If you are searching for a sense of the universe and its infinite vastness while confined to home, join Stephen Hummel for his next Deep Sky Tour at the McDonald Observatory this Saturday evening.

His guided tour starts online at 9:15 pm. It’s an option from binging on Netflix, and an equally engaging learning experience for adults and children.

The McDonald Observatory, the University of Texas astronomy research center perched in the hills above Fort Davis in far West Texas, continues to operate. It closed to the public on March 13 and is unlikely to open for awhile. That means the observatory’s highly popular Star Parties staged three times a week are on hold for the time being.

Don’t let that stop you from venturing beyond the Milky Way’s 100 billion stars. Hummel relies on one of the observatory’s 16″ research grade telescopes to peer million of light years into deep space.

Weather permitting, this second episode will include visits to the planetary nebula NGC 2392, supernova remnant M1, spiral galaxy M51, edge-on galaxy NGC 4565, and elliptical galaxy M87. Don’t let the unfamiliar terms and designations scare you off.

Update: Skies were, indeed, clear, and the second episode proved to be a remarkable galactic tour of the universe. Hummel took viewers 50 million light years beyond our own Milky Way to show a visual of the first black hole, or collapse of a star, ever captured on camera. It was an astonishing confirmation of theory for the first-time viewer.

Hummel himself is not a professional astronomer, although I would accord him that status even without a Ph.D. He has a deep knowledge of the subject matter and a relaxed, informal delivery that will make viewers new to astronomy feel welcome even as they absorb a lot of learning. The program is his brainchild. You can watch the first episode here.

Hummel, wearing headphones and tapping away at a laptop, sits in an eerie glow of red light. He rises from his seat on occasion to hit a wall switch as the telescope tracks to its next target.

By day, Hummel is a dark skies specialist who is part of the observatory’s Dark Skies Initiative to limit invasive lighting in the night sky. The observatory is home to three major telescopes, including one of the world’s largest. Dark skies are essential for astronomers and their research efforts.

The program in its first installment was wonderfully unpolished and authentic. Hummel talks of “teenage stars, globular clusters,” and relies on his own folksy delivery to keep things accessible for those of us who didn’t get into honors science classes in high school.

The first program, originally streamed Tuesday, took viewers to the dramatic cloudburst of gas and dust that is the Orion Nebula. The nebula, visible to the naked eye, is located inside the Orion the Dawn Hunter constellation, 1,350 light years from Earth. One light year is a measure of the time it takes light to reach Earth, so the light we observe emanating from the nebula has been traveling here since the year 670.

Later in the program, Hummel takes viewers to Ursa Major, the Great Bear. That constellation lies 12 million light years from earth. This is not a program where we gaze through a hobby telescope at craters on the moon. This is a voyage into deep space where most questions still do not have answers.

For Hummel and his colleagues, Deep Sky Tour is a creative response to the coronavirus outbreak that has sidelined virtually everyone in their normal work and life routines.

“Stephen Hummel has been a communications team member here who has helped out with Star parties, with public tours, an amateur astronomer who grew up in Dallas and came here as a boy and was fascinated,” said Katie Kizziar, assistant director for education and outreach. “He came up with the idea for the program. He did a test run with our staff and then a private broadcast to the Observatory staff and then went live with it last week. It was so nice to get to see the staff engage with the public again for the first time since we closed the visitor center and halted all public programs.”

A guided tour of the night skies is a certain way to place the current pandemic in context and understand we are living in a single moment of time, that we will endure, and that we can and should use the moment to explore new avenues of learning. Space travel, especially from an armchair, can be a great escape from the current pull of earthly gravity.

Disclosure: Wayne Alexander, vice chairman of the Rivard Report, has served for 20 years on the McDonald Observatory’s Board of Visitors.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.