Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars aligns with Earth and sun, solstice on its way

seeing stars

Venus is in the west at dusk. At dusk, look high over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there; it outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon. 

Jupiter is also in the west as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk. During June, watch Venus gradually close the gap on Jupiter, until they are just over one-third of one degree apart on the evening of June 30.

Saturn is now in the southeastern sky at dusk. Although it is not as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, it outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. 

Mars is lost in the glare of the Sun. Conjunction (Mars in line with Earth and Sun, behind the Sun) is June 14.

The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the south at dusk. Leo, the Lion, is high in the west at dusk. Venus and Jupiter come together right in front of Leo’s face, marked by stars in the shape of a sickle, or a backwards question mark.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. Saturn is right above the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.

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Moon Phases in June 2015:

Full: June 2, 11:19 a.m.

Last Quarter: June 9, 10:42 a.m.

New: June 16, 9:05 a.m.

First Quarter: June 24, 6:03 a.m.

At 11:38 a.m. on Sunday, June 21, the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point north where it can be overhead. This puts the Sun as high as possible in our skies, and marks the summer solstice. Of all the days of the year, we’ll have the most daylight and the least night on June 21. In the southern hemisphere, the sun is as low as possible in the sky as they experience the least daylight and the longest night of the year. It’s the winter solstice down there.

Due to the equation of time, the latest sunset occurs for us on June 30, not June 21. Thus, if we sleep through sunrise and watch sunset, as most of us do, days seem to lengthen all the way to the end of the month.

For more information about shows at the Burke Baker Planetarium, visit the 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. I generally do one such tour on short June evenings.

Clear Skies!

HMNS hosts second annual Science Hack Day

  Saturday, April 18, the Houston Museum of Natural Science was the stage for Science Hack Day Houston! This is the second year in a row that we have been able to host this event presented by Brightwork CoResearch. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Science Hack Days, here’s a quick synopsis.

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  Science Hack Day Houston participants are people from all walks of life. They can be anything from programmers to researchers, experts to novices and everything in between. Each of these people attends the event because they want to create something new. Many of the attendees do not know each other beforehand. In the first few hours, they must find a team to work with, come up with a project idea, and start working on a prototype. They have 36 hours to create their project, so there’s not a lot of time to dilly-dally. The next day, the teams present their ideas and prototypes to the public. It’s amazing what they can create in such a short amount of time!

  This year, we saw some impressive creations that we’d like to share with you. Team Bat Cane came up with a sonar device that could be worn on the hands and feet. When the device was within three feet of an object, it would vibrate and flash lights to indicate that the person was about to hit something. One of the team members demonstrated the prototype by walking through a maze of people, and he didn’t hit a single one! You can see a picture of him demonstrating the prototype below!

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  Another team came up with a new way to interact with space. Using data from NASA, they developed a program that would let you view the stars in space as if you were the sun. They used an oculus rift so you could look at the stars in all directions. In addition, they created space music to listen to while you view the stars. This isn’t like the soundtrack to any space movie you have seen. They actually took the electromagnetic vibrations that occur naturally in space and formed them into a song. It sounds a little spooky, but it makes you feel like you are really immersed in space!

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  Science Hack Day Houston was the stage for a multitude of impressive projects. These talented people had 36 hours to meet new people, create a team, figure out a project, and create a prototype to present on Sunday afternoon. It was a science collaboration marathon. If you missed it this year, join HMNS to see the science extravaganza at Science Hack Day Houston 2016.

First Light: Gueymard research telescope debut to coincide with Hubble anniversary

April 25 will mark the 25th anniversary of the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope, and the George Observatory will celebrate with a debut of their restored 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope, the largest specialized Cassegrain telescope open to the public, and the only one that chooses to use an eyepiece.

The Gueymard Research Telescope, a 36-inch Ritchey—Chretien Cassegrain.

The Gueymard Research Telescope, a 36-inch Ritchey—Chretien Cassegrain.

“You can see the images with your own eyes instead of on a computer screen like other telescopes,” George Observatory Director Peggy Halford said. “It gives you a much more personal experience.”

A Ritchey—Chretien design, the telescope features hyperbolic primary and secondary mirrors which sharpen the image, eliminating the fuzzy edges around its center, what is known to astronomers as an off-axis coma. With optics this precise, the telescope brings to the naked eye the phenomena of deep space.

A couple of years ago, astronomers at the George began to notice the quality of images in the Gueymard was degrading. Views were clearer in the smaller, though still research-grade, 11-inch refractor attached to the Gueymard. While they knew something was wrong, they didn’t expect the adventure they would embark upon to restore it to its original power.

Amateur astronomers remove the primary mirror from the Gueymard Research Telescope.

Amateur astronomers remove the primary mirror from the Gueymard Research Telescope.

When they removed the primary mirror, the equivalent of “checking under the hood,” they found environmental pollutants built up in microscopic divots and fissures left on its surface after its original grind 50 years ago. Optical technology has come a long way since then; imperfections in contemporary optics are virtually absent, Halford said. The George acquired the telescope from Louisiana State University, where it had stood in swamp-like conditions another 25 years prior to its installation in Brazos Bend State Park. Time and humidity had taken its toll.

The Museum sent the delicate 500-pound mirror to a coating company that did the simple things first — a bath and a new reflective coating — to try to refurbish the mirror, but the coating refused to stick, and they knew they would need to bring in the big guns.

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The wooden container the George employees used to ship the hyperbolic mirror.

It took a three-month fundraising campaign, Save Our Scope, to raise the money to hire Master Optician James Mulherin to resurface the element. Halford is proud to report the campaign took much less time than she anticipated, given the surprising amount of support from the public.

February 2014, the George again sent mirror away, this time to Mulherin, and a year an a month later, the project was complete. Mulherin took a trip to the George to help install the element, and he sat down to explain the particulars of the resurfacing project and what he does at his business, Optical Mechanics, Incorporated.

One of two specialists in the nation who do this kind of work, Mulherin came highly recommended from amateur astronomers who dropped his name to Halford at star parties when they learned of the George’s difficulty with the Gueymard. What was tough for the astronomers was a piece of cake for Mulherin.

“It was a fairly routine job,” said Mulherin, whom universities and aerospace companies regularly hire for their optical needs. “There was no real challenge.”

Mulherin did mention, however, that he had to work around the hole in the middle of the mirror, where a steel hub goes through to hold the mirror in place at the bottom of the telescope. Normally a glass plug is installed during the grinding phase, but there was too much difference in the composition of this 50-year-old glass and that of contemporary optics, he said, so he had to work around it.

Using specialized equipment to move the delicate, but massive, hunk of glass, Mulherin’s company stripped the aluminum finish and ground down the old surface to remove the imperfections in the element. The opticians then re-shaped the mirror’s hyperbolic curvature, shining light through the glass at different stages to check their progress. Finally, Mulherin coated the surface with enhanced aluminum to increase reflectivity.

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The George will debut the repaired Gueymard April 25, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The result was a total restoration of the optics, but volunteers still had to put the mirror back into place. The replacement, including the removal of the cement blank used to counterbalance the telescope while the mirror was out, along with cleaning the housing, took Tracy Knauss, Dana Lambert and Chris Randall 10 days straight, working from noon to 10 p.m.

Changes to the width of the mirror required volunteers to adjust the secondary mirrors after the installation of the main element — no small task. Installation and adjustments of the precision optics continued from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and again Tuesday from noon to 10 p.m.

“I wanted to stick an eyepiece into it and it work,” Halford said, but collimating the telescope, or aligning the elements with accuracy, required much more time.

Mulherin said he felt at home at the George during the course of the project, and happy to help.

“I feel like I’m part of the community,” he said. “When I started, we were all amateur astronomers, and I found I was more interested in optics than astronomy.”

About the telescope, he said, “It’s amazing to me that it still works.”

Halford hopes for clear skies April 25, but if conditions turn cloudy, she said, “We’ll just show it off.” The George will observe regular Saturday hours from 3 to 10 p.m. for the event.

First Light & 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope Celebration
Saturday, April 25
3:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
April 25 will mark the 25th anniversary of the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope, and the George Observatory will celebrate with a debut of their restored 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope, the largest specialized Cassegrain telescope open to the public, and the only one that chooses to use an eyepiece. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Lunar Eclipse on April 4

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Mars remains in the west at dusk this month as it moves through Aries. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind. Later on this month, Mars begins to be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Mercury enters the evening sky as Mars leaves it. By April 30, Mars will be gone but Mercury will be low in the west northwest, near the Pleiades star cluster.

Venus is in the west at dusk. Look over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there.

Jupiter is now high in the sky, almost overhead, as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk.

Saturn is in the southwest at dawn.

Brilliant winter stars shift towards the west during April. Dazzling Orion is high in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points right to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. Above Orion are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. Jupiter is among the Twins this month. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line from Orion’s belt towards south (left as you face west). Forming a triangle with Betelgeuse and Sirius is Procyon, the Little Dog Star.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring in the south and east. Look for Leo, the Lion almost overhead at dusk. In the east, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to ‘Arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’.

Moon Phases in April 2015:

Full April 5, 7:05 am

Last Quarter April 11, 10:44 pm

New April 18, 1:56 pm

1st Quarter April 25, 5:55 pm

The Full Moon of April 4 passes through the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, the Moon clips the edge of the Earth’s shadow, allowing for only 5 minutes of totality. What’s more, for us the eclipse occurs near moonset and sunrise (which are almost simultaneous when there is a lunar eclipse). That puts the Moon low to the horizon during the eclipse; only those with clear views all the way to the western horizon can get a good look. It also means that totality falls during morning twilight.

Eclipse times:

Partial eclipse begins: 5:15 am
Totality 6:57-7:02 am
Moonset (still partially eclipsed) 7:13 am

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.