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: Five planets at dawn, leap day this February!

Star Map

Jupiter is now a late evening object, rising in the east. It rises by 9 p.m. on Feb. 1, and by Feb. 29 it comes up just before 7 p.m., which is during evening twilight. Jupiter comes to opposition on March 8, which is when Earth aligns with Jupiter and the Sun. That is why Jupiter is up all night long in late February and early March.

As dawn approaches this month, Jupiter will still be visible, this time high in the west.  Meanwhile, the four other visible planets will have risen as well. That’s right, February 2016  features all five naked-eye planets at dawn!

Venus is in the southeast at dawn. You can’t miss it, as Venus outshines all the stars we see at night, and in fact outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon.

Mars is in the south at dawn. Noticeably reddish in tint, Mars continues to brighten each day until its opposition next spring. 

Saturn is in the south southeast at dawn, above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. Mars slowly approaches Saturn this month.

Mercury is the biggest challenge to find. This month, though, Mercury is very close to Venus and to its left. Thus, once you find Venus, the brightest dot to its left is Mercury. 

Mercury is the first planet to leave the gathering as it heads back towards the Sun late this month. The cutoff date of Feb. 20 is somewhat arbitrary, though. It’s better to watch the sky and, using Venus as your guide, see for yourself when is the last day you can still see Mercury before losing it the Sun’s glare. The next to leave is Jupiter, which shifts into the evening sky after opposition. 

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.

Under Sirius and low to the southern horizon this month is a star that most Americans never get to see—Canopus. Representing the bottom (keel) of the legendary ship Argo, Canopus is the second brightest star ever visible at night. Thus, it is clearly noticeable along the southern horizon on February and March evenings. However, you must be south of 37 degrees north to see Canopus rise. (This is the line that divides Utah, Colorado, and Kansas from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.)

The sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on the time of night and time of year.  From any given location in our hemisphere, there is an area of the sky around the North Star in which stars never set (circumpolar stars), and an equivalent area around the South Celestial Pole in which stars never rise. The closer you are to the pole, the larger these areas are. The closer you get to the equator, the fewer circumpolar stars there are, but there are also fewer stars that never rise for you. At the equator, no stars are either circumpolar or never visible; all of them rise and set as Earth turns. 

That’s why, down here in south Texas, the Big Dipper sets for a while although it’s always up for most Americans. On the other hand, Canopus, too far south to rise for most Americans, rises for us.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in February 2016:

Last Quarter: Jan. 31, 9:28 p.m.

New: Feb. 8, 8:39 a.m.

First Quarter: Feb. 15, 1:46 a.m.

Full: Feb. 22, 12:20 p.m.

(February is so short that last quarter Moons occur on Jan. 31 and March 1, but not in February). 

The New Moon of Feb. 8 is the second New Moon after the winter solstice. Accordingly, it marks Chinese New Year. Welcome to the Year of the Monkey!

Monday, Feb. 29, is leap day. This day exists because our normal year of 365 days is too short. The true length of one Earth orbit around the Sun is 365 days and almost 6 hours.  No one wants to begin a year in the middle of a day, however. Therefore, we let the error add up over four years, until it becomes 24 hours, or one whole day, then add that day back to the calendar. Thus, February 29 occurs every four years. 

Almost 6 hours?  Well, alright, the difference between our orbit and our year is actually 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds. That makes our system a very slight overcorrection.  To prevent that from adding up, we’ll skip leap day in 2100, 2200, and 2300. 

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!

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.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Changing stars remind us that summer’s coming

 This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on May 1, 9 pm CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast.  Saturn is below Spica in Libra.  Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on May 1, 9 p.m. CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast. Saturn is below Spica in Libra. Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.

Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it in the west at dusk, outshining all the stars we ever see at night. 

Mercury appears in the evening sky this month. Too close to the Sun to observe on May 1, Mercury gradually comes from behind the Sun and by mid-month, it appears low on the western horizon at dusk right above the point of sunset. Greatest elongation (apparent distance from Mercury to the Sun) is on May 25.

Mars is in the southeast at dusk this month. On April 8, Earth passed between the Sun and Mars. Mars has dimmed a little since then as Earth has begun to leave it behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is up all night long this month. On May 10, Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn, putting Saturn at opposition. That night, Saturn rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. Thus, Saturn is very low in the southeast at dusk, and very low in the southwest at sunup.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

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 in the east and southeast at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. 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 in May 2014:

1st Quarter: May 6, 10:16 pm 
Full May: 14, 2:18 pm
Last Quarter:  May 21, 7:59 am
New May: 28, 1:42 pm 

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

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!