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.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Southern sky brings beasts and gods of water in November

November Sky

Saturn sets in twilight for the first week of November and is lost in the sun’s glare the rest of the month. 

Venus, Mars and Jupiter are still close together in the morning sky this month. Right now, Venus is close to Mars, with Jupiter above them. Venus and Mars are 0.68 degrees apart the morning of Nov. 3. Venus is brighter than Jupiter, and both outshine all stars we ever see at night, so they’re easy to find even in twilight. Mars is much, much dimmer than those two. The moon is near Jupiter on Nov. 6 and near Venus on Nov. 7. During this month, watch as Venus pulls away from Mars and both pull away from Jupiter. 

Autumn represents a sort of ‘intermission’ in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter patterns such as Orion won’t rise until later (Orion is up by about 10 p.m. now and about 9 p.m. mid-month). The Summer Triangle is in the west.   Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is almost overhead. The stars in the southern sky are much dimmer than those overhead and in the west because when you face south at dusk in November, you face out of the Milky Way plane. The plane of our Galaxy follows a path from the Summer Triangle in the west through Cassiopeia in the north and over to the northeastern horizon.  

Constellations in the November southern sky represent beasts and gods related to water, indicating that they are part of the ‘Celestial Sea.’  Examples are Aquarius, the Water Bearer and Pisces, the Fish.  Even Capricornus, the Goat, has a fish tail because he’s originally Ea, Babylonian god of the waters. Below Aquarius is Fomalhaut, marking the mouth of the Southern Fish. Ancient Mesopotamians imagined that the Persian Gulf extended upwards into the sky, joining this ‘sea’ of dim stars.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in November 2015:

Last Quarter: Nov. 3, 6:24 a.m.

New: Nov. 11, 11:47 a.m.

First Quarter: Nov. 19, 12:27 a.m.

Full: Nov. 25, 4:44 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!

 

Extended hours at the George this weekend make for optimum Milky Way consumption

The galaxy, not the candy, of course!

Pleiades Rising
photo by DerekSteen

This Friday night, the George Observatory will offer one of the first summer viewings of the Milky Way — with extended hours from 5 to 11 p.m. And as with the George’s usual Saturday night viewings, research telescopes will also be available to stargazers along with the planetarium.

Stay starstruck the following day, when Rocket Day launches with virtual missions to the Moon in our Expedition Center on Saturday morning, and Family Space Day takes you to the Moon with NASA on Saturday afternoon.

In short: Join us for a family-friendly day of fun!

For more information and directions to the George Observatory, click here.