McDonald Observatory: 75 Years of Studying the Stars

McDonald Observatory: 75 Years of Studying the Stars

When banker William Johnson McDonald died in 1926, he left nearly $1 million to the The University of Texas at Austin in his estate, and for a very particular purpose: to build a top-notch observatory and research center with which to study the stars.

107_frameToday, the striking white and silver domes of UT’s McDonald Observatory can be found 450 miles west of the Forty Acres, near Fort Davis. The observatory, which was opened officially in 1939, has played a pivotal role in some of the biggest astronomical discoveries of the century—from theorizing about the shape of the Milky Way to creating a method for measuring the size of a star.

Home to one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, the Hobby-Eberly, the observatory is also partnering with Texas A&M, Australia National University, and Korea’s Astronomy and Space Institute to construct the world’s largest optical telescope: the Giant Magellan telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The scientific powerhouse also continues to produce Star Date, a popular radio program that has been airing across the nation since 1978.

As the McDonald Observatory kicks off celebrations to commemorate its 75th year as an internationally renowned scientific hub, here’s a look back at five of the most influential discoveries to come out of those white and silver domes.


Gerard Kuiper, often referred to as “the father of modern planetary science,” discovers the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. This was the first detection of a moon’s atmosphere in our solar system.


French astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs theorizes that the Milky Way has the shape of a barred spiral, or has spiral arms extending from a long, central row of stars—an idea that is still largely considered to be true today.


Astronomers use lasers and mirrors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts to measure its distance from the Earth within a few inches. The lunar laser ranging experiment is still ongoing at the observatory today.


Researchers Tom Barnes and David Evans develop and publish a method for determining a star’s size by measuring brightness and temperature. Today, their method is still used.


A team led by Karl Gebhardt, UT’s Herman and Joan Suit Professor of Astrophysics, weighs the most massive black hole yet using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and computers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center on the Forty Acres.

Photos courtesy UT’s McDonald Observatory.


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