Our adventure out to McDonald Observatory began early in the morning on July 31st. The crew consisted of or 6 TAURUS scholars Johnathan Brown, Aldo Sepulveda, Pa Chia Thao, Alexander Fortenberry, Andrew Cancino, Adrianna Perez, and one UT undergrad Logan Pearce. The trip was led by experienced McDonald observers and UT graduate students Briana Indahl and Sam Factor. After loading up our bags, cameras, tripods, and snacks we set off on our 7 hour journey west. Despite an unexpected pitstop in Fredricksburg, TX for some freshly picked peaches and homemade jams we made it to the observatory just in time for dinner.
We kept ourselves busy the first evening in order to adjust to night schedule for our first night of real observing the following evening. After our first dinner in the Astrononer’s Lodge we headed over to the 10 meter Hobby Eberly Telescope (HET) for a behind the scenes tour. While getting a birds eye view of the telescope from the catwalk we learned about how this complex telescope works and its new upgrades. We also got to see the HET’s new instrument, called VIRUS, which is currently being built and installed. We learned VIRUS is made up of 156 individual spectrographs being used simultaneously as a giant instrument to conduct the Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). Luckily we were there just in time to also get to see one the the mirror segments get polished!
Once the sun went down we headed over to the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope. UT graduate student Zach Vanderbosch was observing that night and he gave us a tour as well as taught us about how he is trying to understand pulsating white dwarfs through time series observations. We spent the rest of the night star gazing at the beautifully clear sky and learning how to take astro photographs through Sam’s 8in telescope we set up outside. Aldo was especially excited because this was his first time seeing the Milky Way!
The next 3 nights were our nights to observe with the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope. We observed with an instrument called the Mitchell Spectrograph (also known as the VIRUS Prototype instrument). Our primary science goal was to observe standard stars with the Mitchell Spectrograph simultaneously with VIRUS on the HET. Since the Michell Spectrograph has been used for many years it is very well calibrated. These simultaneous observations will allow the team using VIRUS to study dark energy to better understand their observations.
Despite some bad weather the first couple of nights, the students got to learn how to use the telescope, take calibration data, set up targets for observing, and take data. We weren’t able to observe simultaneously with the HET the first couple of nights due to weather but we did get some observations of some fun targets such as Saturn during some pockets of clear weather. The students quickly became experts in knowing how to monitor weather and make the sometimes tough judgement calls as to when to close the telescope to protect it from bad weather conditions. This is an essential skill to observing that can only be learned from these types of experiences. When we couldn’t observe we spent some time learning about the instrument but also playing games like Spaceteam and werewolf.
To get our spirits up after a couple of nights of bad weather we took an afternoon road trip to the nearby town of Marfa, TX. Marfa is a small but unique West Texas town filled with mysteries, myths, and a ton of art. After checking out some Donald Judd works at the Chianti Foundation and channeling our inner Beyoncé at Marfa’s famous Food Shark we ventured back to the observatory. On our way back we meandered down a long dirt road behind the historic Prude Ranch and found the one of the giant radio telescopes that is part of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA).
After the sun when down we walked up to the 2.7m dome for our last night of observing. Luckily the storm clouds cleared and the humidity dropped and we finally got an entire night to observe! The students, now very familiar with the telescope and the observing software, lead the set up and observations of the standard stars. We continuously called the HET observing staff to coordinate our observations and the night was a success!
The students also got to observe on the 30in telescope that night. Since UT undergrad Logan Pearce had used the telescope once before she got to train the TAURUS students how to use it. They observed a few classic astronomical objects such as the Ring Nebula and the Eagle Nebula.
Despite being tired after a long night of observing, after closing the telescope for the night, we spent another hour in the crisp morning air on the catwalk of the 2.7m and watched the sun rise over the HET in the distance. This made for the perfect end to our McDonald Observatory adventure.