The Lone Star Observatory
It may be Oklahoma, but this amateur-built observatory is all Texas.
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, July 2002
(Page 3 of 4)
A number of refinements were necessary. “At first I didn’t have a clue about how to correct these things,” says Hudler, sitting cross-legged on the observatory floor and cleaning a telescope that is much smaller—though still one many backyard observers would cherish as their primary instrument—and that serves as a “finder” scope. “But trial and error and a lot of thinking helped me sort it out. When we fixed them, the computer started nailing every object.”
When darkness falls, the user goes to the telescope’s control center, a desktop computer, and selects what he or she wants to observe (using either common names—Ring Nebula, M31, etc.—or numbered catalog designations). The computer sends the telescope slewing to the proper position. A recent upgrade provides precise simulations on the computer screen of the eyepiece view, point-and-click aiming, and detailed information—size, magnitude, distance, composition—about all objects. Then the observer sits on a large, wheeled, stair-step chair to line up with the eyepiece and uses a hand controller to rotate the 20-foot-diameter, 21-foot-high dome so its narrow opening is lined up with the telescope. The controller also adjusts the focus and moves the telescope around without any computer assistance—usually for random cruising around the universe.
At the eyepiece, the images are indeed spectacular: wispy details in cloud-like nebulas, dark lanes in distant galaxies, and stars so faint that they are inaccessible to most telescopes amateurs buy. Globular clusters, in which thousands of densely packed stars appear as tight spheres, show stars resolved straight to the core. We are eager to see what the scope will reveal of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, which at this time of the year won’t rise until after 3 a.m.
Each Lone Star member is entitled to sole use of the telescope a certain number of days per year. The rest of the evenings, such as this one, are open to everyone. The members often bring up school classes or scout troops, or individual young people interested in astronomy. This evening the members alternate at the eyepiece, taking time to discuss what they’re seeing and what might be an interesting next target. When not at the eyepiece, they stretch out on recliners on the observatory’s deck to enjoy the sky and chat. “I’ve always marveled that we were able to put this thing together without much disagreement,” Hudler notes. “Nerves got frayed a couple of times, but decorum was kept at a professional level.”
Inside the clubhouse, the lights, instead of the customary white, are a dim red, which helps preserve essential night vision. Even the refrigerator is equipped with a red light, to eerie effect—when you open the door, the light renders the Coke cans virtually invisible.
At about 2:30 a.m., we turn in for a two-hour nap, then get up to observe Jupiter and Saturn, which by then have risen in the east. Unfortunately, the early morning has also brought in a thick haze, and the sky is virtually impenetrable. Jupiter and Saturn are both disappointing—revealing about as much detail as you would get with an average backyard telescope under ideal conditions. “This is part of the risk,” Walker says. “The weather can completely turn on you.”
But all is not lost. As we gather outside, a bright meteor streaks across the sky, breaking into chunks that leave long, dramatic trails.
Later, as we all leave for breakfast, the members invite the visitors to return. You can’t see the universe in only one night.