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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”

Don’t fight the dark: Five simple ways to cut down on light pollution

When you visit the George Observatory, you’ll notice signs that say, “Please no white lights.” You’ll also see that all our outside lights are red. The reason we do this is to fight light pollution and create a dark-sky-friendly environment (or at least as dark as we can this close to Houston). 

Despite our best efforts, the surrounding area is slowly losing its dark skies. This is unfortunate, and not just for those of us who love to stargaze. Too much light at night is also bad for animal migrations, human sleep patterns, and even personal safety.

So what can we, as individuals, do to fight light pollution?  Here are five simple things:

1. Turn off all unused lights
Your dad was right: leaving lights on when you’re not using them is just throwing money away. So when you leave an area, make it a habit to turn the lights off.

2. Shield all outside lights
Outside lights should serve one purpose: to show you where you’re going. So why do so many people insist on lighting the underside of passing airplanes? We encourage you to invest in light shields. They will help with light pollution and save you money.

3. Don’t over-light
When installing outside fixtures, consider the best wattage for your needs. You want enough light to see where you are going — anything else isn’t helping you see . Also, your neighbors will appreciate you not flooding their bedrooms with light.

4. Avoid ornamental lighting
It’s wonderful that you’re proud of your home, but remember what we said about light pollution and crime. When you overuse ornamental light, you may feel like your house is more secure; however, you’re actually making your property a target for thieves.

5. Spread the word!
Now that you know the dangers of light pollutions, share that information with others. There are many websites that will help you and your friends protect the night sky, like the International Dark Sky Association.

Knowledge is power, and we all need to do our part to keep the stars at night big and bright deep in the heart of Texas!

To see the best dark skies in the Houston area come out to the George Observatory! From there you can see stars, galaxies planets… almost anything in space. And what’s more, we want to help you see everything out there better, so bring your telescope out for our telescope classes. The next one’s coming up this Saturday, May 3 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m


Don’t miss the Geminid Meteor Shower this Friday night! Here’s how, where and when to view

The annual Geminid Meteor Shower peaks this weekend, and we’ve got some tips for stargazers hoping to catch it.

The New Moon falls on Thursday, Dec. 13 this year, which should guarantee us nice, dark night for viewing. The Geminid Meteor shower peaks every December and is one of the best, most reliable showers, producing an average of 100 meteors per hour.

A Geminid meteor in 2009, as viewed from San Francisco
A Geminid meteor in 2009, as viewed from San Francisco, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Says HMNS Astronomer James Wooten: “The Geminids are unique among meteor showers because they are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. This means that with Geminids, we see significant activity much earlier in the night than with other showers.”

That means instead of having to wait until the wee morning hours to see this beautiful shower, meteors will start radiating from the constellation Gemini as early as 9 or 10 p.m., although the shower will likely peak just before dawn.

As with all showers, the Geminid Meteor Shower will be best viewed away from city light pollution. The George Observatory will be open Friday night and into Saturday morning for observation. For directions to The George, located just an hour south of Houston, click here. Entry to Brazos Bend State Park is $7 per person; free for kids under 12. You don’t need any special equipment for viewing, just a chair, blankets and maybe some hot apple cider.

If you observe the meteor shower and are able to capture some great photos, share them with our Flickr group or by using the hashtag #hmnsgeminid on Twitter and Instagram. If Facebook’s your thing, post your photos on our wall, or tag us, and we’ll compile a credited album of everyone’s shots!

Save the Date, Save Energy, Help Save the Planet!

Turn off your lights and unplug anything you can this Saturday night, March 28, 2009, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.  You’ll be joining over one billion people, in over 2,800 cities and towns in 84 countries, who have chosen to conserve energy during the international “Earth Hour” celebration.  This is the first time Houston will officially participate. 

One hour without electricity doesn’t seem like much, but if enough people turn off their lights and appliances, etc., huge amounts of energy can be saved.  Hopefully this brief participation will make all of us think a bit more about how we use (and misuse) this finite resource and will inspire us to take further actions.  For more information, visit or

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Then, on April 24, turn out your lights again for the 2nd annual “Lights Out Houston” program.  Although this program primarily targets Houston businesses, all of us can participate.  Last year the electricity saved was enough to power 4,600 average Texas homes for a year!  Check out to learn more and to see a list of businesses/corporations that participated in 2008.  If your company is not on the list, encourage the powers that be where you work to join this worthy effort! 

And be sure to get outside to gaze up at the stars during these “lights out” events!  Without all the “light pollution” of a normally-lit night in the greater Houston area, you should be able to see a lot more stars and constellations!   Lots more at www.darksky.organd