AUSTIN (KXAN) — After a two-year closure due to the pandemic, the University of Texas at Austin is resuming public viewings at the university’s campus telescope this summer. Wednesday nights, the university’s astronomy department will host stargazing events at the telescope atop the Physics, Math and Astronomy building. The older telescope, atop Painter Hall, will reopen this fall.

“It’s a very popular and beloved landmark in the state of Texas,” said Steven Finkelstein, an associate professor with UT’s Department of Astronomy.

He said a lot of his students visited the telescopes as kids. “A lot of them at some point in their childhood have gone to the observatory. Maybe that’s responsible for why they chose to take astronomy as their required science course.”

The main purpose of the telescopes, according to Finkelstein, is public outreach. “We’re entirely funded by the taxpayers. And so this is one of many ways in which we try and kind of return the favor.”

The University of Texas's 16 inch telescope pointin at the orion nebula
The University of Texas’ 16-inch telescope prepares to stargaze. (Courtesy: KXAN/Ed Zavala)

Public Outreach Coordinator Lara Eakins has been with the department for more than thirty years. When she was a student at UT, she used the same telescopes.

“When we were students, we were just beginning to nibble at being able to discover planets around other stars. Now we know of 1000s of them,” Eakins said.

Texas landmarks atop the University of Texas

The telescope and the dome that it resides in were built in the 1970s. Not much has changed since then. The robotic arm that manipulates the telescope was upgraded in the 1990s.

The computer that controls where the telescope points was bought at the same time. It still runs DOS, an older type of operating system that existed before Windows became the norm.

Lara and Eric stand in a red room, looking at an old CTR monitor.
Lara Eakins, public outreach coordinator for the Astronomy Department, shows KXAN science reporter Eric Henrikson the computer that operates the telescope. (Courtesy: KXAN/Ed Zavala)

The telescope measures 16 inches across and is the larger of the two at UT. The other telescope, on Painter Hall, is smaller and older. It has a green-tinted copper dome.

The computer has a catalogue of stars, planets and nebula listed in it. With the push of a button, Eakins is able to point the PMA telescope at virtually any object. Some objects are easier to see in the summer than in the winter, and vice versa.

“People are astonished if you can show them a planet, show them a nebula, show them a galaxy,” Finkelstein said. “I’ve seen people when they see Saturn through the telescope, they’ve seen images of it on their computer, but they can’t believe it’s real.”

A growing Austin creates new problems for stargazers

Austin has changed a lot since the telescopes were constructed. “Even just the past 10 years, it has changed a lot. And of course, more building means more light, which means more light pollution,” Eakins said.

New buildings fill a once empty horizon over Austin, Texas
New buildings obscure the telescopes views and cause light pollution. (Courtesy: KXAN/Ed Zavala)

New buildings have begun to obstruct views in the south and the east. Eakins said that views to the west are still clear.

Warm, humid air from the gulf is also a bit of a problem. When looking south, the air mixes with the cool air in the dome and creates turbulence around the telescope, making it shake. This makes it challenging to view stars and planets millions of miles away. Saharan dust can also be an issue.

Despite these challenges, Eakins said that viewings will still be possible. “Things like the planets, moon, some of the brighter objects, like the Orion Nebula in winter, we’ll still pretty much always be able to see those.”