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McDonald Observatory :: Fort Davis, Texas

Fort Davis, originally uploaded by Ramble Writer.

As you drive into the small town of Fort Davis, which is less than an hour from Marfa, you may soon notice the lack of street lights along the streets. While Austin has moonlight towers that illuminate neighborhoods and roads (see below for a brief history of these moon towers), Fort Davis takes pride in it’s pitch-black nights.

This Texan town is an astronomer’s dream. The complete darkness of night, uncluttered by light pollution, is a beautiful canvas for the stars to demonstrate their brilliance. McDonald Observatory, a research station affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin, is an optimal place to see the stars, planets, moons, and satellites that a clear sky has to display. In fact, the Department of Astronomy at UT Austin is one of the top 10 astronomy research programs in the United States.

Fortunately, the observatory’s telescopes and facilities are also available to the general public through star parties, tours, and special viewing nights. After hearing many recommendations to visit McDonald Observatory, Nick and I decided to check out these star parties to see the stars in a clear sky.

It was a Friday night, and I was surprised to see such a large attendance – we had over 100 people in our group, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that over 100,000 people participate in these star parties each year. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy night, but Frank Cianciolo, the Senior Program Coordinator, did an excellent job teaching us about the few stars we could see through the clouds. Cianciolo is openly passionate about astronomy, and provided entertaining stories to keep the group amused.

We took a “Virtual Sky Tour” in one of the facility’s classrooms, and even were able to view Saturn in several of the observatory’s gigantic telescopes. The parties are an excellent opportunity to view the sky in the perfect setting of complete darkness.

For more information about McDonald Observatory and tour tickets, visit http://mcdonaldobservatory.org/.
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So what are those moonlight towers in Austin?
Fans of Dazed and Confused are familiar with these towers – the film was filmed in Austin. Standing 165 feet tall, there are 17 structures that tower over the city of Austin.

During our stay in Austin, we were told the legend of these towers: Many years ago, there was a serial killer who preyed on young servant girls walking home at night. The city of Austin installed these towers to deter the murderer from killing these innocent girls aided by the shelter of the night (cue dramatic music).

The story may be thrilling, but as I began to research the matter, I only found practical explanations as to why the towers were erected: In the nineteenth century, the moonlight towers were a practical way to light the town. At the invention of streetlights, most cities replaced these towers with street lamps, yet Austin has kept 17 of the towers.

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