The great balancing act: Stabilizing telescopes at the George Observatory

Editor’s note: This post is part two of our three-part series on how you helped us Save Our ‘Scope at the George Observatory. Read part one here.

Many have asked us how we are still using the large research dome at the George Observatory while the 36-inch mirror is in Iowa getting fixed. The simple answer is that we are continuing to use the 11-inch refractor, which is mounted on the side of the 36-inch telescope. The refractor has near-perfect lenses and is an incredibly high quality instrument in and of itself. The 36-inch mirror is best used for deep space objects, and the 11-inch refractor is best used for closer objects like we find in our solar system. Together, they work in tandem to make a remarkable team to view near and far.

The entire telescope grouping and mount weight approximately 10 tons. The 36-inch mirror weighed almost 500 lbs with the mirror and the center hub that holds it in place.  Because everything is so perfectly balanced, the motor to run the telescopes is approximately the size of a sewing machine motor. This delicate balance is also what keeps the telescope working properly. When we removed the more than 500 lbs. for the primary and secondary mirrors, the entire system was totally out of balance.

We were advised that glass is the same density as cement by our mirror expert.  With this piece of information and the help of Tracy Knauss, Paul Halford and Chris Randall, a plan was devised to make an exact replacement of the glass mirror out of cement. Paul located the materials and then Chris took over the project. He had scales and tools at his home and handily went about making the cement mirror.

First, Chris started with some rebar and a 36-inch sonotube.  

SOS Cement mirrorThen Brazos Bend State Park provided a fork lift to get it out of the truck.

SOS Cement mirror 2

SOS Cement mirror 4Then we had to get the 500-pound blank inside the building and placed underneath the dome so that it could be lifted three stories up into the dome and then installed.

SOS Cement mirror 6Here is the cement mirror blank installed in the real mirror cell.

SOS Cement mirror 9Finally, Tracy and Chris installed the cement blank into the back of the telescope casing where the real mirror will eventually be. By replacing the weight almost exactly, only a very few adjustments had to be made so that it was back in balance and able to support the 11-inch refractor again. 

With Jupiter, Mars and Saturn so prominent right now, this is the best ‘scope for viewing until the 36-inch returns to the George Observatory.

Save the Date: The George Observatory’s 25th Anniversary Celebrations
October 10, 2014: Members and donors event 
October 11 & 12, 2014:  Anniversary weekend. The Observatory will be open  from dusk until 11 p.m. Come look through the newly refurbished 36-inch Gueymard telescope that you helped save!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Changing stars remind us that summer’s coming

 This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on May 1, 9 pm CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast.  Saturn is below Spica in Libra.  Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on May 1, 9 p.m. CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast. Saturn is below Spica in Libra. Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.

Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it in the west at dusk, outshining all the stars we ever see at night. 

Mercury appears in the evening sky this month. Too close to the Sun to observe on May 1, Mercury gradually comes from behind the Sun and by mid-month, it appears low on the western horizon at dusk right above the point of sunset. Greatest elongation (apparent distance from Mercury to the Sun) is on May 25.

Mars is in the southeast at dusk this month. On April 8, Earth passed between the Sun and Mars. Mars has dimmed a little since then as Earth has begun to leave it behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is up all night long this month. On May 10, Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn, putting Saturn at opposition. That night, Saturn rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. Thus, Saturn is very low in the southeast at dusk, and very low in the southwest at sunup.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk. Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins. His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion. The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing to the right. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the east and southeast at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. At the same time, Vega, brightest star of the Summer Triangle, appears low in the northeast.  These stars remind us that summer is on the way. 

Moon Phases in May 2014:

1st Quarter: May 6, 10:16 pm 
Full May: 14, 2:18 pm
Last Quarter:  May 21, 7:59 am
New May: 28, 1:42 pm 

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear skies!

Don’t fight the dark: Five simple ways to cut down on light pollution

When you visit the George Observatory, you’ll notice signs that say, “Please no white lights.” You’ll also see that all our outside lights are red. The reason we do this is to fight light pollution and create a dark-sky-friendly environment (or at least as dark as we can this close to Houston). 

Despite our best efforts, the surrounding area is slowly losing its dark skies. This is unfortunate, and not just for those of us who love to stargaze. Too much light at night is also bad for animal migrations, human sleep patterns, and even personal safety.

So what can we, as individuals, do to fight light pollution?  Here are five simple things:

1. Turn off all unused lights
Your dad was right: leaving lights on when you’re not using them is just throwing money away. So when you leave an area, make it a habit to turn the lights off.

2. Shield all outside lights
Outside lights should serve one purpose: to show you where you’re going. So why do so many people insist on lighting the underside of passing airplanes? We encourage you to invest in light shields. They will help with light pollution and save you money.

3. Don’t over-light
When installing outside fixtures, consider the best wattage for your needs. You want enough light to see where you are going — anything else isn’t helping you see . Also, your neighbors will appreciate you not flooding their bedrooms with light.

4. Avoid ornamental lighting
It’s wonderful that you’re proud of your home, but remember what we said about light pollution and crime. When you overuse ornamental light, you may feel like your house is more secure; however, you’re actually making your property a target for thieves.

5. Spread the word!
Now that you know the dangers of light pollutions, share that information with others. There are many websites that will help you and your friends protect the night sky, like the International Dark Sky Association.

Knowledge is power, and we all need to do our part to keep the stars at night big and bright deep in the heart of Texas!

To see the best dark skies in the Houston area come out to the George Observatory! From there you can see stars, galaxies planets… almost anything in space. And what’s more, we want to help you see everything out there better, so bring your telescope out for our telescope classes. The next one’s coming up this Saturday, May 3 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m

 

Stay up late for a great cosmic show: The first eclipse of April 2014 is tonight!

Don’t forget: there’s a lunar eclipse tonight! The eclipse will begin shortly before midnight and continue until 4:30 in the morning on April 15. You’ll be able to see the eclipse from just about everywhere in Houston, but especially well at the George Observatory, where you can watch through telescopes away from city lights.

We’ve been getting a lot of people asking, “What exactly is a lunar eclipse?” Well, a lunar eclipse is when the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, or umbra. For this to happen, the Sun, Earth, and Moon have to be perfectly aligned.

For those who have never seen an eclipse, it is quite breathtaking. The Moon will start out full. As it rises, it will reach the edge of the umbra shortly before midnight, where it will begin to disappear. As the Moon continues to rise, it will slowly be engulfed by the Earth’s shadow. Then, as it sets, the Moon will slowly reappear until it is full again (roughly around 4:30 in the morning).

Since this a total eclipse, it can be viewed anywhere in the world that is facing away from the Sun. You can sit outside, even in the city, and view the eclipse yourself.

However, the George Observatory will be open all night to the public tonight. For $5 per person, you can enjoy our three large telescopes. Then, once the eclipse begins, relax on our deck and watch the eclipse with our astronomers. Besides the Moon, Mars will also be visible (we’ve just passed opposition, so tonight’s a really a great chance to see the red planet, as it’s much brighter than usual).

Want to know more about the Moon while you gaze up at it tonight? This great video from Live Science goes through the history of the formation of the Moon and how it got some of its most famous features!