McDonald Observatory Escapes Wildfires

Categories: McDonald Observatory
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: April 24, 2011

For the last two weeks, McDonald Observatory’s mountaintop perch has been under siege, as a catastrophic inferno noe called the Rock House Fire has scorched more than 215,275 acres of the surrounding countryside. Dozens of homes and businesses have been destroyed in Fort Davis, which is about 10 miles to the observatory’s southeast.

Boo-tiful Skies

[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_dark-clouds-of-the-carina-nebula.jpg]10650Happy Face Skull Nebula
What dark forms lurk in the mists of the Carina Nebula? These ominous figures are actually molecular clouds, knots of molecular gas and dust so thick they have become opaque.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_flaming-skull-of-perseus-perseus-a-in-x-ray.jpg]780The Flaming Skull of Perseus
Is this the head of Ghost Rider or is it something more ominous? <br /><br />This is an X-Ray image of the core of Perseus A, a giant galaxy that is a strong radio source. The image was taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The galaxy lies between the "eyes".
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_ghost-nebula-ic-349.jpg]930The Ghost Nebula
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has caught the eerie, wispy tendrils of a dark interstellar cloud being destroyed by the passage of one of the brightest stars in the Pleiades star cluster. Like a flashlight beam shining off the wall of a cave, the star is reflecting light off the surface of pitch black clouds of cold gas laced with dust. These are called reflection nebulae.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_ghost-of-neptune-abell-39.jpg]1310The Ghost of Neptune
This classic planetary nebula in Hercules resembles a ghostly planet Neptune.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_glowing-eye-nebula-ngc6751.jpg]1150Glowing Eye Nebula
Some have called this planetary nebula "God's Eye".<br /><br />Glowing in the constellation Aquila, the nebula is a cloud of gas ejected several thousand years ago from the hot star visible in its center. Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. They are shells of gas thrown off by Sun-like stars nearing the ends of their lives. The star's loss of its outer, gaseous layers exposes the hot stellar core, whose strong ultraviolet radiation then causes the ejected gas to fluoresce as the planetary nebula.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_halo-of-the-cats-eye-nebula-ngc6543.jpg]830Cat's Eye Nebula
When show with it's halo, the Cat's Eye Nebula is even more eerie, more resembling the eye of some gargantuan feline
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_little-ghost-nebula-ngc6369.jpg]490The Little Ghost
This little orb lies in Ophiuchus and taunts astronomers with its faint appearance.<br /><br />NGC6369 is a fifteen hundred year old planetary nebula that is the remains of a star that was once comparable to our own Sun in mass.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_ngc-2467.jpg]370Somebody is Watching You!
A large cloud of gas surrounds two clusters of stars that seem to be watching you, glaring at you.<br /><br />This is the star forming cloud NGC2467. Each eye is, in reality, a cluster of stars which are blowing holes in the gas cloud giving the appearance of a pair of eyes who's glare burns right through to your core.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_running-ghost-nebula-ic2118.jpg]430The Running Ghost Nebula
What could frighten a ghost? Whatever it was, it sent this guy flying across the cosmos.<br /><br />If this nebula looks familiar, it should, in a twisted way. It is actually the Witch Head Nebula rotated 90 degrees.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_screaming-monkey-nebula-dr-6.jpg]250Screaming Monkey in the Sky
In this Spitzer Space Telescope infrared image of DR 6, a star forming cloud containing about a dozen nascent stars. The wind from these stars are blowing the cloud away from them forming the eyes and the mouth of the Screaming Monkey
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_sh2_136.jpg]190SH2-136
In space no one can hear you scream! I'm not sure what it is on the right that's chasing those two poor, terrified people running away with their arms up in the air, but it must be really frightening.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_tarantula-nebula-ngc2070.jpg]180Tarantulas in the Sky
This giant spider hangs ominously in the night sky in the Large Magellanic Cloud in Doradus
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_the-brilliant-star-vfts-682-in-the-large-magellanic-cloud.jpg]180The Demon Nebula
This demonic looking nebula is a molecular cloud and star forming region at the core of the Tarantula Nebula.<br /><br />In this image is VFTS 682, one of the largest stars known at 150 solar masses lies near the center of the image.. It is unusual not because of its mass, but because it is a solitary star. R136, a super star cluster with a mass of 450,000 solar masses lies in the bottom center of the image. One of its stars R136a1, the most massive star found to date, weighs in at 265 solar masses.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_witch-head-nebula-ic2118.jpg]280The Witch's Head
Just off to the left of the knee of Orion which is marked by the bright star Rigel is the large glowing Witch Head nebula, which really does look like a classic depiction of a hag's face: open-mouth, scraggly nose, deep eyes, gaping as she looks off to the right.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_ghost-head-nebula-ngc2080_0.jpg]160The Ghost Head
This strange entity<br />The 'Ghost Head Nebula' is one of a chain of star-forming regions lying south of the 30 Doradus nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud.<br /><br />Two bright regions (the 'eyes of the ghost'), named A1 (left) and A2 (right), are very hot, glowing `blobs' of hydrogen and oxygen. The bubble in A1 is produced by the hot, intense radiation and powerful stellar wind from a single massive star. A2 has a more complex appearance due to the presence of more dust, and it contains several hidden, massive stars. The massive stars in A1 and A2 must have formed within the last 10 000 years since their natal gas shrouds are not yet disrupted by the powerful radiation of the newly born stars.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_skull-nebula-w5-cesar-cantu_0.jpg]210The Skull Nebula
Glowing eerily green and yellow in this picture, the nebula W5 - nicknamed the Soul Nebula - peers into your soul with its black eye sockets filled with pinprick stars...<br /><br />In reality it's a large cloud of gas furiously churning out stars. The winds of subatomic particles and fierce light from those newborn stars carve out cavities in the gas, leaving what look like eye sockets and a nasal bone in a huge green skull.<br /><br />Image credit: César Cantú
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/boo-tiful-skies/thumbs/thumbs_ic1340mrzonalunar950.jpg]90A Spectre in the Eastern Veil
Frightening forms and scary faces are a mark of the Halloween season. They also haunt this cosmic close-up of the eastern Veil Nebula. The Veil Nebula itself is a large supernova remnant, the expanding debris cloud from the death explosion of a massive star. While the Veil is roughly circular in shape covering nearly 3 degrees on the sky in the constellation Cygnus, this portion of the eastern Veil spans only 1/2 degree, about the apparent size of the Moon. That translates to 12 light-years at the Veil's reassuring estimated distance of 1,400 light-years from planet Earth. In the composite of image data recorded through narrow band filters, emission from hydrogen atoms in the remnant is shown in red with strong emission from oxygen atoms in blue-green hues.

McDonald Observatory Fires

Month In Space, June 2010

The Month in Space as told in images, May 15 - June 11, 2010

[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_venusmoon_eder.jpg]00Crescent Venus and Moon
The crescent Moon moments before eclipsing crescent Venus in 2004. On May 16, 2010 visible in parts of Africa and Asia, the crescent Moon again eclipsed crescent Venus.<br /><br />Credit & Copyright: Iván Éder
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_whale_sulzenauer.jpg]00Panorama of the Whale Galaxy
NGC 4631 is a big beautiful spiral galaxy seen edge-on at only about 30 million light-years away. This galaxy's slightly distorted wedge shape led to its popular moniker of the Whale galaxy. The Whale's dark interstellar dust clouds and young bright blue star clusters highlight this panoramic color image. The band of NGC 4631 not only appears similar to band of our own Milky Way Galaxy, but its size is truly similar to our Milky Way as well. The galaxy is also known to have spouted a halo of hot gas glowing in x-rays. The Whale galaxy spans about 140,000 light years and can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici). <br /><br />Credit: Data - Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA Processing - Nikolaus Sulzenauer
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_sdo_filament_may2010_900.jpg]00Dark Filament of the Sun
Suspended by magnetic fields above a solar active region this dark filament stretches over 40 earth-diameters. The ominous structure appears to be frozen in time near the Sun's edge, but solar filaments are unstable and often erupt. The detailed scene was captured on May 18 in extreme ultraviolet light by cameras on board the Solar Dynamics Observatory. While the cooler plasma of the filament looks dark, hotter, brighter plasma below traces magnetic field lines emerging from the active region. When seen arcing above the edge of the Sun, filaments actually look bright against the dark background of space and are called prominences. <br /><br />Credit: NASA / Goddard / SDO AIA Team
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_issatlantistransit_legault.jpg]00ISS and Shuttle Transit the Sun
That's no sunspot. On the upper right of the above image of the Sun, the dark patches are actually the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-132. In the past, many skygazers have spotted the space station and space shuttles as bright stars gliding through twilight skies, still glinting in the sunlight while orbiting about 350 kilometers above the Earth's surface. But here, astrophotographer Thierry Lagault accurately computed the occurrence of a rarer opportunity to record the spacefaring combination moving quickly in silhouette across the solar disk. He snapped the above picture on last Sunday on May 16, about 50 minutes before the shuttle docked with the space station. Atlantis was recently launched to the ISS for its last mission before being retired. <br /><br />Credit & Copyright: Thierry Legault
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_n49.jpg]00N49: Stellar Shrapnel Seen in Aftermath of Explosion
This beautiful composite image shows N49, the aftermath of a supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud. A new long observation from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, shown in blue, reveals evidence for a bullet-shaped object being blown out of a debris field left over from an exploded star.<br /><br />Release Date: May 24, 2010<br />Credit: Chandra X-Ray Observatory NASA/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_heart-and-soul.jpg]00WISE witnesses Trojan war
Brand new results from the WISE telescope, presented on May 24, 2010 at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida, have revealed a stunning new look at the star-forming Heart and Soul nebulae, plus indications that smaller asteroids shadowing Jupiter are undergoing frequent collisions.
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_earth-photographed-1-100528-02.jpg]00Crescent Ultraviolet Earth
Two Japanese spacecraft, one headed to Venus and another limping home from an asteroid, have beamed home snapshots of Earth that reveal our planet in different hues amid a sea of stars. The latest photos of Earth come from Japan's brand new Venus Climate Orbiter, Akatsuki, and the Hayabusa asteroid probe. <br /><br />Credit: JAXA
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_galcen2_2mass.jpg]00The Galactic Center in Infrared from 2MASS
The center of our Galaxy is a busy place. In visible light, much of the Galactic Center is obscured by opaque dust. In infrared light, however, dust glows more and obscures less, allowing nearly one million stars to be recorded in the above image. The Galactic Center itself appears glowing on the lower left and is located about 30,000 light years away towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The Galactic Plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, the plane in which the Sun orbits, is identifiable by the dark diagonal dust lane. The absorbing dust grains are created in the atmospheres of cool red-giant stars and grow in molecular clouds. The region directly surrounding the Galactic Center glows brightly in radio and high-energy radiation. The Galactic Center is thought to house a large black hole. <br /><br />Credit: 2MASS Project, U. Mass., IPAC/Caltech, NSF, NASA
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_eso1021b.jpg]00A Cosmic Zoo in the Large Magellanic Cloud
Astronomers often turn their telescopes to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of the closest galaxies to our own Milky Way, in their quest to understand the Universe. In this spectacular new image from the Wide Field Imager (WFI) at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, a celestial menagerie of different objects and phenomena in part of the LMC is on display, ranging from vast globular clusters to the remains left by brilliant supernovae explosions. This fascinating observation provides data for a wide variety of research projects unraveling the life and death of stars and the evolution of galaxies.<br /><br />Credit: Wide Field Imager at La Silla Observatory/ESO
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_n1275hst_kelly900.jpg]00Hubble Remix: Active Galaxy NGC 1275
Active galaxy NGC 1275 is the central, dominant member of the large and relatively nearby Perseus Cluster of Galaxies. Wild-looking at visible wavelengths, the active galaxy is also a prodigious source of x-rays and radio emission. NGC 1275 accretes matter as entire galaxies fall into it, ultimately feeding a supermassive black hole at the galaxy's core. This color composite image, recreated from archival Hubble Space Telescope data, highlights the resulting galactic debris and filaments of glowing gas, some up to 20,000 light-years long. The filaments persist in NGC 1275, even though the turmoil of galactic collisions should destroy them. What keeps the filaments together? Observations indicate that the structures, pushed out from the galaxy's center by the black hole's activity, are held together by magnetic fields. Also known as Perseus A, NGC 1275 spans over 100,000 light years and lies about 230 million light years away. <br /><br />Credit: Data - Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing - Al Kelly
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_heic1009a.jpg]00Hubble Catches Stars on the Move
Astronomers have for the first time managed to measure the tiny motions of several hundred young stars within the central cluster of the star-forming region NGC 3603.<br /><br />Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_heic1009c.jpg]00Massive Compact Star Cluster, NGC 3603
The star-forming region NGC 3603 - seen here in the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - contains one of the most impressive massive young star clusters in the Milky Way. Bathed in gas and dust the cluster formed in a huge rush of star formation thought to have occurred around a million years ago. The hot blue stars at the core are responsible for carving out a huge cavity in the gas seen to the right of the star cluster in NGC 3603's center.<br /><br />Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_6a00d8341bf67c53ef013483668124970c.jpg]00Jupiter and Fireball, 3 June 2010
Even as scientists announce new details about last year's impact on Jupiter, two backyard astronomers separately catch a new collision on Jupiter.<br /><br />Credit and Copyright: Anthony Wesley
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_n2359thor_mazlin900.jpg]00Thor's Helmet
This helmet-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages is popularly called Thor's Helmet. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor's Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the helmet is actually more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble's center sweeps through a surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova stage of evolution. Cataloged as NGC 2359, the nebula is located about 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Canis Major. The sharp image, made using broadband and narrowband filters, captures striking details of the nebula's filamentary structures. It shows off a blue-green color from strong emission due to oxygen atoms in the glowing gas. <br /><br />Credit & Copyright: Star Shadows Remote Observatory and PROMPT/UNC
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_chcyg.jpg]00CH Cyg: A Close-up View of Codependent Stellar Living
This image shows the symbiotic system known as CH Cyg, located only about 800 light years from Earth. The large image shows an optical view of CH Cyg, using the Digitized Sky Survey, and the inset shows a composite image containing Chandra X-ray data in red, optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in green, and radio data from the Very Large Array (VLA) in blue.<br /><br />Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Karovska et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NRAO/VLA]; Wide field [Optical (DSS)
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_orangesun_friedman.jpg]00Orange Sun Simmering
Even a quiet Sun can be a busy place. And over the deep Solar Minimum of the past few years, our Sun has been unusually quiet. The above image, taken last week in a single color of light called Hydrogen Alpha and then false colored, records a great amount of detail of the simmering surface of our parent star. The gradual brightening towards the Sun's edge in this color-inverted image, called limb darkening, is caused by increased absorption of relatively cool solar gas. Just over the Sun's edges, several prominences are visible, while two prominences on the Sun's face are seen as light streaks just above and right of the image center. Two particularly active areas of the Sun are marked by dark plages. In contrast to recent quiet times, our Sun is moving toward Solar Maximum, and for years will likely appear much more active. <br /><br />Credit & Copyright: Alan Friedman (Averted Imagination)
[img src=http://sanantonioskywatch.com/wp-content/flagallery/201006monthinspace/thumbs/thumbs_chile-full-moon-100609-02.jpg]00Setting Moon & the Very Large Telescope
Just before the rising Sun fully illuminated the 2,635 meter summit of Cerro Paranal in northern Chile, Gordon Gillet captured this stunning moonset. In the telephoto picture, a nearly full October Moon is silhouetting the impressive array of telescopes at ESO's Paranal Observatory. Most prominent from left to right are the four enclosures of the 8.2 meter very large telescopes christened Antu, Kueyen, and Yepun almost hiding Melipal. Fans of Paranal will also note the VLT Survey Telescope at the far right and the small, white auxilliary telescope domes. Antu, Kueyen, Yepun, and Melipal are names taken from the Mapuche language. Fittingly they translate to Sun, Moon, Evening Star, and Southern Cross. <br /><br />Credit & Copyright: Gordon Gillet

Last week, when the fire had edged to within a mile of Mount Locke, firefighters used a control burn on a nearby peak to consume tinder-dry vegetation that would otherwise have provided the raging flames with a pathway to the observatory. Most of McDonald’s 80-person staff and their families were evacuated. One of the few who stayed was senior program coordinator Frank Cianciolo, who took the dramatic images seen here and several others.

The National Forest Service reports that the fire is now 75% contained and, fortunately, the observatory is out of danger.  The observatory’s visitor center reopened on Wednesday (April 21).  Also safe from the flames is the historic Prude Ranch, which will host the 32nd annual Texas Stary Party from May 29th to June 5th. No fires have been reported on the sprawling ranch, and in fact no burned land is visible in any direction from meeting site. “Of course, with the continued dry conditions this may change,” notes TSP staffer Dave Clark. “But burned areas tend not to reburn so we may be relatively safe from any new large wildfire.”

The Rock House Fire brought back vivid memories of another major conflagration in 2010 that threatened — but ultimately spared — Mount Wilson Observatory. However, historic Mount Stromlo Observatory wasn’t as fortunate: in 2003 a ferocious brushfire overran the compound near Canberra, Australia, and destroyed six of its telescopes.

2 Comments
  1. Scott Logan says:

    Update on the Rock House Fire(April 28, 2011 0630): The Roch House fire continues to burn in West Texas. Firefighters from 32 states are battling this blaze that in recent days has been fanned by high winds. The fire has now consumed 292,739 acres of land since it started near Marfa on April 9th. 62,000 acres were scorched in the last two days alone.

    The firefighters, despite their valiant efforts, have lost a little ground in the battle in the last few days as the Forest Service reports that the fire is now only 66% contained.

  2. admin says:

    Rock House Fire Now 100 Percent Contained (May 3, 2011 1430)

    The end of the record-breaking Rock House Fire may finally be near.

    NewsWest9 from Midland/Odessa is reporting the state’s largest fire ever is now 100 percent contained.

    The fire, which has been burning for 3 weeks, has consumed 314,444 acres of land in Presidio and Jeff Davis Counties.

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