In the mid-’90s, just as Cochran was discovering his first exoplanet, the observatory was busy expanding its capabilities. UT partnered with Penn State University and two German universities to build the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. Its segmented mirror spans 36 feet.
The new telescope brought new personnel. When senior research scientist Matthew Shetrone came to interview at McDonald in 1997, he says staff members were so busy installing the HET that they couldn’t spare the time to interview him.
“They said, ‘If you’re willing to climb up in the truss and help install a mirror, we can chat while we do that,’” Shetrone says.
He spent the interview in a hard hat and a harness, helping install some of the HET’s 91 mirror segments.
“I was wearing nice clothes!” Shetrone says with a laugh.
The moment illustrates how dedicated the staff members are at McDonald. Shetrone built on that dedication and has spent the years since in West Texas helping astronomers all over the world.
“I am a service astronomer,” Shetrone says. “Most of my effort goes into making sure other astronomers do great work. I get a real thrill from hearing about data I helped collect.”
The highly technical roles at McDonald require skilled staff members who are passionate about their work.
Emily Mrozinski, the head of the HET’s mechanical team, says she had always been drawn to UT.
“I grew up in Austin with a view of the UT Tower,” she says.
After studying engineering at UT and working as an engineer and a teacher, Mrozinski applied to McDonald during a period of transition.
“The truth of the matter is my mom was dying, and I was going to become a contemplative nun,” she says.
She had planned on the job being temporary: “My plan was to move here, work on this cool telescope while I looked at monasteries.”
But Mrozinski fell in love with life on the mountain, and her plans changed.
“I now have a husband and two children,” she says.
The HET allowed for a number of new projects and initiatives and helped aid ongoing efforts at McDonald. Cochran was able to expand his exoplanet search and discovered several new planets.
As technologies advanced, UT astronomers hatched a plan to increase the effectiveness of the telescope. They took the HET offline in 2013 and started a multiyear process to improve its capabilities.
“This was an insane thing to do for many people’s standards,” Shetrone says. “You take a perfectly good working telescope, and you take it apart and upgrade it to hopefully do something much better.”
In order to expand the telescope, HET staffers had to take apart old equipment, design and order new instruments and reassemble those pieces back at the telescope.
Mrozinski was essential to the effort. She handled the complicated logistics of the removal and transport of tons of equipment.
“We had to take the old bridge off, which was done with a massive crane,” Mrozinski says. “It took probably about a year.”
When that task was done, she had to oversee the installation of the new bridge, a moveable structure that spans the reflecting mirror and holds the telescope’s instruments.
“The bridge itself is 25,000 pounds,” Mrozinski says. “Another 20,000 or 25,000 pounds of hardware sits on top. All of that had to be disassembled in 5,000-pound components, more or less, and shipped out here.”
Mrozinski had to work quickly to move and assemble many tons of equipment while the dome of the HET was open. Allowing sunlight into the dome can cause fires and destroy the telescope.
“I’ve never had so much fun,” Mrozinski says with a smile.
The upgrade was a success and expanded the HET’s capabilities.
“The field of view of the old HET was about the size of a large crater on the moon,” Shetrone says. “Now the field is about the size of the full moon itself.”
It made an already world-class telescope nearly peerless. The HET is now, by optical aperture, the second-largest optical reflecting telescope in the world.
“We increased the field of view by a factor of a hundred,” Armandroff says.
The upgrades also made the HET more nimble.
“We’re the best telescope in the world for doing time-sensitive work,” Shetrone says. “We can change what we’re doing at a moment’s notice; all of our instruments are available all the time.”
Time-sensitive events, like star collisions, are both rare and short-lived. Although they may have happened billions of years ago, they pass us by in a matter of hours. When gravitational wave detectors pick up on such collisions, McDonald’s equipment jumps into action.
“If anything is detected, the telescope will immediately stop what it’s doing and go across the sky to where the location of this is,” Armandroff says.