This week at the George Observatory: Perseids Punch Through Supermoon on August 12

If you follow astronomy websites, you’ve probably noticed that every month or so there’s an article about a meteor shower happening. There are meteors showers frequently throughout the year. Some showers are more active than others depending on various factors. This August one of the most reliably active showers, the Perseids, will take place. 

The Perseids, sometimes called The Tears of St. Lawrence, occur when the Earth passes through a debris field created by comet 109P Swift-Tuttle. This year, the meteor shower peaks Tuesday night (August 12) through early Wednesday morning. Besides being one of the most active showers (in 2013 it averaged 109 meteors an hour), the Perseids also have a very broad peak. Meteors can be seen as early as July in some circumstances. 

The early meteors which are the first ones to hit the earth’s atmosphere, tend to be the brightest ones with the longest tails.These are called “Earth-grazers” and those are the ones we will be looking for the evening of August 12-13 here at the George Observatory.

This year, the shower will be taking place during another “Supermoon,” occurring August 10. While not at its closest point, this means the Moon will still be very close and bright on August 12. Normally, this would not be an ideal night for observing meteors since the Moon will flood the sky with light.

Our astronomers like to joke that “Moon” is a four letter word. 

But don’t fret! The Moon won’t rise until 9:30 p.m. that night and, with our high tree-line here at the George Observatory, it won’t start affecting viewing until at least 10 p.m.  Also, even after the Moon rises, the brightest meteors will still shine through. 

In 2011, the Perseids peaked on a full Moon and people still saw an average of over 50 meteors an hour. This year the Moon will be a waxing gibbous (progressing from the full moon to the new moon).

The George Observatory will be open on Tuesday, August 12 from 5 p.m. until 2 a.m. for  meteor shower viewing. 

Event tickets are $5 per person.  Our Discovery Dome will also be available for $3 per person.  

We’ll weather the weather: George Observatory’s dome gets a makeover

Editor’s note: This post is part three of our three-part series on how you helped us save our telescope at the George Observatory. Read part one here, and part two here.

In our Save Our ‘Scope (S.O.S.) campaign, much of our focus was on replacing the mirror in the telescope. This was the first and most obvious thing we realized we needed to fix. However, just as important as the telescope and the mirror (which allows us to see the wonders of the universe) is the dome which protects the telescope and the hydraulic lift floor that allows us to take multiple visitors to look through the ‘scope. 

We have an amazing elevator-type floor that allows us to take many people up to the telescope at the same time. The telescope complex weighs 10 tons, so it will not move anywhere. The floor allows us to let short children and people in wheelchairs still look through the massive telescopes. Historically, most large telescopes have a single chair which lifts the astronomer up to the eyepiece, as you can see in the image of Percival Lowell below.

As computers and imaging have evolved, now most observatories attach a camera to the eyepiece holder and then run a cable to the building downstairs so the astronomer can use a computer to “look” in the telescope. This is pretty convenient (air conditioning and snack foods, anyone?), but it doesn’t allow someone the very personal experience of looking at something amazing in space with their own eye. The George Observatory does have cameras that scientists use when we are not open to the public. We will always use an eyepiece for the public observing.

The next big item to address was the dome itself. Steel in the Houston climate gets much abuse. Most large observatories are placed in deserts or on top of mountains in very low humidity conditions. However, this is not necessarily where many people are located, so we are committed to regular maintenance to keep the dome in good condition. 

Here are the before shots of the dome:

Scope Blog 3 7It wasn’t easy to fix, and we needed to accomplish this before the summer heat set in.

Scope Blog 3 8 Scope Blog 3 6Here is the after shot. The dome is ready to protect the newly refurbished mirror as soon as it comes home! 

Scope Blog 3 9 Scope Blog 3 10

The great balancing act: Stabilizing telescopes at the George Observatory

Editor’s note: This post is part two of our three-part series on how you helped us Save Our ‘Scope at the George Observatory. Read part one here.

Many have asked us how we are still using the large research dome at the George Observatory while the 36-inch mirror is in Iowa getting fixed. The simple answer is that we are continuing to use the 11-inch refractor, which is mounted on the side of the 36-inch telescope. The refractor has near-perfect lenses and is an incredibly high quality instrument in and of itself. The 36-inch mirror is best used for deep space objects, and the 11-inch refractor is best used for closer objects like we find in our solar system. Together, they work in tandem to make a remarkable team to view near and far.

The entire telescope grouping and mount weight approximately 10 tons. The 36-inch mirror weighed almost 500 lbs with the mirror and the center hub that holds it in place.  Because everything is so perfectly balanced, the motor to run the telescopes is approximately the size of a sewing machine motor. This delicate balance is also what keeps the telescope working properly. When we removed the more than 500 lbs. for the primary and secondary mirrors, the entire system was totally out of balance.

We were advised that glass is the same density as cement by our mirror expert.  With this piece of information and the help of Tracy Knauss, Paul Halford and Chris Randall, a plan was devised to make an exact replacement of the glass mirror out of cement. Paul located the materials and then Chris took over the project. He had scales and tools at his home and handily went about making the cement mirror.

First, Chris started with some rebar and a 36-inch sonotube.  

SOS Cement mirrorThen Brazos Bend State Park provided a fork lift to get it out of the truck.

SOS Cement mirror 2

SOS Cement mirror 4Then we had to get the 500-pound blank inside the building and placed underneath the dome so that it could be lifted three stories up into the dome and then installed.

SOS Cement mirror 6Here is the cement mirror blank installed in the real mirror cell.

SOS Cement mirror 9Finally, Tracy and Chris installed the cement blank into the back of the telescope casing where the real mirror will eventually be. By replacing the weight almost exactly, only a very few adjustments had to be made so that it was back in balance and able to support the 11-inch refractor again. 

With Jupiter, Mars and Saturn so prominent right now, this is the best ‘scope for viewing until the 36-inch returns to the George Observatory.

Save the Date: The George Observatory’s 25th Anniversary Celebrations
October 10, 2014: Members and donors event 
October 11 & 12, 2014:  Anniversary weekend. The Observatory will be open  from dusk until 11 p.m. Come look through the newly refurbished 36-inch Gueymard telescope that you helped save!

Don’t fight the dark: Five simple ways to cut down on light pollution

When you visit the George Observatory, you’ll notice signs that say, “Please no white lights.” You’ll also see that all our outside lights are red. The reason we do this is to fight light pollution and create a dark-sky-friendly environment (or at least as dark as we can this close to Houston). 

Despite our best efforts, the surrounding area is slowly losing its dark skies. This is unfortunate, and not just for those of us who love to stargaze. Too much light at night is also bad for animal migrations, human sleep patterns, and even personal safety.

So what can we, as individuals, do to fight light pollution?  Here are five simple things:

1. Turn off all unused lights
Your dad was right: leaving lights on when you’re not using them is just throwing money away. So when you leave an area, make it a habit to turn the lights off.

2. Shield all outside lights
Outside lights should serve one purpose: to show you where you’re going. So why do so many people insist on lighting the underside of passing airplanes? We encourage you to invest in light shields. They will help with light pollution and save you money.

3. Don’t over-light
When installing outside fixtures, consider the best wattage for your needs. You want enough light to see where you are going — anything else isn’t helping you see . Also, your neighbors will appreciate you not flooding their bedrooms with light.

4. Avoid ornamental lighting
It’s wonderful that you’re proud of your home, but remember what we said about light pollution and crime. When you overuse ornamental light, you may feel like your house is more secure; however, you’re actually making your property a target for thieves.

5. Spread the word!
Now that you know the dangers of light pollutions, share that information with others. There are many websites that will help you and your friends protect the night sky, like the International Dark Sky Association.

Knowledge is power, and we all need to do our part to keep the stars at night big and bright deep in the heart of Texas!

To see the best dark skies in the Houston area come out to the George Observatory! From there you can see stars, galaxies planets… almost anything in space. And what’s more, we want to help you see everything out there better, so bring your telescope out for our telescope classes. The next one’s coming up this Saturday, May 3 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m