Monday, November 22, 2010

Fort Davis and McDonald Observatory

A long drive for us, we moved from Lubbock to Balmorhea Texas, about 260 miles which is about a hundred miles more then we normally do.

We're camped at the Saddle Back Mt RV Park which is a nice park with long level sites and good hookups, nothing else here and it is located in just about the middle of no where, really, I'll explain that later.

Today we drove over to Fort Davis National Park, about a 40 minute drive through the Mountains which were beautiful. Fort Davis located in the town of the same name, (named after Jeff Davis who at the time was the Secretary of War). Today it is one of the best examples of a frontier military fort, may of the 50 original buildings have been restored and the foundations of the others are highly visible

From 1854 to 1891 it served the people of West Texas by protecting them from the Comanche and Apache Indians, keeping the travelers heading to California for the gold Rush safe on the San Antonio – El Paso Road which passed right in front of the fort. Buffalo Soldiers from the Ninth & Tenth Cavalry’s and the 41st, 24th and 25th infantry served at the fort. Lt Henry O Flipper, the first black to graduate from West Point was stationed here. In 1891 after the soldiers had brought all the Indians into the reservations it was decided that the fort was no longer needed and it was abandoned.

We started out seeing the 15 minute video about the history of the fort then spent about an hour and a half walking around the buildings, after seeing the Commanders house and some of the restored Officers house's we can understand why nobody wanted to leave this place. Their quarters were huge and first class all the way, we would love to have one to live in. Also this is probably the prettiest setting for a fort we've ever seen.

Waiting to be restored.

Enlisted mans quarters.

Covered Wagon on the San Antonio-El Paso Road.

10th Calvary.

Officers Row and the Parade Grounds

After all this we drove over to the McDonald Observatory, normally we wouldn't have gone out of our way to stop here but one of my brothers worked here for NASA during the mid 70's so we thought that we would take a look at it, sure glad we did. It's about 18 miles from Fort Davis and when you get there you finish up your drive on Spur Hwy 72 which is the highest paved road in Texas, around 6800 feet above sea level. When we got there we found out that they had a tour starting in about 30 minutes so we signed up for that ($8 a head) . The tour starts with a 20 minute film explaining how the observatory came to be, remember I said that we were in the middle of no where, well they confirmed it for me by explaining that they did a study to find a location for the telescopes and the top of this mountain is considered the “Darkest Spot in the USA” because of it's height and the fact that is located in the middle of the desert (the middle of no where). They have clear skies for viewing the stars about 90% of the time, which is important when you have scientist coming from around the world to use the facilities, they have very little down time. OK, after the film our tour guide came in and we were able to observe the sun through one of the smaller scopes, which is wired up so that we could watch it on the big screen. We were able to see different sun spots and solar flares and then he explained how they happen and how they effect the earth along with a lot of other stuff.

108 inch scope

 From there we boarded the tour bus and he took us to the 108 inch scope, which when it was built it was the third largest in the world. We went up to the fifth floor where the telescope is located and he demonstrated how the scope can turn any direction and how the entire top of the building rotates so they can point it anywhere they want. It was pretty cool seeing the building rotating around and the monster telescope turning. Another 15 to 20 minute talk here on how everything works then it was back to the bus for a drive over to the newest scope.
The Highlighted area in the center is the Mirror
 This scope is now the fifth largest in the world and is a spectrograph scope or something like that, he explained it but lost me half way through. I did pick up that this scope can rotate 360 degrees but is locked at 30 degrees, it is able to view 80% of the sky because of the rotation of the earth, it might take a number of days but eventually it cover the entire sky. One reason for this type of scope is that it only coast 13 million to build, if it was the same type as the 108 inch scope which can point where ever you want when ever you want, it would have cost 100 million.

Nope, Not Epcot
This facility is owned and operated by the University of Texas Austin, but they work in conjunction with many other universities all around the world, they are currently working with a large group that is building a new scope in Chile which will be something like 8 to 10 times bigger then this one, and when it's completed it will be able to see farther into space then the Hubble Space Scope.

This is the project my brother worked on.
The tour guide was excellent he keep the interest of everyone there including a couple of 10 -12 year old kids, who asked some pretty good questions, the tour ended a little over three hours later with us being dropped of back at the visitors center. So if you ever find yourself in the middle of no where, look for the signs that say McDonald Observatory.

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