We’ll weather the weather: George Observatory’s dome gets a makeover

Editor’s note: This post is part three of our three-part series on how you helped us save our telescope at the George Observatory. Read part one here, and part two here.

In our Save Our ‘Scope (S.O.S.) campaign, much of our focus was on replacing the mirror in the telescope. This was the first and most obvious thing we realized we needed to fix. However, just as important as the telescope and the mirror (which allows us to see the wonders of the universe) is the dome which protects the telescope and the hydraulic lift floor that allows us to take multiple visitors to look through the ‘scope. 

We have an amazing elevator-type floor that allows us to take many people up to the telescope at the same time. The telescope complex weighs 10 tons, so it will not move anywhere. The floor allows us to let short children and people in wheelchairs still look through the massive telescopes. Historically, most large telescopes have a single chair which lifts the astronomer up to the eyepiece, as you can see in the image of Percival Lowell below.

As computers and imaging have evolved, now most observatories attach a camera to the eyepiece holder and then run a cable to the building downstairs so the astronomer can use a computer to “look” in the telescope. This is pretty convenient (air conditioning and snack foods, anyone?), but it doesn’t allow someone the very personal experience of looking at something amazing in space with their own eye. The George Observatory does have cameras that scientists use when we are not open to the public. We will always use an eyepiece for the public observing.

The next big item to address was the dome itself. Steel in the Houston climate gets much abuse. Most large observatories are placed in deserts or on top of mountains in very low humidity conditions. However, this is not necessarily where many people are located, so we are committed to regular maintenance to keep the dome in good condition. 

Here are the before shots of the dome:

Scope Blog 3 7It wasn’t easy to fix, and we needed to accomplish this before the summer heat set in.

Scope Blog 3 8 Scope Blog 3 6Here is the after shot. The dome is ready to protect the newly refurbished mirror as soon as it comes home! 

Scope Blog 3 9 Scope Blog 3 10

Say hello to a brand new meteor shower: the May Camelopardalids

Longtime observers of meteors are familiar with the annual Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. These showers reliably produce hundreds of “shooting stars” per hour every year. 

Beginning in 2014, however, we might add another annual treat — the May Camelopardalids, peaking on May 24!

What are meteors?
Meteors are streaks of light in the night sky produced when tiny dust particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Because these particles are moving very fast as they fall through the Earth’s atmosphere, friction causes them to glow. Most meteors burn up completely while in the atmosphere. Any rocks that reach the ground are called meteorites.

Why do meteor showers occur?
Individual meteors may be seen at any time and are therefore totally unpredictable.  However, as the Earth circles the Sun, it passes from time to time through paths of comets. The comets are long gone, but dust particles swept off the comet remain behind. As these particles fall into the Earth’s atmosphere, a meteor shower occurs. (Imagine driving on a gravel road behind a truck. Although the truck is not at the point where you are, particles kicked up by its wheels strike your windshield.) Since astronomers know where these comet paths are, they can predict when the Earth will pass through them and thus roughly predict meteor showers. 

Early on May 24, the Earth passes under the path of Comet 209P/LINEAR, causing a shower known as the May Camelopardalids. Although Comet 209P/LINEAR’s most recent approach to the Sun was on May 6, there should still be many dust particles left to enter the Earth’s atmosphere on May 24.

What does “Camelopardalid” mean?
This shower is called the May Cameolpardalids because these meteors seem to “radiate” from the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. Since two other (much weaker) meteor showers, peaking in March and October, radiate from the same area, we specify “May Camelopardalids.”  Camelopardalis appears just under the North Star early on May mornings, so meteors will seem to come from the north. That’s because Earth passes under the debris stream rather than through it; debris thus falls into Earth’s atmosphere mostly near the North Pole.

When can I best observe the May Camelopardalids?
This year, the best time to observe is on Saturday morning, May 24, between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m. The very skinny crescent Moon, which won’t even rise until 3:40 a.m., is not a major factor. The closer you are to Houston’s bright lights, however, the fewer meteors you’ll see.  Also, any haze or cloudiness will hide meteors from view. Keep in mind, however, that unlike other annual meteor showers such as the Perseids or the Geminids, we have never observed this shower before. 

That’s because until recently, Earth never came close enough to the path of 209P/LINEAR for its debris to fall into our atmosphere. That changed in 2012, when that comet came too close to Jupiter. Interaction with the King of Planets put 209P/LINEAR onto a new orbit which comes closer to Earth’s. As the comet has a five-year period, 2014 is the first time it approaches the Sun on its new orbit — and the first time Earth encounters its debris field.  Therefore, the information above on when to see the most meteors is simply our best estimate.

How many meteors will I see?
Astronomers expect at least 100 to 200 meteors per hour, with only an outside chance of seeing 1,000 per hour (a meteor storm). Meteors will appear all over the sky during the shower, with each meteor streaking from north to south. Lying on your back, to see as much of the sky as possible at once, offers the best view. With the radiant low in the north for us, we won’t see as many meteors as those in the northern U.S. or Canada. 

Still, this shower has never happened before, so all projections could be off. The only way to know for sure is to watch and find out!

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!