Cloudy Views Through a Clear Lens: George Observatory Anticipates Research Explosion When Wet Weather Dissipates

It’s been a wet, cloudy year for George Observatory, but flooding and poor viewing nights at Brazos Bend State Park haven’t kept astronomers from dreaming. Big breakthroughs have happened at the George in the past, and with a complete restoration of the 36-inch, deep space Gueymard Research Telescope, a return to astronomical research is quite simply a waiting game. And with even more rainfall this week, astronomers will have to wait a little longer. The park will remain closed until at least July 12.

“We couldn’t do research forever because of the lens,” George Director Peggy Halford said, referring to the heavy deposits of grime the telescope suffered during its 50 years standing in the muggy climates of Louisiana State University and west Texas wetlands. “And as soon as we got the lens restored, the park flooded.”

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Photo posted June 3 on Brazos Bend State Park Facebook page. The post reads, “In the history of the park (since 1984), water levels have never been this high.”

 

In spite of this development, both amateur and professional astronomers have been using the past 13 months, April and May 2016 in particular, to prioritize future projects using the refreshed equipment. As water over park roads continues to prevent access to the observatory, and cloud cover access to the night sky, these scientists are keeping their heads in the game through planning and pitching sessions.

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Photo posted June 2 on Brazos Bend State Park Facebook page. The post reads, “We awoke this morning to find water over Park Road 72 for a roughly 1.25-mile section between Park Headquarters and the Nature Center and a small section between the park entrance and Park Headquarters.”

In an age of computer-guided photometry and NASA probes, the science of star-study from the ground “may not be that glamorous,” Halford offers, but it’s not without significant value. One project idea, for example, involves the study of what happens in space after a supernova goes off, or in science-speak, cataclysmic variable star system follow-up observations.

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Artist’s rendition of a cataclysmic variable star. By Mark A. Garlick.

Not all stars are alone; some come in pairs. Cataclysmic variables are double-star systems that include a super-dense white dwarf and a normal star rapidly orbiting each at a rate of about once an hour. Because the white dwarf is so close to its partner, it strips off material from the normal star’s corona, creating an accretion disk around itself as it accumulates more and more mass..As this energy vacuuming proceeds, unstable matter in the accretion disk occasionally ignites, ejecting a flash of light called a nova. Eventually, the white dwarf will absorb enough of its partner’s energy to detonate a super-massive thermonuclear explosion of incredible power — a supernova. The novae and supernovae of cataclysmic variables are recorded in all cases, but few events are studied, according to Halford.

“The big surveys are great at catching these things in outburst, but there’s little value in the discovery if no follow-up is done,” Halford stated. “The follow-up photometry gives us the rate of fade, and an idea of the characteristics of a particular type of variable, or an idea of the angular momentum of accretion disk in a binary system, et cetera.”

In other words, the moments after novae are some of the most crucial in the effort to know more about these systems, and the lives and behavior of stars in general. Science being an empirical pursuit, the more data, the better. The Gueymard is particularly suited to this type of research given its deep-space capabilities as well as its accessibility to Houston local astronomers.

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The relative size of all asteroids visited by spacecraft as of November 2010.

For the purists, the observatory offers an opportunity to discover asteroids — large bodies of rock and ice within our solar system — through classic methods. While computerized telescopes can now scan for inter-planetary bodies and minor planets much faster than a human ground observer, the pursuit is no less exciting or valuable when new discoveries are made.

“In years past, we’ve had astronomer teams that have discovered more than 500 asteroids,” Halford said. “We have a few people who are going to continue to do it by hand and by eye. If they did discover one coming toward Earth, it could potentially be life-saving.”

George astronomers have also proposed a project that could track light pollution in the area using the magnitude of stars. With this set of data, they could fight for more governmental regulation of municipal lighting. Halford and other interested volunteers at the George have already won battles in the fight to keep the skies dark.

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Photos of the night sky before and during the Aug. 14, 2003 blackout in the northeast U.S. and Canada. In urban areas, the Milky Way and orbiting satellites suddenly became visible without light pollution.

“About 15 years ago when we heard the Grand Parkway was going to be built, with the museum’s support, we talked to the state legislature and got a bill passed that allowed us to talk to county commissioners about light in unincorporated areas,” Halford said. “There is currently a lighting ordinance around the George Observatory.”

As Houston and surrounding cities continue to grow, studies of how light affects the appearance of the night sky will provide continuing support for the astronomy community and preservation in general. From the star-lover’s perspective, the sky is yet another endangered species or threatened environment.

While the water continues to recede, these astronomers will continue to plan. The McDonald Observatory in west Texas is always an option, but that means a 12-hour drive and it’s expensive to get time on the telescopes, according to Halford.

“We can’t get to our telescope, so now’s the time to throw out some ideas,” she said. “For the local astronomer who wants to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge, this is the best place to do it.”

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars Brightest in the Sky During the Month of the Summer Solstice

June Starmap

Jupiter is now high in the southwest at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it. 

Mars and Saturn are now in the southeast at dusk. As you watch them rise, Mars is to the right and is much brighter. 

In fact, this month Mars outshines all of the stars and even rivals Jupiter in brightness! That’s because on May 22, Earth passed between the sun and Mars. That alignment is called ‘opposition’ because it puts Mars opposite the sun in our sky, making Mars visible literally all night long. It also makes Mars much brighter than normal in the sky, since we’re as close to it as we’ll ever get until Earth overtakes Mars again in 2018. Saturn came to opposition on June 3.

Venus is lost in the sun’s glare and out of sight all month. In fact, on June 6, Venus is directly behind the sun from our vantage point.

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.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in June 2016:

New: June 5, 10 p.m.

First Quarter: June 12, 3:10 a.m.

Full: June 20, 6:02 a.m.

Last Quarter: June 27, 1:19 p.m.

Earth at Aphelion:

At 5:34 pm on Monday, June 20, the sun is directly overhead as seen from the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point north where the sun ever appears overhead. This means Earth’s North Pole is tilted towards the sun as much as possible towards the sun, and the sun appears higher at midday than on any other day of the year. We also have more daylight on June 20 than on any other day of the year. Therefore, we call June 20, 2016, the summer solstice. Below the equator, the sun is as low at midday as it ever gets, and there is less daylight than on any other day of the year. For them, this is the winter solstice. 

But if you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that the latest sunset occurs at the end of the month, not on June 20. As Earth approaches aphelion (farthest distance from the Sun) on its slightly elliptical orbit, it slows down slightly. This causes both sunrise and sunset to occur a little later each day. This tiny effect actually prevails near the solstices because Earth’s tilt changes very little during that time. (Think of a sine wave; near the highest and lowest points, the curve looks fairly flat). Most of us sleep through sunrise and witness sunset, so we have the (wrong) impression that the days lengthen all the way to the end of June.

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. As of now, however, the George is closed while Brazos Bend State park dries out from yet another round of floods on the Brazos River. Stay tuned for updates.

Clear Skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Exciting Rare Mercury Transit Next Monday!

May Starmap

Jupiter is now high in the south at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it.

Mars and Saturn become late evening objects this month. Tonight, May 2, Mars rises in the southeast at 9:48 p.m. while Saturn comes up soon afterwards, at 10:24 p.m. By May 15, though, both planets rise during twilight, and on Memorial Day both are in the southeastern sky as soon as it gets dark. Mars and Saturn are still above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. As you watch them rise, Mars is to the upper right and is much brighter.

In fact, this month, Mars outshines all of the stars and even rivals Jupiter in brightness! That’s because on May 22, Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. That alignment is called ‘opposition’ because it puts Mars opposite the Sun in our sky, making Mars visible literally all night long. It also makes Mars much brighter than normal in the sky, since we’re as close to it as we’ll ever get until Earth overtakes Mars again in 2018. Saturn comes to opposition June 3.

Venus is lost in the Sun’s glare and out of sight all month.

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 high in the east and in the south, respectively, at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead at dusk.

As Orion and his dogs set, look for Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. Saturn and Mars will rise with the Scorpion’s head, above Antares. 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

Moon Phases in May 2016:

New: May 6, 2:30 p.m.

First Quarter: May 13, 12:02 p.m.

Full: May 21, 4:14 p.m.

Last Quarter: May 29, 7:12 a.m.

Mercury Transit:

On Monday, May 9, 2016, Mercury overtakes Earth on its much faster orbit. This time, though, when Mercury passes Earth, the alignment is almost exact, such that Mercury appears in silhouette against the sun’s disk. This event is known as a transit of Mercury. Keep in mind that the planets are almost, but not exactly, in the same plane. Indeed, Mercury’s orbit is the most inclined — tilted up to 7 degrees from Earth’s orbital plane. That’s why Mercury does not usually transit the sun when it overtakes Earth. Monday’s event is therefore rare and special, occurring only 14 times in the 21st century (the next one occurs Nov. 11, 2019).

Transit_of_Mercury_May_9_2016_path_across_sun

Thus, weather permitting, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has arranged for volunteers from local astronomy clubs to set up solar telescopes outside our museum’s main entrance, near the sundial, to show you the transit. Mercury, already in the sun’s disk by sunrise in Houston, takes until 1:42 p.m. to cross to the other side of the sun’s disk. If skies cooperate, we’ll observe the transit from 10 a.m. until 1:42 p.m. on Monday, May 9. If there are sunspots on the sun’s disk while Mercury is there, Mercury will stand out because its disk is fully round and because Mercury moves noticeably across the sun’s disk during the hours we’re watching.

We will observe the sun (and Mercury in silhouette) through telescopes with filters especially designed to filter the sun safely, and by projecting the sun’s image onto a screen. These are the only two ways to observe the Sun safely. Please do not try to observe the sun directly or through an unfiltered telescope, as this will lead to permanent eye damage or blindness. Our common sense tells us this because we always avert our eyes when we accidentally turn towards the Sun. When something cool happens on the sun, some of us try to override our common sense, and there is no reason to do so. Come observe safely with us.

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. As of now, George is closed which Brazos Bend State Park dries out from last month’s floods, and is scheduled to reopen May 10. If you’re there, listen for my announcement. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Last Chance for Winter Constellations in April

Starmap April

Jupiter is now high in the east-southeast at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it. 

Mercury is visible just after sunset this month. Face west at twilight, and look low in the sky over the point where the sun sets. Mercury isn’t as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, but it easily outshines the stars near it in the sky, so it’s not too hard to find. 

Mars is in the south-southwest at dawn. Noticeably reddish in tint, Mars continues to brighten each day until its opposition in May. It has now surpassed nearby Saturn in brightness.

Saturn is in the south-southwest at dawn, above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. Mars remains close to Saturn this month.

Venus is becoming lost in the sun’s glare. Already, it doesn’t rise until deep into morning twilight, and Venus continues to approach the sun all month.

April is the last month to see the set of brilliant winter stars which now fill the western evening sky. Dazzling Orion is in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points rightward to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. To Orion’s upper left are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line from Orion’s belt towards the left. Forming a triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse is Procyon, the Little Dog Star. 

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring rising in the east. Look for Leo, the Lion at dusk. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which includes the Big Dipper, is high above the North Star on spring evenings. Extend the Big Dipper’s handle to ‘Arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’. There are fewer bright stars in this direction because of where the plane of our galaxy is in the sky. The area of sky between Gemini and Taurus and over Orion’s head is the galactic anticenter, which means that we face directly away from the galactic center when we look in this direction. Those bright winter stars setting in the west are the stars in our galactic arm, right behind the sun. On the other hand, if you look at the sky between Ursa Major, Leo, Virgo, and Bootes, you’re looking straight up out of the galactic plane, towards the galactic pole. There are fewer stars in this direction.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in April 2016:

New: April 7, 6:24 a.m.

First Quarter: April 13, 10:59 p.m.

Full: April 22, 12:24 a.m.

Last Quarter: April 29 10:29 p.m.

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!