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. 

Science Starts with density and distance

A rousing game of “Will it Float?” occasionally played on The Late Show with David Letterman was really just an impressively popular density guessing game. In our recently added Science Start Outreach Program, Discovering Density, we play a similar game, predicting and testing to see what happens when you toss things into a tank of water. The Science Start program is for grades K-2 and travels to schools, daycares, scout groups, and more to educate students with hands-on learning experiences. 

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Sahil tests the hypothesis that a tiny metal car is denser than water and will sink.

The most fun results are the ones that surprise the young students, like a whiffle ball that will not sink even though it is full of holes, a Lego brick (you’ll have to test that one out for yourself), or liquids that can float on or sink through other liquids in a density column.

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Carolyn points out to a class at Passmore Elementary that an object that is floating must be touching the surface of the water in a presentation of the new Discovering Density program.

Making the distinction that density isn’t just about weight or mass or size but instead the comparison between the two can be a tricky concept at first. Similarly, very small and very large numbers, distances, and time scales can be difficult to grasp, so to make it a little easier, you could try holding a planet like Jupiter or maybe Neptune, if you prefer, as we model the vast distances of our solar system and think about scale in Space: Going the Distance.

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Carolyn points out the different types of liquids forming four distinct layers in the density column that she made during the presentation. The density column was given to the group’s teacher after the show so that students could watch it change over time.

Volunteers spread out with their planets to see the relative spaces between their orbits and explore what a model is, why it’s helpful, and what about the model isn’t quite as it is in real life. For our model to be to scale for both the sizes of the planets and for the distances between them is tricky—in a classroom-sized solar system, it’s going to be almost impossible to see most of the planets from most seats, and even the sun seems petite!

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Carolyn holds up a three-foot board that models the planet Jupiter. If Jupiter was just three feet across, the Sun would have to have a diameter of 23 feet!

Book Science Start for your school or scout group today by contacting Greta Brannan at (713) 639-4758 or outreach@hmns.org. For more information on HMNS outreach programs, click here.

What Galileo Almost Saw

Throughout this International Year of Astronomy, 2009, we have been thinking back on Galileo Galilei and the historic discoveries he made with is telescope back in 1610. However, it’s also interesting to reflect on a discovery that Galileo almost made–the planet Neptune.

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Galileo Galilei
Creative Commons License photo credit: dizarillo

Astronomers did not become aware of  Neptune until 1846.  On September 23 of that year, Johann Galle of the Berlin Observatory received a letter from Urbain Le Verrier in Paris.  Le Verrier had been trying to understand why Uranus was not quite where people expected it to be.

When William Herschel announced the discovery of Uranus in 1781, astronomers went to work calculating its orbit around the Sun.  In 1821, Alexis Bouvard noticed that his tabulated positions of Uranus, based on Newton’s laws, did not quite match up with Uranus’ real positions.  He suggested that an eighth planet beyond Uranus was perturbing Uranus’ orbit.  Urbain Le Verrier painstakingly calculated where in the sky this planet might be in order to affect Uranus’s orbit in just the observed way and mailed his predictions to Galle.  Galle, assisted by a student, Heinrich d’Arrest, found Neptune in his telescope the same day he received Le Verrier’s data.  (John Couch Adams of England made similar observations and calculations over the same period.)

Galle and d’Arrest were the first to recognize Neptune, but not the first to see it.  At magnitude 7.9, Neptune is too dim to be seen with the unaided eye, but it does show up as a point of light in simple telescopes and even in binoculars.  From the moment of its discovery, astronomers wondered if earlier telescope users might have seen Neptune without realizing it.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor

In the winter of 1612-1613, Jupiter began to align with Neptune from Earth’s point of view.  The alignment was so complete that on January 4, 1613, Jupiter’s disk actually blocked (occulted) Neptune’s.  Galileo, having discovered four moons around Jupiter in January 1610, was still observing Jupiter three years later.  He made careful drawings of Jupiter, its moons, and any background stars in his telescope’s field of view.  Upon comparing the background stars in Galileo’s drawings to the positions Neptune would have had that winter, astronomers have concluded that Galileo drew Neptune as a background ‘star’ in drawings he made on December 28, 1612, and on January 27 and 28, 1613.

Galileo’s simple telescope was not powerful enough to resolve Neptune into a disk.  (You need a telescope at least 10-12 inches in diameter to do this).  In order to recognize it as a planet, Galileo would have needed to see Neptune change position against background stars. Since it orbits about 30 times as far from the Sun as Earth does, Neptune takes 146 years to go around the Sun once.  As a result, its motion against the background stars is harder to notice.  Once a year, Earth comes around to Neptune’s side of the Sun.  This makes Neptune seem to slow down, stop, and reverse direction against the background stars.  (This is called ‘retrograde’ motion.)  As it turns out, in December 1612, Earth was just coming around to Neptune’s side of the Sun, and Neptune was virtually stationary and about to begin retrograde motion.  Neptune’s motion against the background stars would have been all but unobservable in December 1612.

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The Roman god Neptune, for whom
the planet is named.
Creative Commons License photo credit: OliBac

By January 1613, however, Neptune was in full retrograde motion.  On January 27 and 28, Galileo did notice that one of his background stars had slightly changed position compared to another.  According to University of Melbourne physicist David Jamieson, this indicates that Galileo knew he had found a new planet.  However, we see no sign that he attempted a second observation of that mysterious star, or that he reported the finding of a new planet. Thus Galileo, first to see Neptune, does not get credit for discovering it.

Others who saw Neptune in their telescopes and mistook it for a star include Jerome Lalande of the Paris Observatory, whose staff conducted a detailed survey of the sky in 1795, and William Herschel’s son John, who happened to see it in 1830.

Uranus is another planet seen before its formal discovery.  In fact, at visual magnitude 5.6, Uranus is right at the threshold of visibility to the naked eye.  This means that if you’ve been out on a clear night with no clouds or light pollution, and Uranus happened to be up, you’ve probably seen it.  And so have countless observers across the globe throughout history who looked up in pristine skies.  Uranus moves so slowly (taking 84 years to orbit the Sun once) and blends in so well with the stars in its general direction, that our eyes pass right over it.  That’s why it took William Herschel’s telescope in 1781 to recognize Uranus for what it is.  When John Flamsteed, the very first Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom, prepared a catalog of visible stars, he misidentified Uranus as a star, designating it ’34 Tauri’ (the 34th star of the constellation Taurus).

As 2009 ends, Jupiter is once again approaching Neptune in our sky.  As I write this (late November 2009), Jupiter is by far the brightest thing in the south-southwest at dusk (unless the Moon is out).  Neptune is just under 4 degrees to Jupiter’s upper left (three fingers held together at arm’s length block about 5 degrees).  Since Jupiter is orbiting much faster than Neptune, we see Jupiter gain on Neptune’s position  during the next few weeks.  Unlike in 1613, Jupiter will not align with Neptune exactly; the two planets are just over half a degree apart at closest approach on December 21.  (One half of one degree is about the apparent size of the Moon’s disk.)  Jupiter then pulls ‘ahead’ of Neptune and is just over two degrees away by New Year’s.  Here is a  finder chart to help you identify which point of light among the stars is Neptune.  This holiday season, then, you have the chance to repeat Galileo’s observations from the winter of 1612-1613.  But you, unlike Galileo, will know exactly what you’re seeing.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.2.08)

Touchdown! The Tigers Win the Game!
He’s excited because he’s getting smarter.
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photo credit: foundphotoslj

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Crew aboard the International Space Station had a bit of excitement over the long weekend (on top of the presumably high levels created by living in space) – as they had to fire the station’s thrusters in a “debris avoidance maneuver.” This is a fancy way of saying they were about to be hit with space trash.

Not really a “team player?” No worries – even watching sports improves brain function.

The Rodney Dangerfield of the solar system: Astronomer Heidi Hammel wants you to know why the Icy Giants deserve more respect.

Even geniuses make mistakes: Einstein made at least 23 of them.

He was only 18 when he died, but King Tut may already have been a father – of twins.

Rap + Physics = awesome. A rap video about the science behind CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has been viewed over 600,000 times. It’s no dramatic hamster – but for a video about science, that’s pretty solid.

Meltdown: The Houston Chronicle weighed in on climate change today – what are your thoughts?