Monday, November 28, 2011

This is Sandy Wood for Star Date

For years, I've heard a short radio program about astronomy called Star Date.  The narrator is named Sandy Wood, and she’s got a great voice.  Plus, I always learn something.  Sandy Wood always mentions that she’s with the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, but I've never thought much about the observatory, other than it was probably somewhere in Austin.
Well, it's not in Austin; instead it's 450 miles west of Austin in the Texas west desert at an altitude of 6800 feet.  I didn't know that until I took a walk Saturday (Ohio State had just lost to Michigan and I needed a TV-football-watching break) and saw a road sign pointing to “University of Texas McDonald Observatory.” So Jim (who almost always goes along with my “hey, let's do this" ideas) and I drove almost 50 miles for a visit.
I actually thought it was only 32 miles.  But when you’ve driven 32 and see another sign that says it’s an addition 16... well, you’re almost there, so why not.
The McDonald Observatory was made possible by Texas banker William Johnson McDonald, who died in 1926 and endowed money to the University of Texas for an astronomical observatory.  The U of T didn't even have an astronomy department at the time.  But after some prolonged legal haggling (McDonald’s relatives contested the will) the first of the observatories' 5 telescopes was built.
At the observatory, we saw a brief movie about it’s history and a presentation about sunspots that included live views of the sun.
Some of what we learned:
Violet and blue stars are the hottest; orange and red stars are cooler.
You can impress people by calling heat waves thermal turbulence.
The sun is about the same temperature as Houston in the summer (I think that was a joke.)

It was a great visit.  If you want to learn more about the McDonald Observatory, here's the link:
On our way to the observatory, we came across the Calera Chapel. It was built in the early 1900s, restored in 2003, and always open. And it is all by itself.
The newest telescope at the McDonald Observatory. The observatory's location in the Davis Mountains has the darkest sky in North America because there is very little light pollution.
Two other telescopes.  People who maintain the equipment actually live at the mountain. 
Scenery near the observatory.

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