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. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Four Planets are Visible

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Venus is in the southeast at dawn, approaching Saturn. Venus passes Saturn the morning of January 9; the two planets are less than one tenth of one degree apart! They’re easy to tell apart, as Venus outshines all the stars we see at night and is almost 100 times brighter than Saturn.

Mars is now in the south at dawn. Much dimmer than Venus now, Mars is getting a little brighter each day until its opposition next spring.

Jupiter now dominates the southwestern sky at dawn. As Jupiter approaches its opposition on march 8, you can also begin looking for it in late evening. By January 31, for example, Jupiter rises by 9:00 and will have cleared most horizon obstacles by 9:30 or 10.

In January, the Big Dipper is only partly risen at dusk. As the Big Dipper rises, though, Cassiopeia remains high. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W (or M) shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus in the west at dusk. 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.

Moon Phases
Moon Phases in January 2016:

Last Quarter Jan. 1, 11:30 p.m.; Jan. 31, 9:28 p.m.

New Jan. 9, 7:31 p.m.

1st Quarter Jan. 16, 5:26 p.m.

Full Jan. 23, 7:46 am

At 4:49 pm on Saturday, January 2, the Earth was as close to the Sun as it will get this year. Thus we say that the Earth was at perihelion. However, Earth was only about 1.6% closer to the Sun than average on this date. That’s why being closer to the Sun at this time does little to warm us up. The effect of Earth’s tilt on its axis dominates the small effect of Earth’s varying distance in causing the seasons.

Although the shortest day (least daylight) occurs on December 21, the latest sunrise occurs for us about January 10. That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit as it approaches perihelion. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day for the first part of this month. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a slightly higher path across the sky, which normally dominates in causing later sunsets and earlier sunrises. But the Sun’s apparent path varies very little near the solstice itself, allowing the secondary effect of the Earth approaching the Sun to predominate until mid-January. Most people, then, will notice that both sunrise and sunset are now happening earlier than in December. As we move farther from the solstice, the effect of the Sun taking a slightly higher path each day again predominates.

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!

April is here! Get Ready to Celebrate Earth Day all month long in Houston.

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Well it’s that time of year again. Happy April everyone! With the April flowers come Earth Day celebrations. While the official Earth Day is April 22, Houstonians like to celebrate Earth Day every weekend in April. Even better, all these Earth Day events are free!

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Start out the month by bringing your recyclables to Discovery Green. April 4th is a recycling Saturday. Spend the day downtown or around Hermann Park (maybe even at HMNS?) and end your day at the Miller Outdoor Theater watching Legally Blonde the Musical (not Earth Day centered but still fun and free).

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April 11th is the big event at Discovery GreenEarth Day Houston sponsored by Air Alliance Houston. It’s the big event because that’s where HMNS and I’ll be. Not only will we have info and a cool game about how you can conserve energy, but also have BUGS. While it may not sound exciting to have bugs when you’re outside, these are bugs you can (and will want to) interact with. Come by and pet a tarantula. Don’t worry, when you stop by you won’t be bugging us.

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The Houston Arboretum has a slew of free events on April 18. Everything from a self-guided scavenger hunt to guided hikes and face painting. They will also have a plant sale.

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Exploration Green will host its first Earth Day on April 25. They will have a trail run, arts and crafts, kite flying and much more.

So take advantage of one or more of the Earth Day events. Brush up on your energy conservation at the Energy Conservation Club. See y’all out at Discovery Green.

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.