Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

McDonald Observatory Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

The Jones family and friends at the McDonald Observatory in 1954

The Jones family and friends at the McDonald Observatory in 1954

A trip to the McDonald Observatory has been on the list of must-see destinations for generations of Texas families. The Observatory along with the Johnson Space Center has planted the ‘final frontier’ firmly in minds of Texans young and old. It’s hard to believe, but the McDonald Observatory is getting ready to celebrate its 75th anniversary!

Located on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, the Observatory was endowed by a gift from Texas banker William Johnson McDonald. When the first telescope was dedicated in 1939, it was the second largest telescope in the world and under one of the darkest skies of any major observatory in the continental United States. Today there are multiple telescopes and a wide variety of research projects underway, including studies in planetary systems, stars and stellar spectroscopy, the interstellar medium, extragalactic astronomy and theoretical studies in astrophysics and cosmology. The McDonald Observatory also welcomes the public with daytime tours and activities, Star Parties and special viewing nights.

May 5, 2014 will mark the 75th anniversary of the McDonald Observatory. But why wait to celebrate? A number of events are planned across the state of Texas to observe this important anniversary. The first event takes place in Austin this Saturday evening, October 19th at the Blanton Museum. Dr. Frank Bash who served as director of the McDonald Observatory from 1989 to 2003 will speak on “The Frontier and McDonald Observatory.” He sees today’s astronomers standing at the edge of a new frontier peering into a truly vast unknown. Dr. Bash will discuss some of the important questions in astronomy and the McDonald Observatory’s contributions to finding answers, including the quest to better understand dark energy. A reception will be held at 6 pm, followed by the talk at 7 pm at the Blanton’s Edgar A. Smith Building on the University of Texas campus in Austin.

Another event will be held in West Texas next week. If you’re planning to be in Fort Davis on Monday, October 21st, head to the Jeff Davis County Library where you can hear Dr. Tom Barnes talk on the McDonald Observatory’s planned research into dark energy.

If you’ve never made the trip to the Davis Mountains and the McDonald Observatory, the 75th anniversary year is a great time to visit!

Greetings from the Pale Blue Dot!

Whole Earthlings Wave Hello to Cassini

Whole Earthlings Wave Hello to the Cassini Spacecraft

Greetings from the Pale Blue Dot!

NASA called it the first interplanetary photobomb and Whole Earth Provision Co. was there! On July 19th the Cassini spacecraft turned its camera towards Earth and took a picture. Cassini has photographed the Earth once before, but this was the first time that Earthlings knew in advance that their picture was going to be taken from a billion miles away. NASA hoped that people around the world would go outside to wave at Saturn while the photo-shoot was underway. Always happy to do our part, we gathered outside the Whole Earth office in Austin and sent salutations to Cassini and the ringed planet.

This is only the third photo of the Earth taken from the outer solar system. The first, the Pale Blue Dot, was taken 23 years ago by Voyager 1 from beyond Neptune. The other image was taken by Cassini in 2006. Why did NASA have Cassini take a picture of the Earth today? The spacecraft was taking advantage of an eclipse of the Sun by Saturn which made the Earth visible just outside the E ring.

Whole Earth ad circa 1970

One of our very first ads (1971)

Why is an image of our planet at such a distance so important? It’s a reminder of just how small we are in the great cosmic scheme of things and how precious our planet Earth really is. The Pale Blue Dot inspired Carl Sagan to write:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. …The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It is said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

from Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Long Nights Moon of December

Photo: Schmeegan

Tonight we welcome the Long Nights Moon of December. Our nights are longest near the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere so tonight’s Full Moon will be sailing across the Texas sky for over 13 hours. Why not bundle up and take a stroll in the moonlight and admire our celestial neighbor? But don’t forget, the root of lunacy is Luna!

Geminids, the last meteor shower of 2012

Okay, we admit it. The trailer was a bit extreme. Chances are you won’t be seeing giant explosions. But you might see a fireball! So head on out to the country for the last big meteor shower of the year – the Geminids! The show starts on Thursday, December 13th around 9:30 pm CST. Look to the northeast. The meteors appear to be coming from the constellation Gemini, just to the left of Orion. For the best viewing, give your eyes a chance to adapt to starlight. When you can see all seven stars in the Big Dipper, you know your eyes are ready. The number of meteors will increase through the night peaking between 2 and 3 am in the morning of December 14th.

The Geminids were first seen in 1862 and seem to be intensifying every year. Under the best conditions, as many as 150 meteors may be seen in an hour. Our friends at Earth and Sky remind us that “meteor watching is a lot like fishing. You go outside. You enjoy nature all around you. You hope you catch some!”

For more information on the Geminids and December planet sightings take a look at this short video from the Jet Propulsion Lab.