McDonald Observatory announces new director

Jordan Rudner and Madlin Mekelburg

Astronomer Taft Armandroff was announced as the new director of UT’s McDonald Observatory on Monday.

Armandroff will replace current director and astronomy professor David Lambert, who announced his plans in April to retire after serving as director for 10 years. Armandroff, who will be the fourth director of the observatory, will take over as director in June. Armandroff is currently director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale University, Armandroff also worked at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Ariz., for 19 years.

Armandroff said he has two primary missions for his first five years on the job, including keeping the technology and research at the McDonald Observatory on the cutting edge.

“The other area that I’m really interested in, as well as the rest of the astronomy faculty, is to have Texas firmly commit to building an even larger telescope in Chile,” Armandroff said. “It’s called the Giant Magellan Telescope. It will have an effective diameter of almost 24 meters, so that’s a huge increase in the collecting area compared to the biggest telescopes we have today.”

Armandroff said he is looking forward to continuing Lambert’s work on the Hobby-Eberly project, a major experiment to search for dark energy. Upon his retirement, Lambert said he hopes the project will contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy. Armandroff said the natural features of the observatory are similar to those at the Keck Observatory. 

“It’s really, really dark out there, way far away from the cities,” Armandroff said. “You can get these incredible images of the spectra of objects in the night sky.” 

In addition to pursuing research, Armandroff said he is looking forward to working alongside UT students at the observatory.

“I like the idea that [the McDonald Observatory] presents an opportunity for students being involved, whether it’s through a class or a research project or employment,” Armandroff said. “I think we’re a lot stronger of an observatory because of our involvement with the students.”

The observatory, located in Fort Davis, is one of the top astronomy research facilities in the country. According to Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at McDonald, there will be special events offered at the observatory through August 2014 intended to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Johnson said these events would include a variety of guest speakers from across the country with a special focus on new discoveries happening in astronomy.

Although Armandroff said he is looking forward to the transition, he said he will miss the natural beauty of Hawaii. 

“The Summit of Mauna Kea is just an amazing place,” Armandroff said. “Going up there is really magical.”