In the twilight, we spray on bug repellent, listen to the whine of cicadas, the calls of screech owls, and spot a bat swooping on insects at Resaca de la Palma State Park in Olmito. About 30 minutes after sunset is astronomical twilight, when the first star (usually a planet) becomes visible from the grounds of the Cristina Torres Memorial Observatory.
Astronomer Richard Carmuccio, wearing a STARS tee-shirt, steps back from the 12’ high-precision telescope and tells me, “take a look at Jupiter.” I climb onto a sturdy 3-step ladder and put my eye to the view piece to gawk at Jupiter in all its striped glory. Its large Red Spot is three times the size of Earth. Jupiter – the evening star tonight – is the first heavenly body visible at this last-Friday-of-the-month starry skies and night hike event. UTRGV astronomy students and researchers invite the public to star gaze with them and learn about our Milky Way Galaxy and those far, far away, too.
The second planet up is Saturn with its spectacular rings made of icy particles. The powerful telescope even reveals the gap between the rings and the giant planet. So much to see…
People often ask Carmuccio if Pluto is a planet. “In my heart it is,” he says, before explaining clearly why it is not. He and the three other young, enthusiastic astronomers and astrophysicists make science understandable, even when they talk about calculating distances and tracking light intensity shifts on binary stars.
As the dark deepens, out here, away from light pollution, dozens of twinkling lights emerge. The one moving rapidly to the northeast right above us is a satellite traveling at 15,000 mph, about 250 miles from earth.
Carmuccio says the value of observatories like the Cristina Torres is that more eyes are scanning for asteroids and other objects. Did you know a 200-foot-long “city killer” asteroid came close to the earth in July, but was missed by NASA? Within a year, the observatory will have 9 mini-domes with automated, remotely controlled telescopes (like the one we are using) to collect data. Besides adding to our knowledge of variable stars, asteroids and exoplanets, the observatory’s telescopes provide hands-on learning for undergrads and high school physics teachers.
I walk inside the domed building and spot what looks like an alien metal insect: the observatory’s 17” telescope, like those at MacDonald Observatory near Fort Davis. When clouds obscure the night’s initial target, the dome rotates, and the telescope points at the Whirlpool Galaxy. The scope takes a 3-minute exposure of this galaxy 23 million light years away and projects a colorful image of the swirling system interacting with a dwarf galaxy onto a large overhead screen.
Did you know a 200-foot-long “City Killer” asteroid came close to the earth in July, but was missed by Nasa? “That is so cool. It’s like you see on Netflix,” says Adrian Gonzalez of McAllen on his first visit to an observatory. He is full of questions for the astronomers who respond to his enthusiasm. The dust in the image, Carmuccio tells him, is actually hydrogen clouds.
Outside again, looking through the telescope, Millie Arriaga says she will return soon. “I have been texting friends about our experience, hoping that they come here themselves.” They might be able to visit frequently. Mario Diaz, director of the observatory, plans to have telescopes available to the public every other Friday night in the near future.
While you can see remarkable things at the observatory, the view from your backyard can reveal amazing starry sights, too, says Carol Lutsinger. Her fact-filled, useful astronomy column for local newspapers has a simple goal: “For people to walk outside, look up and, with enough darkness, be able to see what I am talking about and realize that one doesn’t need expensive equipment to enjoy the nighttime sky.”
In my backyard, I use the wonderful, free app called Sky View that shows me what’s overhead. It names each pinpoint of light I aim my phone at. Even binoculars, I know, provide a close-up of the moon and pick out the Whirlpool Galaxy.
Meanwhile, tucked away on the UTRGV-Edinburg campus, the 41-seat HEB Planetarium offers “rides” through the universe via 30 different videos projected on its round dome. Alyssa Garza invites planetarium visitors to choose from a menu of 20 fascinating science videos.
“‘Black Hole: A trip to the dark side’ is mind-blowing no matter how old you are,” she says. I tilt back and become immersed in “Oasis.” Great visuals take me through dirt storms on Mars, clouds on Venus, and the asteroids before zooming beyond the solar system.
A church youth group from McAllen joins my friend Deborah Ashley and me watching ‘Black Hole.’ We get momentarily dizzy watching black holes form and loom overhead. Do you know most galaxies have black holes including the Milky Way?
“Lots of students drop in to watch a show between classes,” Garza adds, as she trundles a 10’ reflector telescope to a campus viewing area. A 12-year-old girl is the most excited of the youth group about seeing the night sky. Looking at the moon, she calls us over. “You should see this!”
Deborah takes a look. “Wow! That is so amazing. Absolutely amazing!”
Making astronomy accessible, the planetarium staff take a mini dome to schools across the Valley, setting up a portable planetarium for students to experience. Additionally, La Joya ISD has a 48-seat planetarium that is open to the public for video viewing most afternoons after 2 p.m. See the district website.
When you go outside at night, keep looking up, as Carol Lutsinger says. The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the south of Texas.