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Wednesday, July 25, 2001

West Texas' skies ideal for Observatory location

Staff Writer

PECOS, Wed., July 25, 2001 -- Parents wanting to take their children on an educational road  trip before the summer is over might want to consider the  McDonald Observatory.

Located 90 miles southwest of Pecos, the McDonald Observatory is one the major astronomical research facilities in the world and is open to the public daily.

The observatory, located just west of Fort Davis, was started by a donation given by W.J. McDonald in 1926.

"The donation was a little over $800,000," Senior Programs Coordinator, Frank Cianciolo said. "The family of Mr. McDonald thought that he was insane, so we had to go to court. With the money that we got we were able to build a telescope and the original houses."

According to Cianciolo, at the time the University of Texas did not have an astronomy program and therefore the University of Chicago provided the astronomers and the oversight for the program.

"The observatory signed with the University of Chicago 1932 and then in 1962 the University of Texas took over," Cianciolo said.

"The University of Chicago picked this location for the observatory for four main reasons," Public Affairs Specialist Mark Cash said. "One is because of our Southern location. There is more southern sky. The second reason is because of the weather _ two-thirds of the year there is nice weather. Third we are closer to the stars because we are 6,800 feet above sea level. Finally, there is little "light pollution" here. We are the darkest observatories in the continental U.S."

In 1939, the observatory got its first telescope, the Otto Struve. It is 82-inches, making it the world's second largest telescope at the time.

"In 1969, we got our second telescope," Cianciolo said. The 107-inch telescope was named after the designer and builder, Harlan J. Smith and along with the Otto Struve Telescope is located on Mount Locke.

The third telescope was donated in 1997 and is located on the adjacent peak to Mount Locke. On Mount Fowlkes, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) is the third largest optical telescope in the world. Along with the HET, laser ranging is also done off of Mount Fowlkes.

The two largest telescopes are located in Hawaii according to Cash.

"Astronomers from the University of Chicago looked in the Arizona, New Mexico and Texas when looking for a site," Cianciolo said. "They chose the Davis Mountains for a different number of reason. We have the darkest sky and the dry desert climate."

The climate is important to the astronomers because they are able to get away form obstructions and the thickness of the atmosphere, Cianciolo said. The dry skies provide better visibility because the astronomers are not able to see through the clouds.

"Right now we are working on a plan to help stop some of the light pollution," Cianciolo said. The observatory tries to prevent as much upward light leakage as possible from areas within 75 miles of Mount Locke. The outer edge of that radius takes in the southern part of Pecos.

"We have a guy who works 40 hours a month traveling to the neighborhood towns and explaining to them the effect of the light pollution. I think he has even gone out and talked to the Reeves County Commisoner. The biggest offender to the light pollution is the prison (Reeves County Detention Center, on the southwest side of town). They have been very corporative with him."

Of the other peaks in the area, Cianciolo said that Mount Locke and later Mount Fowlkes were selected because the other taller peaks in the Davis Mountains were too rough, and it would cost more to build there.

"Because Highway 118 is close to the location, it make it more attractive for we did not have to build another road," he said. State Highway 118 runs just below the observatory on its route between Fort Davis and Kent.

Cianciolo added that the donation of Violet Locke McIvor also made the site more attractive.

During the day the observatory offers tours two daily tours at 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. The tours consist of the knowledgeable guides giving the histories of the telescopes, its operations and research. During the tour the visitors can view the largest telescope mirror in the world and observe hundred-mile vistas of mountains from the top of Mount Locke. The tour, which lasts for an hour, cost $4 for adults, $3 for youth (6-12) and $10 for families.

Self-guided tours are also available to everyone during the hours of 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. The tour is free but a brochure may be purchased at the Visitors' Information Center.

Another activity that takes place twice a day is the Solar Viewing activity. During the Solar Viewing activity, the visitors are able to see the sunspots, prominences and flares. The Solar viewing activity, which last for at least 15 minutes, are free and opened to everyone.

At night the observatory offers Star Parties, which are every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Depending on the time of year, the party times vary from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

"Several activities are offered to during the Star Parties," Cianciolo said. "Five telescopes are set up for people to look through and view the night sky."

The Hubble Space Telescope and Mars can be see with the naked eye but a telescope will also be set up so Mars can be viewed.

After everyone has a chance to view the sky through the telescopes, constellations are pointed out.

The parties are held at the base of Mount Locke and last between 1½ and two hours.

Departing priests  to receive farewell at event

A "Going Away" covered dish supper will be held Friday, July 27, following the 6 p.m., Mass, at the Santa Rosa Catholic Church Patio.

The supper is in honor of Father Manuel Munoz and Father Mike Alcuino who will be leaving the parish soon.

Everyone is invited to attend the special farewell.


PECOS, Wed., July 25, 2001 -- High Tuesday 104. Low this morning 71. Forecast for tonight:   Mostly clear. Low in the mid 70s. Southeast wind 5 to 15  mph. Thursday:  Mostly sunny. High near 102. Southeast wind 10 to  20 mph. Thursday night:  Mostly clear. Low in the mid 70s. Friday  and Saturday:  Mostly sunny days and clear nights. Lows in the lower  to mid 70s. Highs from the upper 90s to near 103.


Lucile Camp and Jane Spence

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