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After 5 Months, McDonald Observatory To Partially Reopen To The Public

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory.
Courtesy of UT Austin
The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory.

After closing for nearly five months out of precaution over the coronavirus, the McDonald Observatory is now set to reopen “in a limited fashion."

Beginning Friday, the research hub will once again welcome visitors to its campus and offer programs like star parties. Public areas will be cleaned several times a day in between programs, according to a press release outlining the Observatory's precautions.

“It is a pleasure to welcome visitors back to McDonald Observatory for our iconic programs that immerse our guests in astronomy, our very dark night skies and the visible cosmos," said Taft Armandroff, director of McDonald Observatory in a statement.

The star-gazing parties, which are a big draw for visitors to Far West Texas, will be every Friday, Saturday and Tuesday night. The facility has been approved to open up to 100 visitors, or 25% of its capacity, but will restrict the number of guests that can visit during its initial re-opening to 50 participants.

Katie Kizziar, Assistant Director for Education and Outreach at McDonald Observatory said the move will give the staff "additional space to really make sure we understand how people can move through [the observatory] and understand the programs."

"We can continue to roll out and add people up to that 100-person limit until we move into a new phase of operations," said Kizziar in an interview with Marfa Public Radio.

Beginning next month, the facility will test out daytime tours of the observatory. As part of the observatory's precautions, shuttle transportation will not be provided and any visitors looking to participate in daytime guided tours will need to drive their own vehicles to the summit of Mount Locke.

The plans and precautions in place when the facility reopens are based on recommendations from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kizziar said the facility staff also reached out to other museums and national parks for guidance to get a sense of how other sites have reopened.

"We've been practicing and refining our process to make sure that we feel fully ready to open for visitors and provide programs that can be enjoyable for everybody," said Kizziar.

During the observatory's initial reopening, frequently touched surfaces, like door handles and tabletops, will be cleaned twice daily. Hand-sanitizing stations will also be set up throughout the facility and public restrooms will be treated as single occupancy.

In the time the facility was closed, observatory staff live-streamed programs like deep-sky tours, moon tours and solar tours. Kizziar said the online programs were incredibly popular and will still continue once the observatory reopens.

"It's been great for us in terms of broadening our audience and reaching people who don't have an opportunity to visit the observatory," said Kizziar, who said the live streams also let staff explain "more about the science we're doing here and how amazing the skies of Far West Texas can be."

If deemed safe, the observatory may increase the capacity of its public programs and begin holding indoor programming again. Kizziar said all of that is dependent on how the coronavirus spreads and what the latest guidance is at local, state and national levels.

Moving to a new phase of operations will also require approval from UT Austin, which runs the observatory.

"Once it seems like we got all of those pieces in place, we'll make a proposal for moving forward and see where we go from there," said Kizziar.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.