The Stars at Night in West Texas

The Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve Telescopes on Mt. Locke at the McDonald Observatory. The core of the Milky Way passes in the background during a long exposure. Settings - ISO 500, 170mm, f/2.8, 255.0 sec

Regardless of the number of nights I spend out with my camera staring at the stars, it never gets old. There is something to be said for a scene like the night sky that can create a sense of awe the first time you see it, and the thousandth time.

Having a unique opportunity to participate in an astrophotography workshop at McDonald Observatory was something I absolutely jumped at. We spent a couple days during early October this year learning astrophotography techniques from how to shoot the stars to working with star trackers and post processing flows. It was incredibly educational, and more than that, it was a reprieve from the madness that has been the year 2020 - even if there were numerous precautions we had to put in place due to COVID.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope on Mt. Fowlkes. The glow in the sky is from the oil rigs in the distant Permian Basin. Single exposure to create the star trails and catch the light pollution that is barely visible to the naked eye. Settings - ISO 250, 200mm, f/2.8, 381.0 sec

McDonald Observatory is a truly amazing place that has had its eyes heavenward since 1939. The Otto Struve telescope was dedicated on May 5th of that year, and was built thanks to a $1 million endowment by Texas banker William Johnson McDonald - who left the money to the University of Texas specifically to build an astronomical observatory. The result of his vision and kindness is one of the biggest and most advanced observatories in the world today, which has contributed innumerable discoveries to the field of astronomy. From calculating the exact distance to the moon through lunar laser ranging to calibrating the GPS satellites we all rely on so heavily these days by satellite laser ranging, McDonald Observatory has had an impact on all of our daily lives without us even realizing it.

The Otto Struve and Harlan J. Smith telescopes later in the evening after the Milky Way had passed behind them. Settings - ISO 250, 200mm, f/2.8, 490.0 sec

Around the Observatory are the towns of Fort Davis and a bit further down the road, Alpine. I loved learning about how the Observatory is working with these local municipalities to reduce light pollution through responsible outdoor lighting practices and ensuring the preservation of the skies for years to come. It is a huge effort and the people that are involved in it are very passionate. I loved talking to Stephen Hummel and learning about what McDonald Observatory is doing to better educate people on the benefits of preserving out night skies. It is a constant battle, and one that people don't think much about as they build new communities. With that being said - it actually is fairly easy preserve the night sky without sacrificing sufficient lighting. If you are interested in how you can make a difference fairly easily and inexpensively - check out the below link from the International Dark Sky Association.

Take Action:

The Davis Mountains at Sunset just to the south of the McDonald Observatory. Settings - ISO 125 70mm, f/14, 1/4000 sec

Another useful bit of information if you are looking to go out and photograph or just enjoy the night sky is the Bortle Dark-Sky scale. I pulled a sample scale from the Texas Park and Wildlife website and shared below. As a point of reference, the McDonald Observatory is a Bortle Class 2 - which is true dark sky. While this is a solid, Big Bend is a true Bortle Class 1 - which is the kind of dark where you have trouble seeing your hand in front of your face in some instances.

The Bortle Scale - Pulled from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Website (

Spending three days out in west Texas staring at the stars and messing with my camera was a much needed mental reprieve from the drama and stress of everyday life at the moment. The sense of wonder that overcomes me mentally when I spend time with the night sky literally pushes out all the other worries and stress that are in my mind. It has been a good reminder that you don't have to travel across the planet to get away - sometimes it's just a few hours away via car.

30 images stacked looking eastward at Mt. Locke. The core of the Milky Way is clearly visible behind the telescopes. Settings - ISO 6400, 85mm, f/1.8, 2.5 sec.

The quiet evenings of focus and conversations with those that find the same sense of wonder in the night sky is healing in many ways. Connection with nature and the night sky is a good way to remember our place in the natural world and realize just how little some of our trivial concerns matter in the grand scheme of things.

As 2020 draws to a close, and the new year is upon us, I hope that you are given the chance to go out and stare up in wonder at the night sky, there is little in my experience that is as cleansing to the soul as a sky full of starlight.

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