AUSTIN, Texas—The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory will open a new Visitors Center on April 6. The new center will welcome as many as 130,000 visitors each year to its bilingual (English/Spanish) exhibits, theater, cafe and gift shop.
“I’m pleased to report that Jeff Davis County, Texas, now has one of the best small science centers in the country,” McDonald Observatory Director Frank Bash said.
Members of the news media are invited to an April 6 slate of events to celebrate the center’s opening. These include a 2:30 p.m. tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, a 3:30 p.m. welcome meeting with Bash, a 4 p.m. preview of the new center and a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. with State Rep. Pete P. Gallego (D-Alpine) and University of Texas at Austin President Larry R. Faulkner.
At 6 p.m., media representatives are invited to a press dinner at the StarDate Cafe at the Visitors Center, and are welcome to attend the public star viewing party outside the center afterward, weather permitting.
The public is invited to a free-admission open house on April 7 to celebrate the center’s opening.
Press kits will be available on March 18. An electronic press kit, including publication-quality photos of the Visitors Center, will be available online at the observatory’s Web site. Contact Rebecca Johnson to request a hard copy of the press kit and directions and information on lodging near McDonald Observatory.
The new 12,000-square-foot Visitors Center houses an interactive exhibit, 90-seat theater, the StarDate Cafe and an astronomy gift shop. Expanded outdoor venues surround the building and will accommodate more visitors than ever before at McDonald’s famous star parties, constellation tours and solar viewing. Guests will view sky objects through large telescopes in the two new 20-foot domes of the public telescope park and attend constellation tours in the outdoor amphitheater — while marveling at some of the darkest night skies in North America.
McDonald is home to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the largest telescope in the world specializing in the study of light through spectroscopy. The “Decoding Starlight” exhibit inside the new Visitors Center explains spectroscopy — basically, how astronomers break light into its wavelengths to unlock its secrets — in both English and Spanish. More than five years of planning and a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation went into producing this exhibit. Exhibit highlights include:
- a live, two-meter-wide, detailed projection of the Sun’s spectrum;
- interactive displays that explain how astronomers crack the code embedded in light from stars and galaxies;
- an introduction to the tools and technology that astronomers use;
- and a behind-the-scenes look at life at McDonald Observatory.
In addition to welcoming thousands of families and vacationers to the observatory, the new center will take on a larger role in K-12 education.
“It’s important to McDonald Observatory to promote K-12 science education,” Bash said. “This new facility will help us excite students about science and technology and is designed to inspire them to pursue careers in those fields.”
Teacher workshops will be given at the Visitors Center’s laboratory-style classroom, which is equipped with advanced audio and video capabilities. Workshop leaders will use astronomy-based activities to promote both the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the National Science Education Standards. The Texas State Board of Educator Certification recently authorized McDonald Observatory to offer continuing education credits to Texas teachers.
“Teachers who come here will be totally immersed in astronomy, staying for one to five days — attending workshops by day and observing the stars at night,” said Marc Wetzel, education coordinator for McDonald Observatory. “We hope to share with them the fun and fascination of science, and that they will pass it on to their students.”
Pre- and post-visit support, funded by a grant from NASA and designed with the help of teachers, will be available through a free Web site, teacher guides and other materials.
The new Visitors Center replaces the existing W.L. Moody, Jr. Visitors’ Information Center, which will be converted to office space for Visitors Center staff. The Moody Center, with its adjacent 14-inch telescope and dome, also will become a resource for amateur astronomers.
Built in 1980 to handle 20,000 visitors per year, the Moody Center was handling 130,000 visitors per year by 1988. At that time, McDonald Observatory decided to begin raising funds for a new facility. More than $6 million has been raised in contributions from donors, foundations, grants and revenues to fund the construction, which began with a groundbreaking ceremony in late July 2000. The observatory continues to raise operations funds for its K-12 education and public outreach programs.
Note: RSVPs for the media events of April 6 are encouraged, but not required. Contact Rebecca Johnson at (512) 475-6763.