300: McDonald Observatory astrophotographer shoots for the stars

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Astrophotographer Ethan Tweedie captures sodium lasers from the Keck observatory. In 2014, Tweedie was hired to work at the McDonald Observatory, where he has shot thousands of photos of the telescopes and the night sky.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ethan Tweedle

Editor’s note: In 300 words or fewer, this series spotlights people in our community whose stories typically go untold.

Shivering at the top of Mauna Kea, astrophotographer Ethan Tweedie quickly set up his tripod and camera as two of the telescopes at the Keck Observatory began to open up. A few minutes later, he captured a shot that would gain him national fame ­— two bright sodium lasers firing at the center of the Milky Way. 

Born and raised in Hawaii, Tweedie grew up capturing the splendor of the Milky Way using his dad’s and grandfather’s cameras. 

“It’s funny [that] my dad’s a hunter. I don’t have anything against it, I just don’t really like it,” Tweedie said. “And I don’t hunt animals, I hunt life. It’s the same exact thing. I have this insatiable appetite to make beautiful images.”

Tweedie left photography behind after college and moved to Dallas, but he rediscovered it after moving back home in 2009.

It was then that Andrea Ghez decided to fire sodium lasers from the Keck observatory to prove the existence of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Tweedie knew he had to climb the Mauna Kea summit to document it.

“Oxygen’s low. It’s freezing. Even in Hawaii it snows up there every year,” Tweedie said. “I didn’t even know if you could capture this thing. It was like Star Wars, and that shot was the first time it’d been captured.”

In 2014, the executive director of Keck, Taft Armandroff, left Hawaii to work in Fort Davis at UT’s McDonald Observatory. They didn’t have a photographer there, so he asked Tweedie to join him.

Today, Tweedie can see the Milky Way from his window every night.

“I’ve always loved Texas — I’ve never left because I didn’t like it here,” Tweedie said. “I was happy to come back and shoot, especially to see Fort Davis and McDonald Observatory.”