Join Us for Astronomy Day! This Saturday, at the George Observatory

Girl ScoutsOur Fun Hundred events continue this Saturday, October 24, as our annual Astronomy Day takes place at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. Join us from 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. for a wide variety of activities.  Of course we’ll begin stargazing at dusk (about 7:30 p.m.) if the weather is clear.  Our main telescopes (36”, 18” and 14”) will be open, and our observing deck will be full of telescopes of all shapes and sizes showing a wide variety of objects.  However, we also have many fun activities in the afternoon, including solar observing on the observation deck and simulated missions to the Moon in the Observatory’s Challenger Center.   Special indoor and outdoor presentations begin at 4 p.m.  Outdoor presentations occur every half hour until dusk; indoor presentations occur every hour, with the last one starting at 9 p.m.  You can even win a telescope!  All events at the Observatory on Astronomy Day are free of charge; you pay only to enter the state park itself.   Go to www.astronomyday.org for a full description of everything going on.

The theme for this year is the International Year of Astronomy, as 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the first observations of the sky through a telescope.  Our event even coincides with the Galilean Nights (October 22-24), a Cornerstone Project of International Year of Astronomy 2009 .  Accordingly, many of the indoor and outdoor presentations will focus on telescopes, the history of telescopes, and Galileo’s observations.  You can personally repeat one of Galileo’s historic observations by observing Jupiter’s moons through one of the many telescopes on our deck.  If you observe between 8:19 and 8:24, you can see one of the moons, Io, occult (partially block) Europa.

The Houston Astronomical Society (HAS) sponsored Astronomy Day events as early as 1982.  Many gatherings in the ’80s took place at Rice University.  In fall 1985, Comet Halley returned to our region of the solar system for the first time in 76 years. When HMNS and the newly formed Fort Bend Astronomy Club (FBAC) arranged for a Saturday night viewing of Halley that fall, over 10,000 visitors came to Brazos Bend State Park to get a glimpse of the comet.  Such an expression of local interest in observing celestial events led to the creation of the George Observatory in 1989.

On August 12, 1994, in conjunction with the annual Perseid Meteor Shower, HAS sponsored the first Astronomy Day to be held at the George Observatory.  As the event grew in popularity, organizers shifted the event to October, a month with (on average) more comfortable temperatures and clearer skies in the Houston area.  Also, more local area clubs became involved, including the Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society (JSCAS), the North Houston Astronomy Club (NHAC) and the Astronomical Society of Southeast Texas (ASSET), based in Beaumont.   Joining us as sponsors in 2009 are the Huntsville Amateur Astronomical Society (HAAS)  and the Community of Humble, Administaff Observatory Society.  Introducing local astronomy clubs to the public, and vice-versa, has become an important part of Astronomy Day.  If you are interested in any of the astronomy clubs in the immediate vicinity of Houston; you will be able to learn about all of them at Astronomy Day.

The involvement of more and more clubs and volunteers has gone hand in hand with much greater attendance in recent years.  As you can see in the accompanying chart, not even Hurricane Ike’s aftermath could depress our attendance numbers back to what they were just four years ago.

Year Attendance
1999 1900
2000 500 (rain)
2001 1500
2002 1300
2003 1800
2004 1200
2005 1586
2006 2028
2007 3997
2008 2400 (Ike)

Also, we are not alone in holding a huge star party on October 24.  The Astronomical League sponsors Astronomy Day events worldwide.  In 2009, most of these were in the spring, back on May 2.  But there are at least four other events this Saturday, including one at the University of Texas at Arlington.  In 2007, the Astronomical League recognized our event as the best run Astronomy Day of the year.

BigMoon
Creative Commons License photo credit: fdecomite

We hold Astronomy Day every year in mid-to-late October.  If possible, we select a Saturday with a first quarter Moon.  This puts the Moon, a popular viewing target for the public, high in the sky right at dusk yet not so bright as to overwhelm everything else in the sky.   This year, Astronomy Day is one day before First Quarter, so a big crescent Moon will be in the south-southwest at dusk.  Dominating the southern sky all evening, outshining everything else but the Moon, is the planet JupiterUranus and Neptune, though not visible with the naked eye, will also be in the south.  Other objects visible every October include the Andromeda Galaxy (the nearest galaxy to or own, not counting the Milky Way’s companions) and the Ring Nebula in Lyra (the remains of a star similar to our Sun).

As I write this, the weather forecast for Saturday is looking good.  A cold front should have cleared the area by then, leaving us with clear skies and perfect temperatures.  Therefore, we invite everyone to join us this Saturday for a wonderful afternoon and evening under the stars.  See you Saturday!