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NEAR FORT DAVIS, TEXAS — The jet black skies in remote sections of the Southwest are the perfect setting for astronomers. Besides the Palomar Observatory in San Diego and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., there’s the McDonald Observatory in Texas, now marking its 75th anniversary.
When astronomer Stephen Odewahn was 3 years old, his mother sat him down and told him to watch the launch of the first American in space, Alan Shephard.
“From that time I was always anxious about the sky, looking at the sky, looking at the moon,” Odewahn said.
Shepherd went on to walk on the moon, and Odewahn is now a senior astronomer at the McDonald Observatory in the mountains of far West Texas. Along with an ecstatic group of visitors, Odewahn’s stargazing on this night through the 82-inch aperture of the historic Otto Struve telescope.
“OK guys. We’re going to move so everybody watch here,” he told a group before using a computer to lock the telescope onto a target.
The Struve Telescope, named for a Russian astronomer who was the observatory’s first director, was the second largest in the world when it was dedicated in 1939.
Today, it is a research tool used to track the life and death of stars, specifically white dwarfs.
White dwarfs are sort of the end stage of a star’s life, Odewahn said. “And so if you want to understand how stars live, you have to understand something about how they die.”
To thank its supporters, the McDonald Observatory has invited people to take in images of the heavens typically restricted to scientists. Larry Mitchell is from Houston.
“When I use my 36-inch telescope I can see hints of pink, hints of blue, hints of colors. But you almost have to use your imagination to see it. In this telescope those blues are iridescent! It almost looks fake,” Mitchell said.
The image of a star is a snapshot in time, an image of the way the star once before its light reaches the Earth. The speed of light is 700 million miles an hour, and Mitchell says viewing the heavens through such a large aperture is an exercise in “abject humility.”
“We’re looking back in time 100 million years.You cannot do that sitting at home watching Tuesday night at the movies,” he said.
“What you’re going to look at here is what our sun will look like in about four billion years,” said Keith Rivich, also from Houston.
Jim Fowler of Ft. Davis, Texas, says the the Otto Struve telescope is a throwback to the past, to the days before modern telescopes spat out computer-generated images.
“There’s a certain group of us amateurs, hard core visual astronomers, just wanna look through an eyepiece, don’t care about cameras, photographs, just wanna see it,” Fowler said. “For them this scope is the Holy Grail.”
One of joys of journalism is discovery, viscerally experiencing other people’s perspectives.
Rivich, Fowler and Allan Gilchrist helped me focus on the symphony of light above. We were looking at a five-star formation known as Stephan’s Quintet. They gave me the privilege of guiding me through a first time experience.
Research engineer John Kuehne says 40,000 years ago people had the same fascination with the heavens that we do today.
“That means they were looking at the stars like we do. They were looking at the twinkling of stars. And we have this connection to our ancestors back in the Ice Age,” he said with one eye against the eyepiece.
The telescope is owned by the University of Texas at Austin. The school offers students the chance to test the waters of science before making a final decision on their majors.
Astronomers say this one piece of equipment wows the students. It’s one reason, they say, that some freshmen decide to pursue astronomy after one night’s viewing.