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).


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!

The Dome is Done! Planetarium renovation moving ahead right on schedule

The Burke Baker Planetarium and Friedkin Theater renovation project reached a milestone this week, and we at the museum are brimming with anticipation!

Okay. That’s an understatement. When we first heard the news, we all ran around screaming, “The dome is finished! The dome is finished!” That’s what really happened.

The dome is indeed complete, and it was no basic DIY endeavor. The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Astronomy department budgeted an hour for the installation of each of the 197 panels installed. The old screen was removed and replaced first with support structures and next with the new screen, piece by piece, snugly tucked into place.

Dome Complete

In a 360-degree shot, the new domed screen over the Friedkin Theater in the Burke Baker Planetarium looks like a giant cue-ball.

It’s a painstaking process, according to Planetarium Producer Adam Barnes, the man behind our 360-degree custom-made films. He’s working on a time-lapse photo record of the installation that should be available on social media in the next couple of weeks. Once the old screen was gutted and recycled, Barnes explained, project crews shot 16 anchor bolts into the primary structure of the dome, then got to work on its “rib cage,” the support structure that holds the curved screen. The lowest-hanging portion was built first, then raised into place using come-alongs and chained to the anchor bolts at about 20 degrees. The front of the support structure is about two feet off of the ground at the front of the theater and about 20 feet in the back, giving the new dome its aesthetically pleasing tilt. Once the bottom rung was installed, the crew worked in a upward to the center of the dome, installing one rung at a time until the last circular piece was set in place at the top.


With the old screen recycled, the next step is unpacking the scaffolding!

“If you imagine a globe, and the lines of latitude and longitude it’s divided into, that’s what the support structure looks like,” Barnes said. “Each little square gets smaller and smaller and more curved until you get to the center, which is a circle.”

With the bones of the theater set, each white panel was raised and placed, carefully measured and marked for size, then taken back down for shaping. The panels ship separately, pre-painted to a specific color rated to 45 percent reflectivity, perforated to make installing the rivets easier, and oversized for the tightest fit possible. Once each panel was measured, it was clamped onto a curved workbench and whittled down into the perfect shape, then re-hung into its final position.


One by one, the panels are installed with careful measuring and alignment.

“Then they go on to the next panel,” Barnes said. “Each rivet is placed into one of the perforations, so you can’t see how it’s mounted. It’s flush, and they put a little bit of paint over the tiny metal rivet so it blends in very nicely.”

One by one, the panels were installed around and all the way to the top of the dome in much the same fashion as the supports underneath them. The result is a smooth, seamless screen specially designed for domed projections. While most flat-screen theaters have a reflectivity of between 60 and 70 percent (a mirror would reflect 100 percent of light projected onto it), the dome theater’s lower rating actually allows the image to become sharper, though it may not bounce as much light back into the eyes of viewers.


“For a dome, you’re shining projectors in front of you but also behind you,” Barnes said. “It’s like looking at an image on a nice, big TV projector screen in front of you and then opening the windows behind you so you can’t see the screen anymore. We call it cross-talk, when the light bouncing off the screen behind you ends up washing out the image in front of you.”

The interference of cross-talk is simply eliminated with a less-reflective screen, maximizing the power of each of the 50 million unique pixels pouring from the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 laser projection system. And with the tilt of the dome, guests receive a theater-like experience we’re sure they’ve never seen before.


Mark on your calendars the grand opening of the newly renovated Burke Baker Planetarium and Friedkin Theater March 11. Don’t miss the show! Be the first to see the brightest planetarium in the world in action!

Author’s note: All photos by Adam Barnes.

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.


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.  


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.  



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. 


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.


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.