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McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin, is one of the world's leading centers for astronomical research, teaching, and public education and outreach. The mission of McDonald Observatory is to advance humanity's understanding of the universe through research in astronomy, to facilitate graduate and undergraduate education in astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, to contribute to the public understanding of science in Texas and the nation, and to use astronomy as a tool to help Texas teachers meet state standards and excite Texas schoolchildren about careers in a scientific and technical field.

Observatory facilities are located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, which offer some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States. The Observatory's administrative offices are on the UT-Austin campus. The Observatory works with the University's Department of Astronomy on both research and teaching.

McDonald's principal research telescopes are:

  • The Hobby-Eberly Telescope: With its 9.2-meter (362-inch) mirror, the HET is one of the world's largest optical telescopes. It's optimized for spectroscopy, the decoding of light from stars and galaxies to study their properties. This makes it ideal for searching for planets around other stars, and studying distant galaxies, exploding stars, black holes, and more. The HET, dedicated in 1997, is a joint project of The University of Texas at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

  • The Harlan J. Smith Telescope: Constructed 1966-68, the Smith Telescope has a 2.7-meter (107-inch) mirror, which was the third largest in the world when built. The telecope is used every clear night of the year.

  • The Otto Struve Telescope: Constructed 1933-39, the Struve Telescope was the first major telescope to be built at McDonald Observatory. Its 2.1-meter (82-inch) mirror was the second largest in the world at the time. The telescope is still in use today.

  • Other Telescopes: McDonald also operates a 0.8-meter (30-inch) telescope, and the 0.8-meter (30-inch) Laser Ranging Telescope that measures the distance between Earth and the Moon and tracks the drift of Earth's continents.

  • Future Telescope: The UT System Board of Regents approved a plan for The University of Texas at Austin to direct $50M (plus an additional $50M raised from donors) towards construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope.

Public Education and Outreach

McDonald Observatory operates a multi-faceted international public outreach program. At the Observatory Visitors Center, outreach events include star parties, public tours, K-12 teacher and student actvities, and more. McDonald also produces the StarDate radio program, StarDate magazine, the StarDate Online website, and special programs for hundreds of elementary and secondary teachers across the United States.


In the coming years and decades, astronomers will study exploding stars, map millions of galaxies, and plot the gravitational influence of dense galaxy clusters. Particle physicists will probe conditions near the time of the Big Bang. And all of them will tweak their models of how the universe began, how it has aged, and how it will end.

HETDEX will be the first major experiment to search for dark energy. It will use the giant Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory and a set of spectrographs to map the three-dimensional positions of one million galaxies. HETDEX will search a large area of the sky that encompasses most of the Big Dipper. This region is far above the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, which is filled with clouds of gas and dust that block the view of distant galaxies.

Current plans call for full data-gathering operations to begin in 2014, with the survey completed three years later — long before any other dark energy experiment has completed its work. HETDEX will thus provide the first major test of dark energy, and the first volleys in an exciting scientific revolution.

Boylan-Kolchin, Mike
Mike Boylan-Kolchin
Associate Professor
Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy

Cosmology and galaxy formation; dark matter physics; near-field cosmology; cosmic reionization; globular clusters
PMA 16.324
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Cantu, Enrique No
Enrique Cantu Jr
Finance Manager
Enrique (Henry) Cantu, Jr. with McDonald Observatory and Astronomy Department
PMA 13.116A
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PMA 17.230
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Neal J Evans II
Professor Emeritus
Edward Randall, Jr., M.D. Centennial Professorship in Astronomy

Finkelstein, Keely No
Keely D Finkelstein
Associate Professor of Instruction
Dads' Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship #2

Education & Curriculum Design efforts in TIDES and Astronomy, research in galaxy evolution & star formation studies.
PMA 16.206
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Fuechsl, Rachel
Rachel A Fuechsl
Manager, Visitors Center Public Programs
McDonald Observatory West Texas
M15 107
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Gazagnes, Simon No
Simon Gazagnes
Harlan J. Smith McDonald Observatory Postdoctoral Fellow
Some of my research: the properties of LyC emitters, 21-cm tomography, novel computational methods adapted for vast datasets
PMA 17.318
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Karl Gebhardt
Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy | Herman and Joan Suit Professorship in Astrophysics

Formation and evolution of galaxies; dynamics of stellar systems; study of supermassive black holes.
PMA 15.224
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Krolikowski, Daniel
Daniel M Krolikowski
Graduate Research Assistant
I study the properties of young stellar populations and young exoplanets, to understand how they form and evolve.
David L Lambert
Professor Emeritus
Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair in Astronomy

Stellar atmospheres; chemical composition of stars; chemical evolution of the universe.
Lee, Hanshin
Hanshin Lee
Research Scientist
PMA 17.326
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Mike Montgomery
Assistant Professor of Practice, Research Scientist
Laboratory astrophysics; Asteroseismology of white dwarfs and other stars; stellar convection, crystallization, and evolution
PMA 16.232
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Ries, Judit
Judit G Ries
Other University Affiliate
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Robison, Christopher
Christopher E Robison
HET Sr. Software Engineer
McDonald Observatory West Texas
M53 101
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Spencer, Renny
Renny P Spencer
Research Engineering/ Scientist Associate IV
McDonald Observatory West Texas
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Tofflemire, Benjamin
Benjamin M Tofflemire
Postdoctoral Fellow
Research Interests: Star formation, young stars, binary star systems, stellar accretion, stellar magnetism.
Laurence M Trafton
Senior Research Scientist
Observational astronomy through ground- and space-based remote sensing
PMA 16.326
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Tran, Quang
Quang Tran
Graduate Student Fellow
Don Winget
Harlan J. Smith Centennial Professorship in Astronomy | Distinguished Teaching Professor

White Dwarfs, Asteroseismology, Whole Earth Telescope, Stellar Pulsation
PMA 16.236
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