“We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884
We won’t be traveling by night, of course. But when our cross-country bicycle caravan passes though the vast empty country of West Texas on a 91-mile ride from Van Horn to Fort Davis on Oct. 13, we’ll be in a place with some of the darkest, clearest night skies in the continental United States.
The lack of human habitation and light and industrial pollution was a major factor in siting the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains northwest of Fort Davis, where we’re scheduled for a layover rest day on Oct. 14. The closest city of any size is El Paso, more than 200 miles to the northwest.
McDonald Observatory, a research unit of UT-Austin, is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, teaching and public education.
The primary instrument at the McDonald Observatory is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, dedicated in 1997. Atop Mount Fowlkes, it’s one of the world’s largest optical telescopes with a 433-inch mirror. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope has a 107-inch mirror, which was the third-largest in the world when it was built in 1966-1968. The Otto Struve Telescope, built from 1933 to 1939, was the first major telescope to be built at McDonald Observatory. Its 82-inch mirror was the second-largest in the world at the time.
As part of its public outreach, the observatory popularizes science with its “StarDate” segments on National Public Radio and online, conducts tours and holds “star parties” for visitors throughout the year on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
We should arrive at Fort Davis on a Tuesday, Oct. 13. But I believe I’ll skip the star party. I, for one, after 91 miles on a bike, will probably be more in the mood for some cold adult beverages than riding another 10 miles up a steep mountain road to the observatory.