equipment and research at the outpost. Although reservations are not taken, it is a good idea to purchase tour tickets as early in the day as possible because the size of tour groups is limited. Self-guided tours of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the newest and largest at the facility, are free during the day.
Star Parties at the observatory are extraordinary. Visitors get to study the heavenly lights through 82-inch and 22-inch telescopes as well as several other smaller looking glasses. The friendly and knowledgeable crew has enough equipment on hand to cover almost every interesting object in the night sky as the visitors move from station to station.
Star Parties are held every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night. April through August, the group stargazing runs from 9:30 to 11:30pm, September through October from 9 to 11pm, and November through March from 7:30 to 9:30pm. An hour before the parties the instructors present a Twilight Program of what to expect during the night's viewing.
For more information on the programs and tours at the McDonald Observatory, call 432/426-3640 or visit their Web site at www.mcdonaldobservatory.org. For a recorded star watcher's report, call 471-5007.
Canyon of the Eagles Lodge & Nature Park on Lake Buchanan north of Burnet offers one of the best star-viewing opportunities in Central Texas. The park holds regular star parties on Wednesday and Friday nights with Austin Astronomical Society-led star parties once a month. The park's Eagle Eye Observatory has a 16-inch Ealing Cassegrain telescope to use to search the skies. For information on lodging and viewing, contact the Canyon of the Eagles at 800/977-0081 or at www.canyonoftheeagles.com.
The Austin Astronomical Society is a great source for information on the Texas sky. Each month, on an evening when the moon is crescent, society members lead star parties at Wild Basin Preserve west of Austin. The next ones are planned for Aug. 29 and Sept. 28. For information, contact the preserve at 327-7622 or point your Web browser to www.austinastro.org.
Brazos Bend State Park, southwest of Houston, is the only state park with its own telescope, and it has three domed facilities. Operated by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the facility has a 36-inch Gueymard telescope, one of the largest telescopes in the nation open to public viewing on a regular basis. For information on the Saturday evening public viewings, call 979/553-3400 or visit their Web site at www.hmns.org.
638th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.