First Light: 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.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Comet ISON, Winter Solstice & the Geminid meteor shower

ev.owaThis is it. The final stargazing report of 2013. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Venus remains in the west at dusk for one more month. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight. Shortly after the new year begins, Venus shifts from the evening to the morning sky.

Jupiter will be up literally all night long early next month. In December 2013, then, it is not up at dusk but rises during the evening. Now you can see it rise in the northeast at about 8 p.m., just as Venus sets. By New Year’s Eve, Jupiter rises by 5:50 p.m., during twilight.

Mars remains in the morning sky. It continues to brighten a bit in the south at dawn.

Saturn has reappeared in the pre-dawn sky. Face southeast right before sunup to see it.

In December, the Big Dipper is below the horizon at dusk. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

The Summer Triangle sets in the west. Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead at dusk now and in the west by Christmas. Taurus, the bull, rises in the east. Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the hunter, rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk). As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter.

Unfortunately, it appears that Comet ISON did not survive its close passage to the Sun this past Thanksgiving. At 12:48 p.m. CST on Thurs., Nov. 28, ISON passed just 1.7 solar radii above the Sun’s surface. This proved to be too close, as the Sun’s gravity tore ISON apart, causing it to shed much of its gas and dust. This left only a small remaining fragment to continue on ISON’s orbital path, a fragment too small to put on a naked-eye show on December mornings. Binocular observers, though, can still give it a try.

You can still find information showing ISON’s position, or you can view the full path.

If ISON survives perihelion this Thanksgiving (it has about a 50/50 chance), we could see it quite well between Thanksgiving and Christmas. More on this in the December update.

Moon Phases in December 2013:

New: December 2, 6:21 pm
1st Quarter: December 9, 9:12 am
Full: December 17, 3:28 am
Last Quarter: December 25, 7:49 am

At 11:11 a.m. on Sat., Dec. 21, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest point south where this is possible. This puts the Sun as low as possible in our sky, and marks the winter solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun is as high as possible in the sky — this is the summer solstice for them.

Although the winter solstice is the shortest day, the earliest sunset occurred on about Dec. 2, and the latest sunrise will occur Jan. 10. That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit as it approaches perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) next month. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day this month and next. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a lower path across the sky, which normally dominates in causing earlier sunsets and later sunrises. But the Sun’s apparent path varies very little near the solstice itself, allowing the secondary effect of the Earth approaching the Sun to predominate. For most people, then, (those who witness sunset but sleep through sunrise), days will seem to lengthen throughout December, although they don’t really begin lengthening until Dec. 21.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks this month, as it does every December. Along with the Perseids in August, the Geminids are one of the two most reliable meteor showers, producing on average about 100 meteors per hour. The Geminids are unique among meteor showers because they are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. This means that with Geminids, we see significant activity much earlier in the night than with other showers.

Most meteor showers peak in the hours immediately before dawn. This is because what plows through the debris field is the leading edge of the Earth, and that’s the side going from night into day. Since Phaethon is an asteroid, however, debris along its orbital path forms a shallower angle to Earth’s orbital path, meaning that we begin to face into the debris field as early as 9 or 10 p.m. Meteors will seem to “radiate” from the constellation Gemini, hence the name of the shower. However, they may appear anywhere in the sky.

As always, you see more meteors the farther you are from big city lights, which hide dimmer ones. Our George Observatory will be open at 5 p.m. on Friday night, Dec. 13, to 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, Dec. 14, for observing this meteor shower.

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.