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.  

Scout out the George Observatory on February 2: Cub Scouts earn Astronomy Belt Loop and Pins in one day!

What are your Scouts doing next weekend? We have an idea!

Bring your Cub Scouts out to The George Observatory on Saturday, February 2 to earn their Astronomy Belt Loop and Pins in a single day.

Hands-on activities taught by staff astronomers help Scouts enjoy completing their requirements, which include: learning how to focus and diagram a simple telescope, making and using a star map, and interviewing an astronomer.

Scouts will also get a tour of our large research telescope, in addition to learning astronomy concepts in the Discovery Dome portable planetarium.

Can’t make the February date? Don’t fret; we’ve got another day for Scouts coming up on April 20. Space is limited, so reserve your tickets in advance by clicking here.

New Scouts class Feb. 2 at The George!

What: Astronomy Belt Loop & Pin at The George Observatory
When: Saturday, February 2 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Where: The George Observatory; 21901 FM 762, Needville, TX, 77461
How Much: $15 per Scout + standard $7 park entrance fee for everyone over 12 years old.

Stay awhile and explore beautiful Brazos Bend State Park with a picnic after class. Tickets to view the night sky through our telescopes — weather permitting — go on sale at 5 p.m. For more information on The George Observatory and Brazos Bend State Park, click here.

Happy Birthday George Observatory!

20 years ago, it was still the 80s. The Hubble Telescope had not been launched, nor returned the extraordinary images from the deepest regions of space that inspire such wonder today. Construction on the International Space Station hadn’t yet begun, and Pluto was still a planet.

Girl Scouts

And, 20 years ago today, the George Observatory was born. Since then, countless school children, aspiring astronomers, and people just interested in seeing the beauty of the stars and planets have visited the facility in Brazos Bend State Park.

For 20 years, kids have participated in simulated space missions by heading for outer space in our Challenger Learning Center. Visitors have gazed through our three telescopes, open to the public almost every Saturday night. Through our large 36′ Gueymard Research Telescope, visitors have been able to view the craters on the moon, all of the planets, comets, meteors, eclipses, and various stars and constellations. Using the telescope, a group from the Fort Bend Astronomy Club has discovered more than 400 asteroids – and named five of them. Come by on a Saturday night, and you’ll meet many of them – as they’re frequently on hand to share a look through their telescopes and a passion for observing.

Over the last 20 years, dozens of probes and satellites have been sent to scout nearby moons and planets. NASA has plans to study them in more detail, explore new masses, and is planning the completion of the International Space Station in 2011.

Who knows what the future of space holds for mankind? Supernovas exploding in the deep of space, space colonization, or even intelligent life on other planets. We fervently hope that the George will inspire kids to be a part of the future of science and space exploration, wherever that might lead them – and into an exploration of the unknown. We look forward to discovering the future of space and uncovering new mysteries along with you at the George Observatory.
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2009: International Year of Astronomy

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Creative Commons License photo credit: judepics

We could say that modern astronomy began in 1609.  That was the year when the telescope, invented by the Dutch in 1608, was first used to observe and describe celestial objects.  Until telescopes were used, astronomy was primarily about measuring the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets in the sky.  This helped early astronomers make calendars and to plan their harvests, but people were unable to study the celestial bodies and learn their characteristics.  A recently discovered lunar map indicates that Thomas Harriot of England was the first to observe and draw a magnified image of the Moon in July 1609. 

Galileo Galilei, of course, is most well-known for building and using early telescopes.  He did his lunar observations in December 1609 while observing from Padua, Italy.   The prevailing idea at the time was that everything in the heavens had to be perfect and unblemished.  Drawings of mountains, valleys, and craters on the Moon contradicted this idea, showing the Moon to be an ‘imperfect’ world like Earth.  As Galileo published his drawings and Harriot did not, Galileo gets the credit for changing our concept of the universe, helping us realize that celestial bodies are worlds and not just sources of light.

On January 9, 1610, Galileo saw three ‘fixed stars’ next to Jupiter.  Four days later he discovered a fourth and realized that these ‘stars’ orbited Jupiter.  Today, those four moons– Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, are called the Galilean moons.  The direct observation of moons orbiting Jupiter disproved Claudius Ptolemy‘s model of the universe, already centuries old at the time, which held that all bodies in the universe orbited the Earth.

Moon n Venus played hide-and-seek
Creative Commons License photo credit: voobie

In December 1610, Galileo observed Venus and saw that Venus showed phases like the Moon’s when magnified in his telescope.  This meant that sometimes the sunlit side of Venus faces Earth, while at other times we see the night side, although Venus is never opposite the Sun in the sky.  This could happen only if Venus orbits the Sun rather than Earth.

By the way, Galileo did far more than just astronomy.  Rice University’s Galileo Project has more on his extraordinary life, including a timeline.

It was also in 1609 that Johannes Kepler published his New Astronomy, containing his first two laws.  The first law states that each planet’s orbit is an ellipse rather than a perfect circle.  The second law states that a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times.  Kepler published his third law, which relates the square of a planets period (time for one orbit) to the cube of its average distance, in 1619. 

This makes 2009 the 400th year of modern astronomy.  Appropriately, the United Nations declared this year to be the International Year of Astronomy.  At that link, you can learn about events taking place all over the world promoted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Their goal is for people all over the world to discover the wonders of the sky and to appreciate our place in the universe.

Star Cloud Over Saskatchewan.jpg
Creative Commons License photo credit: Space Ritual

You can participate in the International Year of Astronomy right here in Houston.  Several of the Fun Hundred events we’ve set up to celebrate our 100th anniversary are astronomy-related.  They include Sun-Earth Day at the vernal equinox, our annual viewing of the Perseid meteor shower in mid-August, members nights at the George Observatory, and a winter solstice event on our sundial. 

Also, you can observe the phases of Venus in the first three months of this year, just as Galileo did through his telescope.  Keep in mind that Galileo’s telescope looked like this; anyone with a good pair of binoculars has better observing equipment.  Go outside at dusk and look west southwest for the brightest point of light in the sky.  That is Venus.  Through a telescope, you’ll notice that Venus appears half-lit in mid-January 2009.  As you keep observing through March, you’ll see Venus become a more and more pronounced crescent.  This is because Venus is coming around to our side of the Sun and thus turning more and more of its night side to Earth.  The very skinny crescent of mid-March is so pronounced that it is noticeable in binoculars.

Remember, the great discoveries, or aha moments, as my co-blogger described, are not limited to great, historic scientists.  The beauty of science is that anyone who takes the time to observe can share in the act of discovery.