Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Winter Stars Shift to the Southwest

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on March 1, 9 pm CST on March 15, and dusk on March 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on March 1, 9 pm CST on March 15, and dusk on March 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.

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 early March. Face east in evening twilight to watch Jupiter rise. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it. Early risers will still see Jupiter setting in the west at dawn.

Venus is in the southeast at dawn, appearing lower to the horizon each morning this spring. Venus outshines all the stars we see at night, and in fact outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon. However, now it doesn’t rise until morning twilight, and will soon become lost in the Sun’s glare. How long can you follow it?

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


Brilliant winter stars shift towards the southwest during March. Dazzling Orion is almost due south at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points up 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 horizon. To Orion’s left, about level with Betelgeuse, is Procyon, the Little Dog Star.

From Sirius, look a little bit to the right and then straight down to the horizon. If your southern horizon is clear of clouds and tall earthly obstacles, you’ll see Canopus, the second brightest star ever visible at night. This star is so far south that most Americans never see it and many star maps made in the USA omit it. (You must be south of 37 degrees north—the latitude of the USA’s Four Corners—for Canopus to rise). As you view Canopus, keep in mind that the sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on time of year and time of night.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring rising in the east. Look for Leo, the Lion at dusk. Later in the evening, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to ‘Arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; these stars rise at about 10:00 in early March but by 9pm on the 31st.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in March 2016:

Last Quarter Mar. 1, 5:11 p.m.; Mar. 31, 10:17 a.m.

New Mar. 8, 7:54 p.m.

1st Quarter Mar. 15, 12:03 p.m.

Full Mar. 23, 7:01 a.m.

The New Moon of March 8 actually blocks the Sun, causing an eclipse of the Sun! However, it is visible only in Indonesia and the Pacific, where it will be March 9.

The Full Moon of March 23 passes though the penumbra, in which Earth partially blocks the Sun, but misses the true shadow or umbra. The resulting penumbral eclipse is only barely noticeable.

Sunday, March 13, is the second Sunday of the month. Accordingly, Daylight Saving Time begins at 2:00 am on that date. (Officially, the time goes from 1:59 to 3:00 am). Don’t forget to spring forward!

At 11:30 pm on Saturday, March 19, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator, shifting northward. That makes this the vernal (spring) equinox for us. Beginning on this date, day is longer than night for us in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, below the equator, days are shortening and now day is shorter than night. It is autumn down there.

On Friday, March 11, the brand new Burke Baker Planetarium re-opens to the public. Over Spring Break, come join us and enjoy images sharper than in any other theater!

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!

James G. Wooten
Planetarium Astronomer
Houston Museum of Natural Science

First Light: Gueymard research telescope debut to coincide with Hubble anniversary

April 25 will mark the 25th anniversary of the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope, and the George Observatory will celebrate with a debut of their restored 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope, the largest specialized Cassegrain telescope open to the public, and the only one that chooses to use an eyepiece.

The Gueymard Research Telescope, a 36-inch Ritchey—Chretien Cassegrain.

The Gueymard Research Telescope, a 36-inch Ritchey—Chretien Cassegrain.

“You can see the images with your own eyes instead of on a computer screen like other telescopes,” George Observatory Director Peggy Halford said. “It gives you a much more personal experience.”

A Ritchey—Chretien design, the telescope features hyperbolic primary and secondary mirrors which sharpen the image, eliminating the fuzzy edges around its center, what is known to astronomers as an off-axis coma. With optics this precise, the telescope brings to the naked eye the phenomena of deep space.

A couple of years ago, astronomers at the George began to notice the quality of images in the Gueymard was degrading. Views were clearer in the smaller, though still research-grade, 11-inch refractor attached to the Gueymard. While they knew something was wrong, they didn’t expect the adventure they would embark upon to restore it to its original power.

Amateur astronomers remove the primary mirror from the Gueymard Research Telescope.

Amateur astronomers remove the primary mirror from the Gueymard Research Telescope.

When they removed the primary mirror, the equivalent of “checking under the hood,” they found environmental pollutants built up in microscopic divots and fissures left on its surface after its original grind 50 years ago. Optical technology has come a long way since then; imperfections in contemporary optics are virtually absent, Halford said. The George acquired the telescope from Louisiana State University, where it had stood in swamp-like conditions another 25 years prior to its installation in Brazos Bend State Park. Time and humidity had taken its toll.

The Museum sent the delicate 500-pound mirror to a coating company that did the simple things first — a bath and a new reflective coating — to try to refurbish the mirror, but the coating refused to stick, and they knew they would need to bring in the big guns.

KJR_3611

The wooden container the George employees used to ship the hyperbolic mirror.

It took a three-month fundraising campaign, Save Our Scope, to raise the money to hire Master Optician James Mulherin to resurface the element. Halford is proud to report the campaign took much less time than she anticipated, given the surprising amount of support from the public.

February 2014, the George again sent mirror away, this time to Mulherin, and a year an a month later, the project was complete. Mulherin took a trip to the George to help install the element, and he sat down to explain the particulars of the resurfacing project and what he does at his business, Optical Mechanics, Incorporated.

One of two specialists in the nation who do this kind of work, Mulherin came highly recommended from amateur astronomers who dropped his name to Halford at star parties when they learned of the George’s difficulty with the Gueymard. What was tough for the astronomers was a piece of cake for Mulherin.

“It was a fairly routine job,” said Mulherin, whom universities and aerospace companies regularly hire for their optical needs. “There was no real challenge.”

Mulherin did mention, however, that he had to work around the hole in the middle of the mirror, where a steel hub goes through to hold the mirror in place at the bottom of the telescope. Normally a glass plug is installed during the grinding phase, but there was too much difference in the composition of this 50-year-old glass and that of contemporary optics, he said, so he had to work around it.

Using specialized equipment to move the delicate, but massive, hunk of glass, Mulherin’s company stripped the aluminum finish and ground down the old surface to remove the imperfections in the element. The opticians then re-shaped the mirror’s hyperbolic curvature, shining light through the glass at different stages to check their progress. Finally, Mulherin coated the surface with enhanced aluminum to increase reflectivity.

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The George will debut the repaired Gueymard April 25, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The result was a total restoration of the optics, but volunteers still had to put the mirror back into place. The replacement, including the removal of the cement blank used to counterbalance the telescope while the mirror was out, along with cleaning the housing, took Tracy Knauss, Dana Lambert and Chris Randall 10 days straight, working from noon to 10 p.m.

Changes to the width of the mirror required volunteers to adjust the secondary mirrors after the installation of the main element — no small task. Installation and adjustments of the precision optics continued from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and again Tuesday from noon to 10 p.m.

“I wanted to stick an eyepiece into it and it work,” Halford said, but collimating the telescope, or aligning the elements with accuracy, required much more time.

Mulherin said he felt at home at the George during the course of the project, and happy to help.

“I feel like I’m part of the community,” he said. “When I started, we were all amateur astronomers, and I found I was more interested in optics than astronomy.”

About the telescope, he said, “It’s amazing to me that it still works.”

Halford hopes for clear skies April 25, but if conditions turn cloudy, she said, “We’ll just show it off.” The George will observe regular Saturday hours from 3 to 10 p.m. for the event.

First Light & 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope Celebration
Saturday, April 25
3:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
April 25 will mark the 25th anniversary of the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope, and the George Observatory will celebrate with a debut of their restored 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope, the largest specialized Cassegrain telescope open to the public, and the only one that chooses to use an eyepiece. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: The Summer Triangle is high in the sky

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on July 1, 9 pm CDT on July 15, and dusk on July 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle is high in the east.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest.  Watch Mars close in on Saturn this month.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on July 1, 9 p.m. CDT on July 15, and dusk on July 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.
The Summer Triangle is high in the east. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west. From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest. Watch Mars close in on Saturn this month.

This month, Mars is in the southwest at dusk this month. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is also in the southwest at dusk. This month and next, Mars approaches Saturn more and more. 

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.

Jupiter is behind the Sun and out of sight this month. 

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the west at dusk. Leo, the Lion, is setting in the west at dusk.

Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.  

Moon Phases in July 2014:

1st Quarter: July 5, 7:00 a.m. 
Full: July 12, 6:26 a.m.
Last Quarter: July 18, 9:09 p.m.
New: July 26, 5:42 p.m.

At about 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 3, Earth is as far from the Sun as it will get this year. This is aphelion, when Earth is 94.56 million miles from the Sun, as opposed to the average distance of 93 million miles. On January 4, Earth was at 91.44 million miles from the Sun; that was perihelion (closest approach to the Sun). It turns out that this variation in the Earth-Sun distance is too small to cause much seasonal change. The tilt of Earth’s axis dominates as it orbits the Sun. That’s why we swelter when farther from the Sun and shiver when we’re closer. 

Click here to see what’s happening this month in the Burke Baker Planetarium

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!

A different kind of New Year’s “resolution”: So you want to be an amateur astronomer

So you want to be an amateur astronomer? Well there’s never been a better time to explore the heavens — from right here on Earth.

Enter the telescope.

Telescopes have been around for quite some time. Invented in 1608 in the Netherlands, the first major discoveries came from Galileo Galilei — using an instrument he built and refined himself. So even from the beginning, space study and exploration had deep roots in the uninitiated who wanted to learn more about the brilliance of the night sky.

Now lucky for you, telescopes have become relatively easy to acquire, so there’s no need to build your own (unless, of course, that’s your jam — in which case, you may want to check out the resources here, here and here). They’re available at many “big box stores,” and, of course, online.

And I’d be willing to bet that many of you received one as gift over the holidays.

So now you have a telescope. It’s been sitting in the box for two weeks. What’s next?

It just so happens that we’re offering telescope classes at the George Observatory on Sat., Jan. 11! Here, an expert can help you set up your scope, polar align it, and make sure you’re ready to start stargazing like never before (click here for more information about our telescope classes).

The other key to making your telescoping adventures a success is knowing what to look for. Once again, you’re in luck. Thanks to the glories of the Internet, you can find a multitude of resources to help.

Here are some of my favorites:

Star Chart
Available for Apple and Android devices, this incredibly user-friendly app allows you to find and learn about constellations/planets/galaxies right on your smart phone — before taking aim with your telescope.

    

 

Astronomy.com
Complete with a 2014 Sky Guide, weekly podcasts, friendly tutorials and more, this site (and magazine) can definitely help you learn your way around the night sky.

 

Reddit
Why not make your hobby a social outlet as well? Connect with other amateur astronomers in your area for tips, social gatherings, interesting news and photos. And for those ambitious enough to want to explore astrophotography, there are resources for you here as well.

 

BEYONDbones, the HMNS Blog
One awesome part about the night sky is that it’s always changing, from season to season. Keep up with what to look for in the sky with monthly blog posts from James Wooten, our Planetarium Astronomer.

Last but not least, you can often get updates and interesting information on NPR, The Huffington Post, and Wiki How.

Now you’ve got all the tools to start exploring the cosmos! Happy stargazing! And don’t forget to check out the resources at your fingertips at the George Observatory.