You saved our ‘scope at the George Observatory! And this is how it happened.

CliffsNotes: Thanks to all of you, we have done exactly what S.O.S. intended, and we saved our ‘scope!

HMNS is proud to own the largest telescope in the country that is open to the public on a regular basis, the Gueymard Research Telescope. Many of you have come and enjoyed the night skies and looked through this amazing telescope at the George Observatory. But it needed some well-deserved TLC this past winter.

SOSYou saved it!

The donations to repair the Gueymard telescope ranged from pennies to $10,000, and came from families, individuals, children, companies and foundations!

Special thanks go to Dr. Reggie DuFour, who launched the campaign with a generous $10,000 donation. We are also extremely grateful to major donations from The George Foundation and The Henderson-Wessendorff Foundation. We were also given a generous donation from elementary students at Shady Oak Christian School, who sent us over the top with their $1,800 donation, which was collected from their annual fun run.

Why is the Gueymard telescope so important to us — and to you?

On a clear night, it is incredible to be able to see with your own eyes the many wonders of the universe. There are other, larger telescopes, but they are far away and they are only available to scientists who apply for time and get their projects approved. These large ‘scopes use cameras which are then fed to an indoor area where scientists “look” with their computers. Here at the George Observatory, we think there is something very personal and magical about using your own eyes to look at Saturn or Jupiter or a galaxy far, far away.

The 36-inch Gueymard mirror and dome were purchased from LSU in advance of the 1989 opening of the George Observatory. LSU had owned and operated the ‘scope for 25 years in highly humid conditions, very similar to the ones in Brazos Bend State Park. Brazos Bend is a swamp and grassland, but it is also located conveniently about an hour away from light-polluted cities in and around Houston.

The unique relationship with Brazos Bend guarantees us a safe, dark place to view the skies. Most telescopes are put on top of mountains or out in dry deserts where the weather conditions allow for more nights of clear skies. When Halley’s Comet returned in 1986, thousands of visitors lined up at the park wanting to see the comet. We knew then, if not before (and certainly now), that there is a high interest level in everything astronomical in Houston.

We believed that because the mirror had already lived in a swamp for 25 years, it should continue to do well in similar conditions. This was true for a long time. However, several years ago we noticed that we really couldn’t see as well with the large scope. The mirror was becoming cloudy. In 2011, it was determined that the mirror surface had lost all reflectivity. After extensive research and phone consultations, the mirror was sent to Marian Schafer at Galco Electronics in Mesquite, TX. Galco, which is well-equipped to put coatings on mirrors, was selected based on its good reputation and, in part, its  Dallas-area location – which allowed our volunteers to transport the mirror, saving shipping costs.

Mirrors are supposed to be shiny. This one was not.

SOS 1Starting in December 2011, Marian stripped, cleaned, baked and held the mirror under a vacuum five times to try to remove contaminants from inside thousands of small microscopic fissures found on the surface and interior of the mirror. In addition, there are numerous other bubbles throughout the glass mirror that can be seen with the naked eye. Galco used a sub layer of chrome as a binder and then put a final coating of aluminum. When this coating failed, titanium was applied as the binder in order to block leeching contamination.

It was understood that if the titanium was put on, the only way to remove it would be to regrind the mirror. The titanium coating failed, and did not bond to the mirror surface. This first attempt helped us to determine exactly what needed to happen next with the mirror.

SOS 3Time to hit the grind.

The next step to fix the telescope was to bring in an independent expert on a Ritchey-Creiten designed telescope like ours. James Mulhernin, from Optical Mechanics Inc. (OMI) was flown here from Iowa. Mulhernin determined the composition of the glass as excellent quality Pyrex, and also determined that the microscopic fissures were artifacts from when the mirror was originally made almost 50 years ago. Over time, pollution and microscopic “gunk” in the fissures prevented a coating from sticking to the mirror.

Mulhernin’s newer technology will allow us to re-grind the mirror and prevent any of these old issues from coming up again in the future. This is indeed great news for us here at the George Observatory.

SOS 4The mirror was shipped to OMI and is currently being serviced. Reports are all very positive.

While the mirror is gone, we can still use the amazing 11-inch refractor with near-perfect lenses mounted on the side of the big telescope. But that’s another story as to how we removed a 458-pound mirror and can still remain open on Saturday nights!

Stay tuned for more updates on the repair progress, and start looking forward to the 25th Anniversary celebrations in October here at the George Observatory.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars and the Moon share the limelight

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on April 1, 9 pm CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini, the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion, the Hunter sets with Taurus, the Bull.  To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars—little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius.  Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night.  The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo, the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring.  Mars is up all night long this month.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on April 1, 9 p.m. CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion the Hunter sits with Taurus the Bull. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars: little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring. Mars is up all night long this month.

This month, Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it high in the west at dusk.

Mars is up virtually all night long this month. On April 8, Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. This places Mars at opposition, an alignment where we see Mars rise at dusk and set at dawn — Mars is up literally all night long. It turns out that Mars is farther from the Sun than average when Earth passes it, so at this opposition Mars is not as big or bright as in years past. Still, Mars now rivals the brightest star at night, Sirius, and is now as bright as it will get until May 2016.

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south right before sunup to see it. You can also begin observing Saturn in late evening. It rises just after 10:30 p.m. tonight, and then about a half hour earlier each night until by month’s end, it’s up until twilight. Saturn comes to opposition next month.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look southeast 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.

Brilliant winter stars shift towards the west during April. Dazzling Orion is high in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points right to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. Above Orion are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini the Twins. Jupiter is among the Twins this month. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line south from Orion’s belt (left as you face west). Forming a triangle with Betelgeuse and Sirius is Procyon the Little Dog Star.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring in the south and east. Look for Leo the Lion almost overhead at dusk. In the east, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to “arc to Arcturus” and then “speed on to Spica.”

Moon Phases in April 2014:

1st Quarter: April 7, 3:31 a.m.
Full: April 15, 2:44 a.m.
Last Quarter: April 22, 2:52 a.m.
New: April 29, 1:17 a.m.

The Full Moon of Tuesday morning, April 15, fully enters the Moon’s shadow, causing a total eclipse of the Moon. The Moon first encounters the shadow at 12:58 a.m.; that’s when the partial phases begin. By 2:06 a.m., the Moon is all the way inside the shadow, and thus totally eclipsed. The Moon takes 78 minutes to cross the shadow, so totality lasts until 3:24 a.m.. The Moon then emerges from the Earth’s shadow until the eclipse is over at 4:33 a.m.

Keep in mind that the eclipse happens in the morning hours of Tues., April 15. Don’t go out looking for this Tuesday night! Our George Observatory will be open from sundown Mon., April 14 until dawn on Tues., April 15 for observing the eclipse. If you can’t come to the George at such early morning hours, remember that anyone who sees the Moon sees the eclipse. You can observe this eclipse from your backyard or even through your window if you have one that faces south/southwest.

The only thing that can stop you from seeing the eclipse is overcast weather. If we do get clouded out, or if you can’t get up in the middle of the night, we can observe another eclipse on Oct. 8, 2014, right before dawn.

Click here to see the HMNS 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.

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.

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.