The planet Mars at night is big and bright, deep in the heart of April

Editor’s note: Press play on the SoundCloud track to really get in the Mars mood while you read.

April is the best month in 2014 to see our blushing cosmic neighbor, Mars! And you’ll definitely want to make a trip out to the George Observatory this Saturday for a Mars Viewing Party from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Take a peek at the marvelous Red Planet while you make the best of this opportunity away from city lights, using some great equipment among cheery fellow astro-enthusiasts.

But what makes April 2014 so special? Here are some reasons (and dates) to make sure you take advantage of the best viewing opportunities:

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

On April 8, Mars reaches opposition, something that only happens every 26 months. This means that Earth (and therefore you and me) will be right in between the Sun and Mars. This creates some great viewing opportunities, since Mars rises as the Sun sets and will be up all night long.

SO CLOSE YOU CAN TASTE IT

Because of their elliptical orbits, Earth and Mars will be at their closest on April 14. If the planets’ orbits were perfectly circular, they would always reach their closest points at opposition. However, since Mars’ orbit is more eccentric (more egg-shaped, less circular) than Earth’s, this point of closest approach is happening just after opposition.

The closer we are to an object in space, the bigger and brighter it appears to us. So as we approach our closest point to Mars, the planet’s luminosity (brightness) will appear to increase.

WANDERING STARS

The word planet derives from the ancient Greek word for “wandering star.” This apparent “wandering,” or retrograde motion, happens whenever Earth reaches opposition with an outer planet, and then passes it due to our orbit closer to the sun. As we approach and then pass Mars, it will appear to move backward in the sky in relation to the stars behind it, then continue on its regular path across the sky.

This retrograde motion was one of the first reasons people began to question the Earth-centered model of the universe. If Earth was at the center of everything, and stars existed in crystal domes above it, why would these planets move differently? No clear reason was apparent until we realized planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun.

So if you keep your eye on Mars this month, you will have the chance to see one of the earliest questions in astronomy for what it really is – and that’s really awesome.

Mapping of Mars’ retrograde motion from Earth’s point of view

For the best chance to catch a glimpse of Mars, make sure you come out to the George Observatory this Saturday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.!

 

The galaxy just got bigger: Calling all future space explorers to Family Space Day!

ATTENTION FUTURE SPACE EXPLORERS: NASA has just discovered 715 new planets for you to study and learn.

But let’s back up a second.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory has been scanning the heavens for earth-like exoplanets — planets existing outside our solar system. The observatory has been able to detect strong possibilities of planets, but they needed confirmation. Mountains of data have been sent to scientists on the ground to confirm the existence of these exoplanets.

While this process has been grueling and slow going, it resulted in several hundred confirmations. However, yesterday NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars — boosting the number of verified exoplanets by 70%.

Kepler has collected this data by detecting the transit of planets across their stars. When planets transit (i.e., cross in front of) a star, the star’s brightness appears to dim by a small amount. The amount of dimming depends on the size of the star and object revolving around it. This process can give false-positives, however, which has necessitated that the data be confirmed by scientists on the ground.

So what’s changed?

The way scientists were sifting through the data has changed. You see, it’s much easier to confirm the existence of planets when they are part of a multi-planet system. Readings that indicate multi-planet systems exist are difficult to explain as anything other than a multi-planet system — as opposed to single planet systems that could be explained by other phenomena. Therefore, by focusing on the data from what appeared to be multi-planet systems, scientists have been able to sift through and confirm the data at a much more rapid pace.

So what’s out there?

Ninety-four percent of the planets discovered are smaller than Neptune (that is, they’re four times larger than Earth or smaller). The number of planets with 2R (double the Earth’s radius) or less has increased 1,000 percent. Our total count of exoplanets now stands at 1,700 — which NASA planetary scientist Jack Lissaur has described as a “veritable bonanza of new worlds.”

So if you’ve got a future space explorer in your family, there’s never been a better time to get excited about space adventures — just in time for our Family Space Day at the George Observatory this Saturday.

Experience what it’s really like to be an astronaut-in-training with a simulated mission. Volunteers from NASA will guide you and your family on your mission — ensuring safe travels — as you transform into astronauts, scientists and engineers flying through space.

A perfect activity for the whole family, the flight simulation is open to adults and children 7 years and older (children ages 7 to 9 must be accompanied by a chaperone), and a minimum of 10 participants per mission is required.

Don’t miss this chance to participate in real astronaut training at the George Observatory! Click here or call (281) 242-3055 for details.

Save Our ‘Scope: A Gueymard fundraising update & why telescope mirrors matter

If you didn’t already know, we’re in the process of raising money to repair the Gueymard telescope at the George Observatory in the Save Our ‘Scope campaign. And thanks to you, we’ve raised over $65,000 of our $80,000 goal through donations ranging from $1 to $5,000 — and we’re grateful for every last one of ‘em.

But what’s the big deal? I mean, you can totally just buy a new mirror at Target or something, right? Well, in a word: nope.

Telescopes are amazing pieces of equipment – dauntingly large (the Gueymard weighs 10 tons) and yet incredibly delicate. If the mirror in a telescope warps just a few centimeters, it can vastly distort the images you see. Therefore, it’s extremely important to keep these machines in tip top condition.

Eye see you

Think of telescopes as an extension of your eyes. We can’t see things far away very well. When you look at the sky at night (and it’s dark enough) you see tons of tiny specks of light – some are stars, some are planets, others are galaxies, or even galaxy clusters. The light can travel for thousands (or millions or billions) of light years. The light heads right into your eye, onto your retina, and sends a message to the brain that says, “Hey, that’s neat, a speck of light.”

However, due to the distance involved, we can no longer appreciate the scale or detail of the images. The further away an object is, the smaller the space it takes up on the retina.

Telescopes fix all of this so that a bright, detailed image can reach your eye as it captures more light and then focuses and magnifies it.

Light-bending lenses

Lenses bend light waves, either causing them to converge (focusing light) or diverge (spreading out light). Glass lenses were used in the creation of the first telescopes, called refracting telescopes.

In this model, light passes through the objective lens, which collects the light, causing it to converge on the eyepiece where it is then magnified. These images would become distorted, however, as different wavelengths of light bend at different angles and focus at different points.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

So, how do you solve a problem like bent light? In a word: mirrors. With reflecting and compound telescopes, the light doesn’t pass through the objective lens. Instead, it is reflected (via concave mirror) back to a smaller mirror, directing the light to the eyepiece where it is magnified. Ta-da! Beautiful, clear images of faraway objects.

The cool thing here is that the larger your mirror, the more light you capture, giving you higher resolution images with better detail.

The bigger, the better?

If your goal is to capture as much visible light as possible, then yes, bigger is better. But this comes with special problems too. Mirrors can get heavy – very heavy. Think about it: our Gueymard telescope mirror is 36 inches in diameter, and some mirrors can be several hundred inches in diameter. Now that’s a lot of mirror! All of this weight can change the shape of the mirror so that, over time, they sag and no longer properly focus light to another point.

Oh, honey

This issue can be solved with honeycomb mirrors. No, they’re not made by bees. Rather, they’ve been influenced by the structure of a honeycomb. This allows the face of the mirror to be well supported, while reducing the weight of the mirror up to 80 percent.

Now that you’re (sorta) a telescope expert, come see the big stuff at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park! Houston’s really lucky to have this observatory in its backyard, so to speak, since the Gueymard is the largest telescope in the country open to public viewings.

Can you spare a George for the George? We’d greatly appreciate if you pitched in to help save our ‘scope. Your efforts ensure that Houstonians can continue to stargaze through the most incredible telescope they’ll ever get to use for many years to come.

From white dwarves to dark matter: 75 years of discovery at McDonald Observatory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Rebecca Johnson, Editor of the StarDate Magazine at the McDonald Observatory.

A year-long celebration is underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, with the first event of 2014 being held at HMNS on Tues., Jan. 14 with a public lecture by Dr. Jon Winget.

McDonald Observatory 1

Photo credit: Sandia National Laboratories

Dubbed “impossible stars,” white dwarfs are the simplest stars with the simplest surface chemical compositions known — yet they are very mysterious. The McDonald Observatory leads in investigating white dwarfs along several avenues: telescope observations, theory, and most recently, the making of “star stuff,” using the most powerful X-ray source on Earth at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Don Winget, one of the world’s leading experts on white dwarfs, will give a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS to examine the how studies of these stars can shed light on everything from the age of the universe to the understanding of dark matter and dark energy.

White dwarves are often difficult to locate due to the larger, brighter stars they are paired with

Located near Fort Davis, Texas, under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States, McDonald Observatory  hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest, which is being upgraded to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The McDonald Observatory was dedicated May 5, 1939, and has supported some of the most important astronomical discoveries of recent decades about everything from extrasolar planets to exotic stars and black holes.

The Observatory plans a full year of activities around the state to celebrate. Events will run through August 2014, including a lecture series featuring McDonald Observatory astronomers in multiple cities and an Open House at the Observatory.

The celebration continues at the observatory’s website. Visitors to the anniversary pages can peruse a timeline of observatory history, watch several historical videos, and share their memories and photos of McDonald on an interactive blog called “Share Your Story.”

McDonald Observatory 2
(And while we’re at it, don’t forget about our own George Observatory‘s anniversary this year as well — 25 years of showcasing the night sky to the Greater Houston area!)

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
Date: Tues., Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Topic: “Small Stars in a Large Context: All Things White Dwarf”
Speaker: Don Winget, Ph.D.
Where: HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theater
How: Click here for advance tickets

Sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in celebration of their 75th anniversary, with a pre-lecture reception at 5 p.m.