During a week-long visit to the Big Bend area last summer, the highlight of our family’s trip was an evening visit to the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. The observatory is operated by the University of Texas, and it offers star parties three nights a week (sometimes more, during spring break and other holidays). The two-hour event begins just after dusk in an amphitheater with an observatory researcher using a high-powered laser pointer to highlight whatever stars and constellations are visible that particular night.
After a 45-minute presentation, visitors can walk around and get close-up views of celestial objects through several telescopes set up around the property. Some telescopes are permanently housed in their own buildings with retractable roof panels, and others are brought out and set up specifically for the star parties.
While waiting in line — there are always lines because star parties are extremely popular and sell out weeks or months in advance — visitors can ask questions of observatory researchers who are milling about. Most folks ask about particular stars or planets or constellations that were mentioned during the opening presentation. During our time there, three young men who were in line were much more interested in the high-powered laser pointer used during the talk than they were anything else. The researcher patiently answered their questions as to where he had purchased the laser pointer — he bought it online — and how much it cost. Over the past few years, he said, the price of powerful laser pointers has, unfortunately, dropped from several hundred dollars each to less than $20.
“Why is that unfortunate?” one fellow asked.
“Because irresponsible young men like y’all can buy them,” the researcher replied and then walked away.
As enjoyable as that conversation and the entire evening were, the McDonald Observatory is a seven-plus hour drive from Waco. However, there are several places that offer star parties within a couple of hours from here, and one is only about 40 minutes away.
The Paul and Jane Meyer Observatory is located at the Turner Research Station between Turnersville and Clifton, about 45 miles from Waco. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts an open house there once a month with a short presentation, a tour of the observatory and the opportunity to view the night sky through the 24-inch Meyer telescope. Visitors are encouraged to register online for the open house events, which are available at no charge, though donations are welcome. The 2017 open house dates are available at centexastronomy.org.
The society also hosts star parties at the Lake Waco Wetlands, Hubbard City Park and in Bell County.
Several Texas state parks within a couple of hours’ drive offer star-watching parties as well. Inks Lake State Park near Burnet occasionally hosts a Night Sky Party with telescopes provided. Visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars or other optics as well as blankets or chairs, if you wish. Admission to most state park events is free, though park admission is charged.
The Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas and the Fort Worth Astronomical Society co-host star parties a couple of times a year at Palo Pinto Mountains State Park in Strawn, which is north of Stephenville. The next Palo Pinto parties are scheduled for April 22 and October 14.
Information on star parties and other activities at state parks can be found at tpwd.texas.gov.
Star parties take place the first Saturday of each month at the the Rafes Urban Astronomy Center located at the University of North Texas in Denton. Starting 30 minutes after sundown, students and staff lead visitors through a tour of the night sky using several telescopes. Admission, on a cash-only basis, starts at $5. Information about the UNT program can be found at astronomy.unt.edu/ruac.
And in Austin, the Austin Astronomical Society hosts monthly star parties at the Eagle Eye Observatory at the Canyon of the Eagles Resort in Burnet. These longer events begin one hour before sundown and last for three hours. The next party will be February 18. Information on those can be found at austinastro.org.
If you attend any star-watching party on a clear night, there are some guidelines that make viewing a pleasurable experience for everyone. Most of the activities begin around sunset and last up to two hours past full dark. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so organizers usually request that if visitors arrive late – depending on how far parking is from the viewing area – they turn off their car headlights and interior lights. Avoid using any white flashlights. If a light is needed, use a red flashlight. Don’t use the flashlight app on smartphones, and turn off the flash on all cameras. (Most cameras, especially those on a phone, aren’t going to produce quality photographs of anything in the sky anyway.)
If your child has sneakers that light up as the kid takes a step, put dark tape over those lights. (Really, they’re serious about no lights in the viewing area.) And always ask before using another person’s telescope. Most folks will be happy to let you view the night sky using their optics, but some telescopes might be in use doing research or they’re being adjusted or calibrated.