The stars at night are big and…. falling: Geminid Meteor Shower Returns December 13!

Of the many meteor showers that occur throughout the year, the Geminid Meteor Shower in December may be the most reliably active. This meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes near 3200 Phaethon, a Palladian Asteroid. The Geminids were first observed in 1862. The shower gets its name because they appear to originate in the Gemini constellation. 

Under ideal conditions, one may see as many as 50-100 meteors an hour. The meteors from this shower are also especially bright, and many astronomers believe that the shower is intensifying every year. The shower should peak around 9:00 p.m. on Saturday December 13th. That’s good news because most of the other significant showers, like the Perseids, peak after midnight. With no Moon until after midnight, we should be able to see a lot of meteors (weather permitting of course). 

The George Observatory will be open Saturday, December 13th until midnight for viewing the shower. Tickets for viewing the shower are $5 and include access to our telescopes.  That night, we’ll be able to view several star clusters and nebulae with our scopes. Jupiter should rise in time to be viewed as well. We’ll also have our Discovery Dome available for $3. 

If you can’t make it out to the George, you can still view the shower anywhere with dark skies.

 

 

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!