From white dwarves to dark matter: 75 years of discovery at McDonald Observatory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Rebecca Johnson, Editor of the StarDate Magazine at the McDonald Observatory.

A year-long celebration is underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, with the first event of 2014 being held at HMNS on Tues., Jan. 14 with a public lecture by Dr. Jon Winget.

McDonald Observatory 1

Photo credit: Sandia National Laboratories

Dubbed “impossible stars,” white dwarfs are the simplest stars with the simplest surface chemical compositions known — yet they are very mysterious. The McDonald Observatory leads in investigating white dwarfs along several avenues: telescope observations, theory, and most recently, the making of “star stuff,” using the most powerful X-ray source on Earth at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Don Winget, one of the world’s leading experts on white dwarfs, will give a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS to examine the how studies of these stars can shed light on everything from the age of the universe to the understanding of dark matter and dark energy.

White dwarves are often difficult to locate due to the larger, brighter stars they are paired with

Located near Fort Davis, Texas, under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States, McDonald Observatory  hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest, which is being upgraded to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The McDonald Observatory was dedicated May 5, 1939, and has supported some of the most important astronomical discoveries of recent decades about everything from extrasolar planets to exotic stars and black holes.

The Observatory plans a full year of activities around the state to celebrate. Events will run through August 2014, including a lecture series featuring McDonald Observatory astronomers in multiple cities and an Open House at the Observatory.

The celebration continues at the observatory’s website. Visitors to the anniversary pages can peruse a timeline of observatory history, watch several historical videos, and share their memories and photos of McDonald on an interactive blog called “Share Your Story.”

McDonald Observatory 2
(And while we’re at it, don’t forget about our own George Observatory‘s anniversary this year as well — 25 years of showcasing the night sky to the Greater Houston area!)

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
Date: Tues., Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Topic: “Small Stars in a Large Context: All Things White Dwarf”
Speaker: Don Winget, Ph.D.
Where: HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theater
How: Click here for advance tickets

Sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in celebration of their 75th anniversary, with a pre-lecture reception at 5 p.m.


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.

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.


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: Venus shifts to morning, Chinese New Year approaches

This star map shows the Houston sky at 90 pm CST on January 1, 8 pm CST on January 15, and 7 pm on January 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the western sky. Taurus, the Bull, is almost overhead.  Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is high in the southeast, with his two dogs behind him.  Sirius, the Big Dog Star, is the brightest star we ever see at night.  Jupiter, in Gemini, is up all night long in early January.  In the north, the Big Dipper gradually re-enters the evening sky.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 90 pm CST on January 1, 8 pm CST on January 15, and 7 pm on January 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the western sky. Taurus, the Bull, is almost overhead. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is high in the southeast, with his two dogs behind him. Sirius, the Big Dog Star, is the brightest star we ever see at night. Jupiter, in Gemini, is up all night long in early January. In the north, the Big Dipper gradually re-enters the evening sky.

This month, Venus shifts from the evening to the morning sky. For the next few days, look for it low in the southwest at dusk. If no buildings or trees block the view, you can still make out Venus in the twilight; it outshines everything in the sky but the Sun and the Moon. Notice how it appears lower on the horizon each night and is soon completely gone.

On Jan. 10, Venus passes between Earth and Sun (“inferior conjunction“), which would normally make it invisible to us. This time, however, Venus passes above the Sun from our perspective, which means the sharp-eyed observers with clear horizons can observe Venus both at dawn and at twilight for a few days around Jan. 10. After this, you can watch Venus emerge in the morning sky, visible in the southeast at dawn.

Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Mercury briefly enters the evening sky this month, right as Venus leaves. Look for it low on the horizon during the last half of January. Although not nearly as bright as Venus, it easily outshines the dim stars near it. Thus, any “star” you see in twilight over the point of sunset late this month is probably Mercury.

Jupiter will remain well placed for evening observing all winter and into the spring (as the Earth passed between it and the Sun on Jan. 5). Look for it in the east at dusk and almost overhead later in the evening.

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

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

In January, the Big Dipper is only partly risen at dusk. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W (or M) shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus in the west at dusk. 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, which contains Jupiter this winter.

Moon Phases in January 2014:

New: Jan. 1, 5:15 a.m.; Jan. 30, 3:40 p.m.
1st Quarter: Jan. 7, 9:40 p.m.
Full: Jan. 15, 10:53 p.m.
Last Quarter: Jan. 23, 11:21 p.m.

At 5:59 a.m. on Sat., Jan. 4, the Earth is as close to the Sun as it will get this year; this is called perihelion. Keep in mind that Earth’s orbit is so close to being a perfect circle that its perihelion distance is 0.98 AU, where 1 AU (astronomical unit) is defined as the average Earth-Sun distance. This 2% difference is too small to influence our seasons; the tilt of the Earth’s axis toward or away from the Sun dominates this small effect. That’s why it’s so cold right now (even here in Houston!) and so hot in July.

Although the winter solstice is the shortest day, the earliest sunset occurred on about December 2, and the latest sunrise will occur January 10. That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit near perihelion. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day at this time of year. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a low 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 being nearer to the Sun to predominate.

For most people, then, (those who witness sunset but sleep through sunrise), days will seem to lengthen much more than they actually are. Early risers, on the other hand, will find sunrise occurs even later than last month, at least until late January.

The New Moon of Jan. 30 is the second New Moon after the winter solstice. It therefore marks Chinese New Year. On this date, the Year of the Snake ends and the Year of the Horse begins.

Visit the HMNS website to see this month’s 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. We’re also hosting telescope classes on Jan. 11, so if you or someone you know received one over the holidays come by and let us help you set it up!

The stars at night are big and bright, deep in . . . New Zealand?

Editor’s note: This blog is one of a series of travelogues by HMNS VP of Astronomy Carolyn Sumners, sent from the two-week solar eclipse viewing trip she led to the South Pacific. Astrophotography by Gary Young.

The stars of the southern hemisphere are fantastic, with the brilliant Milky Way stretching from near the hunter, Orion, in the North to Crux, the Southern Cross, in the South.

This predawn image is a time exposure with a Canon Mark II camera and a fisheye lens, taken from our hotel lawn in Queenstown, New Zealand, looking out over Lake Wakatipu. Even with some glare from the hotel and from Queenstown to the East, the predawn sky is remarkably dark. This exposure approximates what we could see as we faced south.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersNew Zealand has a total population less than 5 million, which guarantees much less light pollution, even close to a city. Also, the southern Milky Way is much richer and more easily seen than the Milky Way near the North Star.  In New Zealand, we trade views of the Big and Little Bears for the Southern Cross and the nebulae around it. This image is a close-up of the southern Milky Way in the early evening as we started stargazing. Notice the dark areas in the Milky Way. The Inca saw animals in these dark dust clouds.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersWhile observing through two telescopes, we placed our third telescope, a Takahashi FS60Q, on a small portable Sky Patrol equatorial mount that would track the stars — adjusting for the Earth’s rotation. We were able to do time exposures of up to a minute without guidance and we captured incredible views of the Orion Nebula, the Omega Centauri globular cluster, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the Carina Nebula.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

Through a telescope we saw the shapes of these clouds and clusters, but not the rich colors and textures captured in these images. The Orion Nebula is a stellar birth cloud with new stars still forming from the gas and dust. The Carina region has young stars and the dying supergiant Eta Carinae.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Eta Carinae nebula

Omega Centauri is the brightest globular cluster in Earth skies with 5 million stars. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy. We can see the Orion Nebula easily from Houston. The other magnificent objects are best seen from below Earth’s equator.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Orion Nebula

It’s a wonderful sky down under.