McDonald Observatory to host Dark Skies Fest April 29-30 

FORT DAVIS — Fans of the Big Bend region’s starry nights are encouraged to mark their calendars for the last weekend of April, when the McDonald Observatory will be hosting its Dark Skies Fest. The family-friendly event features a host of fun and educational activities for budding astronomers of all ages and skill levels. 

The weekend will kick off on Friday, April 29, at 3:30 p.m. with presentations on dark skies and the oil and gas industry and the impact of light pollution on local bird populations. The speaker series will continue on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. with presentations by representatives from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), as well as a dive into the observatory’s research by University of Texas astronomers. 

Reservations are required for nighttime programming each day of the festival. On Friday, staff members will lead a workshop on astrophotography — the workshop is “beginner level” but requires attendees to bring their own equipment. The Cielo Quartet, a local string group, will take the stage at 8 p.m. for a twilight symphony. 

Saturday night’s festivities will kick off at 8 p.m. with a presentation on modeling the night sky, followed by a space trivia competition at 8:30. On both Friday and Saturday nights, a classic McDonald Observatory Star Party will begin at 9:15 p.m., where attendees are given a tour of the night sky using the observatory’s telescopes. Guests won’t need to bring any equipment to the Star Parties, but a pair of binoculars can enhance the experience. 

Throughout the festival, there will be food trucks onsite for refreshments as well as a variety of activities and exhibits to enjoy. The festival will mark the debut of a new exhibit at the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center that explores dark sky protections through interactive content that encourages visitors to think about light and how it affects the night sky. 

The festival comes on the heels of an announcement that the Big Bend region was named the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, a designation handed down by the IDA. The new title recognizes that communities in Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties are working together with protected areas on both sides of the border to fight light pollution and protect the region’s pristine night skies. 

The McDonald Observatory, opened in 1933, is a facility of the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences. It’s home to the Hobby-Eberly telescope, one of the largest optical reflecting telescopes in the world. The Big Bend region’s famously dark skies allow for optimum stargazing and fuel the important research conducted at the observatory. Observatory staff hope the festival will help spark public interest in keeping dark skies dark. 

“We hope the Dark Skies Festival will raise appreciation of the exceptional night skies in our region, and raise awareness of easy solutions to mitigate light pollution,” said Stephen Hummel, a dark skies specialist and senior outreach coordinator at the observatory. “Light pollution impacts not only research at McDonald Observatory, but also nocturnal wildlife, our culture, the health and safety of residents, and the local economy. We hope both residents and visitors to the region will join us in our celebration of the night sky.”

The McDonald Observatory is located about 15 miles outside of Fort Davis on Highway 118. Reservations can be made and more information can be found on the observatory’s website