More dark skies, Texas style

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Friday, December 19, 2014

Marathon, Texas enjoys some of the darkest skies in the country. Now a new astronomy facility is bringing the stars to the public. // image courtesy Marathon Sky Park
At Astronomy, we hear about new projects all the time. Sometimes one will catch my eye, and I decide to share it with you. A few weeks ago, Morton Hochstein of New York City shared with me the details of a new attraction in Marathon, Texas, that should interest all amateur astronomers. Here’s his report.

In sparsely settled southwest Texas, three communities — Marfa, Fort Davis, and Alpine — have achieved unique identities. Marfa is an art mecca, largely due to the educational and entrepreneurial efforts of celebrated artist Donald Judd. Fort Davis attracts tourists as a national historic monument, and Alpine is home to several colleges and McDonald Observatory, as well as the area’s major shopping center. Marathon, a fourth town in that region, had until recently the sole distinction of being a gateway to Big Bend National Park.

Marathon does, however, sit under a Class 1 dark sky. It is also home to a farsighted entrepreneur, Danny Self, who has transformed the community into an attraction for astronomers, stargazers, astroimagers, and anyone who wants to see stars at their clearest.

To help build Marathon and attract more tourism, Self campaigned to encourage the civic fathers and home and business owners to shield their outdoor security lights. The community has responded and 95 percent of its streetlights are now compliant. Although surrounding hamlets lie under the same sky, their growth, neon signs, and blaring lighting adversely affect views of the stars. In search of heavenly clarity, visitors have flocked to Marathon to enjoy one of the nation’s most star-friendly skies.

A visiting astronomer inspired Self’s ventures. He appreciated the area’s potential and urged the Marathon Independent School District to install a telescope on school grounds. His idea was to provide access to an Internet-based imaging telescope for the use of students locally and internationally. Funding issues and logistical problems stalled the plan, and Self and his partner, Marci Roberts, picked up on the project.

They teamed with nearby Sul Ross State University to install a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope in a roll-off roof observatory provided by villagers in nearby Marat. At the same time, McDonald Observatory donated a 24-inch Dobsonian telescope to the school district. The school leaders had no idea of what to do with the generous gift. Self offered a plan and site to make it accessible to the community.

Roberts and Self cleared the 10 acres surrounding their Marathon Motel for astronomical purposes, later acquiring more land to extend the facility. They put up shade cloth to minimize light intrusion, built power-enabled concrete telescope pads, and a constructed a shed with an attached pad to house the 24-inch Dob for the school district. Just recently, they added a 20-inch Obsession scope and are planning further expansion as traffic continues to increase.

To learn more about this blossoming astronomy community, head to www.marathonskypark.com.

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