While peering through a telescope at the tiny white image of Saturn, over 700 million miles away and looking sort of pathetically lonely against the stark black background of space, I wished I’d been a better student in my college astronomy class.
The astronomers and presenters at McDonald Observatory’s Twilight Program and Star Party were very good at explaining technical concepts in simple terms, but there were several moments when I thought, “You wouldn’t have to be squinting in concentration quite so hard if you’d just gone to class back then, knucklehead.”
I’d traveled with my parents out to the West Texas town of Fort Davis in the Texas Mountain Trail region to experience the wide open spaces and dark night skies that make the Observatory’s events very popular; they often sell out in the summer, on weekends and over holidays. From where we stayed at the historic Indian Lodge, it was a short drive up the mountain to look out into the universe. There was some comfort in knowing that I was standing on property owned by an astronomical research unit of the University of Texas, so it was sort of like going back to school to redeem myself.
The Twilight Program at dusk helps to set the stage for some of the celestial sights you may see later in the evening at the Star Party (they are two separate events.)
There was time to grab a quick meal in between the two at the Observatory’s StarDate Café in the Visitors Center; it is named for the well-known astronomical news and education program StarDate that you may have heard on NPR (National Public Radio.) The NPR station in this part of Texas is KRTS 93.5 FM broadcasting out of Marfa – they’ve just debuted a new Astronomer Conversation series if you like hearing about what’s going on in astronomy, and it is available online.
The Star Party allows visitors to look through both free-standing telescopes and a couple of the larger ones used for research. What you’ll see depends of course upon the weather and the time of year, but that night the clouds that brought a wonderfully colorful sunset moved out of the way enough for us to see lots of different celestial bodies. I was glad for my warm jacket and gloves; don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s always hot in Texas.
If you want to look up into space from your own backyard, here are 13 must-see stargazing events in 2013 …. the next one is February 2-23, 2013 when it is the best time to see the planet Mercury in the evenings.
Does astronomy travel sound appealing? It was the topic of a recent episode of Travel Coffee Break, a interesting series of open travel discussions held using Google+ Hangouts on Air (video on Google+ that is simulcast to YouTube.) Also look at the show’s Twitter hashtag #tcbhoa.
Here’s the direct link to the episode on YouTube if you can’t see the embed box below, although even if you can see it, hit the direct link because there are show notes with astronomy tour/travel information that you might want to investigate.
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