From white dwarves to dark matter: 75 years of discovery at McDonald Observatory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Rebecca Johnson, Editor of the StarDate Magazine at the McDonald Observatory.

A year-long celebration is underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, with the first event of 2014 being held at HMNS on Tues., Jan. 14 with a public lecture by Dr. Jon Winget.

McDonald Observatory 1

Photo credit: Sandia National Laboratories

Dubbed “impossible stars,” white dwarfs are the simplest stars with the simplest surface chemical compositions known — yet they are very mysterious. The McDonald Observatory leads in investigating white dwarfs along several avenues: telescope observations, theory, and most recently, the making of “star stuff,” using the most powerful X-ray source on Earth at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Don Winget, one of the world’s leading experts on white dwarfs, will give a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS to examine the how studies of these stars can shed light on everything from the age of the universe to the understanding of dark matter and dark energy.

White dwarves are often difficult to locate due to the larger, brighter stars they are paired with

Located near Fort Davis, Texas, under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States, McDonald Observatory  hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest, which is being upgraded to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The McDonald Observatory was dedicated May 5, 1939, and has supported some of the most important astronomical discoveries of recent decades about everything from extrasolar planets to exotic stars and black holes.

The Observatory plans a full year of activities around the state to celebrate. Events will run through August 2014, including a lecture series featuring McDonald Observatory astronomers in multiple cities and an Open House at the Observatory.

The celebration continues at the observatory’s website. Visitors to the anniversary pages can peruse a timeline of observatory history, watch several historical videos, and share their memories and photos of McDonald on an interactive blog called “Share Your Story.”

McDonald Observatory 2
(And while we’re at it, don’t forget about our own George Observatory‘s anniversary this year as well — 25 years of showcasing the night sky to the Greater Houston area!)

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
Date: Tues., Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Topic: “Small Stars in a Large Context: All Things White Dwarf”
Speaker: Don Winget, Ph.D.
Where: HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theater
How: Click here for advance tickets

Sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in celebration of their 75th anniversary, with a pre-lecture reception at 5 p.m.

 

Towards Other Earths [Lecture]

McDonald Observatory
McDonald Observatory
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nick Shine

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Fritz Benedict. He is a Senior Research Scientist at UT-Austin’s McDonald Observatory in west Texas. He is also involved with NASA and is currently attending the Towards Other Earths conference in Portugal. Dr. Benedict will be giving a lecture at HMNS on October 27, at 6:30 p.m.

Hello from Portugal, where it is raining; water from the sky, and exciting new developments in the area of extrasolar planets.

All of this week, experts from around the world are sharing ideas and results about planets tens to hundreds of light years away. It is absolutely amazing how much we can determine about exoplanets: mass, size, composition of atmosphere, temperature and density.

Planet Sunset
Creative Commons License photo credit: kevindooley

But, these are all gas giants (like Jupiter) or even larger. The holy grail in this game is a planet that is very similar to Earth; a place with a surface gravity, atmosphere, and oceans like we enjoy. So, this conference (called Towards Other Earths) has a reason to exist. What will be required to find and characterize an earth-like planet tens of light years distant?

Next week I will be in your neighborhood on 27 October, giving a talk at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and will report on a few of the fascinating results from Towards Other Earths. Hope to see you all there!

Make sure you join us at the George Observatory for Astronomy Day on October 24. Visitors will be able to participate in crafts, activities, lectures and astronomy exhibits, all free with the price of admission to Brazos Bend State Park.