Observatory hosts virtual tours

University of Texas McDonald Observatory Dark Sky Specialist Stephen Hummel poses outside the observatory in Fort Davis. Courtesy photo

McDonald Observatory has always been a big attraction for visitors and locals alike, and it’s strategically located north of Fort Davis under one of the darkest skies in the continental U.S. Although the observatory closed its doors to the public over coronavirus concerns, there are still ways to interact with the dark skies from home, and Dark Sky Specialist Stephen Hummel hosts virtual live tours.

Hummel has been with McDonald Observatory since 2017, where his passion for astronomy led him to live and work at 6,800-foot Mount Locke.

“I was passionate about astronomy as a hobby, and then I came here to volunteer one summer, and knew I wanted it more than the career I initially realized,” said Hummel.

He is elated to be able to share the night sky via live stream on an exclusive YouTube channel. The live tours began in April, and Hummel came up with the idea to reach out to the public. The virtual tours have been very positively received, far exceeding Hummel’s expectations, people watch from all over the world.

Said Hummel, “One of the things that has surprised me the most is the global audience we are reaching. People who probably would not have heard of us or have known to come to West Texas are now watching our programs. People from all over the world are tuning in, which I think is a fantastic thing. I am honored.” 

The live views are shown once a week, and feature several deep-sky targets from outside the observatory, weather permitting, starting at 10 p.m. central time. Some of those targets include distant galaxies, quasars over a billion light years away, nebulae, globular clusters near stars, and of course, planets. There are also live tours of the moon.

Hummel shows a variety of interesting targets based on what is in the sky that night, and aims for Fridays or Saturdays, with Tuesdays as backups depending on the weather. He also takes suggestions from the public and tries to explain things in a way anyone can understand, from the novice who has never peered through a telescope, to the more technical minded researcher. Hummel hopes to continue hosting in-person star parties once the Observatory opens up again. “The thing I enjoy the most is looking up and seeing that sky. It never gets old,” said Hummel. “People genuinely care and appreciate the dark sky because there are fewer places in the world where views like these are possible.”

To see the virtual tours, visit the McDonald Observatory Facebook page, and click on the YouTube link.

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