Making the Stars: A Brief History of the Burke Baker Planetarium

In July of 1964, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened its new museum in Hermann Park with modest exhibit space and the Burke Baker Planetarium. A state-of-the-art Spitz Space Transit Planetarium dominated the theater’s center with its flat floor and a few slide projectors. Two star balls connected by cages, swinging in a yoke, generated the moving stars and planets. All programs were live star tours.

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That year the Houston Independent School District began sending students to the Burke Baker Planetarium. In the last 50 years, over a million HISD children have explored the starry night in an experience reaching every HISD student at least once.

For an idea of what the planetarium experience was back in the 1970s, take a look at my first Burke Baker Planetarium brochure. The brochure was a 3-fold with the front and back cover shown below. The address was 5800 Caroline Street. When you called for reservations, you only used seven digits. The museum was free, but the planetarium cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. We did two or three shows a day plus morning school shows and thought we were busy. Now we do 13 to 16 shows each day. Notice the map. The passage between the planetarium and the tiny museum was a glassed-in breezeway.  

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Inside the brochure was a description of the planetarium experience. Burke Baker’s gift has now brought the astronomy experience to more than 7.5 million people, including all upper elementary students in the Houston Independent School District since 1965.  

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Below is the fold over section showing our new Margaret Root Brown Telescope, which is still behind my office on the third floor. We need an access across the roof to open it up to the public once again as well as realuminizing of the mirror. The telescope tracked the sun automatically and sent a live image to the planetarium and the Energy Hall in the lower level. We created five new shows each year, but they were much easier to produce than the two new shows we do now. 

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In 1988, the Burke Baker Planetarium was one of the first in the world to go digital. In a capital campaign that funded the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, the planetarium’s Friedkin Theater became a space simulator with an Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1, the world’s first digital planetarium projection system.

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In 1998, a decade later, the Burke Baker Planetarium was first in the United States and second in the world to install a Digital Sky full-dome digital video projection system. This dynamic immersive environment was funded by a grant from NASA through Rice University. Now the planetarium could offer full-dome animations and movies with a new slightly tilted dome and seats. The planetarium’s Cosmic Mysteries and Powers of Time were among the first full dome digital films produced.

Eighteen years later, the Friedkin Theater of the Burke Baker Planetarium becomes the most advanced True 8K planetarium in the world. On March 11, HMNS will unveil an overhauled theater featuring an all-new, tilted, seamless projection dome and the main attraction, the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 digital projection system. This cutting-edge system brings the highest resolution, the brightest colors, and the most advanced spatial imaging technology on the market to the planetarium, restoring its status as best in the world.

Editor’s note: Keep your eyes peeled for more details about the Planetarium renovation on social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and right here on our BEYONDbones blog. Throughout the month of February and early March, we’ll be posting the latest information about the project until the grand opening March 11. 

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Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Five planets at dawn, leap day this February!

Star Map

Jupiter is now a late evening object, rising in the east. It rises by 9 p.m. on Feb. 1, and by Feb. 29 it comes up just before 7 p.m., which is during evening twilight. Jupiter comes to opposition on March 8, which is when Earth aligns with Jupiter and the Sun. That is why Jupiter is up all night long in late February and early March.

As dawn approaches this month, Jupiter will still be visible, this time high in the west.  Meanwhile, the four other visible planets will have risen as well. That’s right, February 2016  features all five naked-eye planets at dawn!

Venus is in the southeast at dawn. You can’t miss it, as Venus outshines all the stars we see at night, and in fact outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon.

Mars is in the south at dawn. Noticeably reddish in tint, Mars continues to brighten each day until its opposition next spring. 

Saturn is in the south southeast at dawn, above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. Mars slowly approaches Saturn this month.

Mercury is the biggest challenge to find. This month, though, Mercury is very close to Venus and to its left. Thus, once you find Venus, the brightest dot to its left is Mercury. 

Mercury is the first planet to leave the gathering as it heads back towards the Sun late this month. The cutoff date of Feb. 20 is somewhat arbitrary, though. It’s better to watch the sky and, using Venus as your guide, see for yourself when is the last day you can still see Mercury before losing it the Sun’s glare. The next to leave is Jupiter, which shifts into the evening sky after opposition. 

Taurus, the Bull, is high in the south. Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter, takes center stage on winter evenings.  Surrounding Orion are the brilliant stars of winter. Orion’s belt points down to Sirius, the Dog Star, which outshines all other stars we ever see at night. The Little Dog Star, Procyon, rises with Sirius and is level with Orion’s shoulder as they swing towards the south. To the upper left of Orion’s shoulder is Gemini, the Twins.

Under Sirius and low to the southern horizon this month is a star that most Americans never get to see—Canopus. Representing the bottom (keel) of the legendary ship Argo, Canopus is the second brightest star ever visible at night. Thus, it is clearly noticeable along the southern horizon on February and March evenings. However, you must be south of 37 degrees north to see Canopus rise. (This is the line that divides Utah, Colorado, and Kansas from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.)

The sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on the time of night and time of year.  From any given location in our hemisphere, there is an area of the sky around the North Star in which stars never set (circumpolar stars), and an equivalent area around the South Celestial Pole in which stars never rise. The closer you are to the pole, the larger these areas are. The closer you get to the equator, the fewer circumpolar stars there are, but there are also fewer stars that never rise for you. At the equator, no stars are either circumpolar or never visible; all of them rise and set as Earth turns. 

That’s why, down here in south Texas, the Big Dipper sets for a while although it’s always up for most Americans. On the other hand, Canopus, too far south to rise for most Americans, rises for us.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in February 2016:

Last Quarter: Jan. 31, 9:28 p.m.

New: Feb. 8, 8:39 a.m.

First Quarter: Feb. 15, 1:46 a.m.

Full: Feb. 22, 12:20 p.m.

(February is so short that last quarter Moons occur on Jan. 31 and March 1, but not in February). 

The New Moon of Feb. 8 is the second New Moon after the winter solstice. Accordingly, it marks Chinese New Year. Welcome to the Year of the Monkey!

Monday, Feb. 29, is leap day. This day exists because our normal year of 365 days is too short. The true length of one Earth orbit around the Sun is 365 days and almost 6 hours.  No one wants to begin a year in the middle of a day, however. Therefore, we let the error add up over four years, until it becomes 24 hours, or one whole day, then add that day back to the calendar. Thus, February 29 occurs every four years. 

Almost 6 hours?  Well, alright, the difference between our orbit and our year is actually 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds. That makes our system a very slight overcorrection.  To prevent that from adding up, we’ll skip leap day in 2100, 2200, and 2300. 

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!

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 2/1-2/7

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Tracey (age 8).

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our brand-new Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Lecture – Tracking a Killer: The Origin and Evolution of Tuberculosis
Tuesday, Feb. 2
6:30 p.m.
In 2014, tuberculosis (TB) surpassed HIV as the leading cause of death from infectious disease. TB has long been a scourge of humans; however, exactly how long has been debated. In this lecture Anne Stone examines the evolutionary history of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes TB, focusing on the distribution of TB strains in humans in order to understand their relationships, assess patterns of pathogen exchange through time, and investigate how TB adapted to humans and other animals.
Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation.

Lecture – The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton
Thursday, Feb. 4
6:30 p.m.
The risks of global warming are pressing and potentially vast. The past century’s changes to the planet-to the clouds and the soils, to the winds and the seas, to the great cycles of nitrogen and carbon-have been far more profound than most of us realize. The difficulty of doing without fossil fuels is daunting, possibly even insurmountable. To meet the urgent need to rethink our responses to this crisis, a small but increasingly influential group of scientists is exploring proposals for planned human intervention in the climate system.

In the United States for a special lecture tour, Oliver Morton will explore the history, politics and cutting-edge science of geoengineering that may provide solutions, as well as address the deep fear that comes with seeing humans as a force of nature, and asks what might be required of us use that force for good to combat global warming.

Special Exhibition: Biodiversity in the Art of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen Closes Friday, Feb. 7
HMNS at Sugar Land
Brest van Kempen’s meticulously executed paintings in rich jewel tones explore the variety of nature and attest to the artist’s belief that chief among nature’s hallmarks is its diversity. This widely acclaimed exhibition consists of 50 original paintings and preparatory sketches inspired not just by the beauty of the subjects, but also by their fascinating ecology and habitat.

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The Adventures of Archie the Wandering T. rex: England

by Karen Whitley

Man am I one lucky dinosaur. When I was adopted last summer from the Museum Store at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I had no idea I was on my way to becoming a world traveler, a globetrotter, an adventurer if you will. Just call me Lemuel Gulliver! (Like from Gulliver’s Travels? Get it??)

Well, actually, I was given the name Archibald… (Pretentious much?) But you can call me Archie. While my cousins and friends all waited to be adopted, I packed my suitcase (let me tell you, not so easy with short arms) and began my new life. A life filled with far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise… eh, maybe not so much. Let’s just say my human watches a little too much Disney.

To celebrate, my new family and I went off on a summer vacation! I did worry about the airplane, I mean flying dinosaurs….it’s not natural. But luckily everything went smoothly. The food wasn’t great and all, but I did get to catch up on some movies, and they even gave me some wings! I’m telling you, wings on a dinosaur… Not natural. Before I knew it, we had set down in Merry Ol’ England. Did you know they have a queen and princes (I wonder if they are in disguise), but no king? Guess I’m the king around here!AirportLondon is such a busy city! Taxi drivers zooming in and out, people filling the sidewalks, lines of big red buses everywhere. There was so much to see and do: from walks in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens (and ice cream), to Westminster Abby, Buckingham Palace (and ice cream), St. Paul’s Cathedral, LEGOLAND (and ice cream), and more (plus more ice cream)! The adventure never stopped! Here are just a few highlights from this great country.

There was this old clock that everyone was taking photos with… Big Ben, I’m told. Do you think I can get people to call me Big Archie? I won’t lie; for a clock, it was pretty spectacular. I reminds me of the Chronophage back home at HMNS.Big BenOM NOM NOM!! Look at me, I’m eating the clock! Godzilla IRL! LOL! JK…Eating Big BenThen we went on this giant Ferris wheel called the London Eye. We got a really cool bird’s-eye view of London, but for some reason people kept taking photos of me, even people in the pods next to us. Guess they had never seen a blue dinosaur before. It ain’t easy being blue.London EyeHey look, there’s the clock thing again! See it to the right?London Eye 4I even went on my first boat ride down the Thames to see the London Bridge (eh, not that impressed…) and the Tower Bridge (now THERE’s a bridge!), where we ended up at the Tower of London.Tower Bridge 2You’ll be happy to know that the ravens were present and accounted for when I left. I did try to eat a few, but since apparently that would have been disastrous to the realm of England. They kept them pretty safe. What do you think, would I make a good guard? (I’m pretty good at standing still…)Guard TowerWe did leave London to go out into the country to visit Leeds Castle in Kent, which was amazing! I mean, it has a moat. Who doesn’t love a moat?Castle LeedsThere was a tricky maze, which is not easy when you’re nine inches tall (Ok, eight and a half, but who’s counting?), but I didn’t let it stop me. Here’s me in the center of the maze!Castle Leeds Maze 2My final adventure in England was at King’s Cross Station where I journeyed onto Platform 9 3/4. They even sorted me into a house, Ravenclaw… They seemed to think it was where I belonged before I ran through the wall. Hmmm, magic, princes, a far off place… All we needed was a sword fight. Maybe my life is turning out like a Disney film, after all.Harry PotterSpeaking of Disney, tune in again in a couple of weeks as I tell you about my adventures in Paris that includes a trip to Disney! As for this trip to England, that’s about all the stories I have to tell. Until next time!

Oh, I almost forgot. I’ve got a big family still waiting to be adopted at the HMNS Museum Store! Stop by and meet them all, including my big brother! If they’re lucky, maybe you’ll take them on adventures, too!

Editor’s Note: Karen is Birthday Party Manager in the HMNS Marketing department.

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