Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Big Changes at the Observatory

McDonald Observatory is the observatory in west Texas operated by the astronomers at the University of Texas. The observatory is named after William Johnson McDonald, a Texas banker who left the bulk of his money as an endowment to build the observatory. Like any big operation, the operation and maintenance of the observatory is costly; in modern times these funds have come from the budget of the State of Texas and from donors belonging to the observatory's Board of Visitors.

Alas, the observatory has fallen on hard times. Because of legislative in-fighting, the Texas state budget for 2008 was woefully inadequate, and the slow response to our economic slowdown has pinched the pockets of many of our best donors. So, we've been preparing for lean times, watching our budgets, and generally sweating bullets and wondering what might happen.

Thankfully, salvation came today when we got an email detailing that the department has secured sufficient funding for the foreseeable future by selling naming rights to the observatory. Starting immediately, we're now known as McDonald's Observatory (new motto: "Billions and Billions Observed"), and acting under the auspices of the Golden Arches. Although, admittedly, we've sold out, I think the future finally looks good from a monetary standpoint. And we'll be able to keep doing cutting-edge astronomy from western Texas for the long term, no matter the economic conditions.

The first order of business will be to upgrade our largest telescope, the HET (formerly the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, now the Hamburglar-Early Bird Telescope). Below is an artist's conception of the redesigned dome structure, which will both provide superior optical stability and attract visitors to the site:

The HET will be re-shaped to look like Grimace.

To help visitors know what we are looking at, Grimace's right hand points in the same direction as the telescope itself.

The other visible changes will be to the Frank Bash Visitor's Center, where the StarDate Cafe will be replaced by a fully-staffed McDonald's restaurant (a free Fritz Zwicky bobblehead will be in every Happy Meal), and the popular What Are Astronomers Doing? exhibit will be complemented by the new "What Are Astronomers Eating?" display. Some other minor remodeling is also expected, as shown in this depiction of a typical summer star party at the Visitor's Center:

The Golden Arches complete a McDonald's Observatory star party

Discussions are still ongoing about other changes. Because of its 70-year history, the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope will be left alone, but the 107-inch telescope may be named after Ray Kroc instead of former observatory director Harlan Smith. This potential move is going to be quite unpopular, and so is still under discussion.

All in all, I think that the sponsorship move is unfortunate but necessary to ensure the future of Texas astronomy. So, if you ever find yourself driving across west Texas and are hungry, feel free to stop by! Just look for the 150-foot high purple Grimace. And don't tell them I sent you.


  1. During my first semester as a grad student at UT I was preparing for my first observing run to McDonald, and had a dream about it. Since I'd never been there, I didn't know what the Observatory looked like or anything. In the dream I was on the mountain and there were golden arches everywhere. I said to myself, "Oh! I understand. MCDONALD Observatory!"

    Prophecy fulfilled!

  2. So when are they going to rededicate RLM as "Ronald L. McDonald" Hall?