Making the Stars: A Brief History of the Burke Baker Planetarium

In July of 1964, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened its new museum in Hermann Park with modest exhibit space and the Burke Baker Planetarium. A state-of-the-art Spitz Space Transit Planetarium dominated the theater’s center with its flat floor and a few slide projectors. Two star balls connected by cages, swinging in a yoke, generated the moving stars and planets. All programs were live star tours.


That year the Houston Independent School District began sending students to the Burke Baker Planetarium. In the last 50 years, over a million HISD children have explored the starry night in an experience reaching every HISD student at least once.

For an idea of what the planetarium experience was back in the 1970s, take a look at my first Burke Baker Planetarium brochure. The brochure was a 3-fold with the front and back cover shown below. The address was 5800 Caroline Street. When you called for reservations, you only used seven digits. The museum was free, but the planetarium cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. We did two or three shows a day plus morning school shows and thought we were busy. Now we do 13 to 16 shows each day. Notice the map. The passage between the planetarium and the tiny museum was a glassed-in breezeway.  


Inside the brochure was a description of the planetarium experience. Burke Baker’s gift has now brought the astronomy experience to more than 7.5 million people, including all upper elementary students in the Houston Independent School District since 1965.  



Below is the fold over section showing our new Margaret Root Brown Telescope, which is still behind my office on the third floor. We need an access across the roof to open it up to the public once again as well as realuminizing of the mirror. The telescope tracked the sun automatically and sent a live image to the planetarium and the Energy Hall in the lower level. We created five new shows each year, but they were much easier to produce than the two new shows we do now. 


In 1988, the Burke Baker Planetarium was one of the first in the world to go digital. In a capital campaign that funded the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, the planetarium’s Friedkin Theater became a space simulator with an Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1, the world’s first digital planetarium projection system.


In 1998, a decade later, the Burke Baker Planetarium was first in the United States and second in the world to install a Digital Sky full-dome digital video projection system. This dynamic immersive environment was funded by a grant from NASA through Rice University. Now the planetarium could offer full-dome animations and movies with a new slightly tilted dome and seats. The planetarium’s Cosmic Mysteries and Powers of Time were among the first full dome digital films produced.

Eighteen years later, the Friedkin Theater of the Burke Baker Planetarium becomes the most advanced True 8K planetarium in the world. On March 11, HMNS will unveil an overhauled theater featuring an all-new, tilted, seamless projection dome and the main attraction, the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 digital projection system. This cutting-edge system brings the highest resolution, the brightest colors, and the most advanced spatial imaging technology on the market to the planetarium, restoring its status as best in the world.

Editor’s note: Keep your eyes peeled for more details about the Planetarium renovation on social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and right here on our BEYONDbones blog. Throughout the month of February and early March, we’ll be posting the latest information about the project until the grand opening March 11. 

Go Stargazing! September Edition

Venus and Mars have left Saturn behind in the night sky (check out my earlier blog on the position of the planets). You can spot the star Spica in between Mars and Venus during this time of year. (Spica is similar to Mars in brightness and closer to Venus than to Mars). 

 Cloud structure in The Venusian atmosphere,
revealed by ultraviolet observations

September is the last full month to observe Venus at dusk. That’s because Venus has by now come around to Earth’s side of the sun on its faster, inner orbit.  Thus, Venus now begins to overtake the Earth, passing between the Earth and sun on October 29.  We’ll therefore see Venus shift farther to the left of Mars and then drop down below it.  In October, Venus exits the evening sky quite quickly as it shifts back towards the sun.  September and October 2010 is an excellent period for observing Venus’ crescent phase in telescopes.  Anytime Venus is on our side of the sun, more of its night side faces us, resulting in a crescent like appearance when magnified.

Saturn is far to the lower right of Venus and Mars as you face west at dusk.  You’ll need a horizon clear of tall buildings and trees to see it before it sets.  You’ll also need to look early in the month, as Saturn is practically behind the sun by month’s end.  

Jupiter dominates this month’s skies.  On Tuesday morning, September 21, Earth aligns with the sun and Jupiter, bringing Jupiter to opposition (because the sun and Jupiter are then on opposite sides of the Earth).  On the night of September 20-21 we see Jupiter rise at sundown and set at sunup—Jupiter is up literally all night long.  During the whole month, though, Jupiter is visible virtually the whole night.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  Face east in late evening or south southwest at dawn to see it.  The planet Uranus is less than one degree above Jupiter this month; the two planets are closest on September 18.

The Big Dipper is setting in the northwest at dusk; you now need a horizon clear of trees and tall buildings to get a good look at it. You can extend the curve of its handle to ‘arc to Arcturus’, which is in the west at dusk tonight.  Arcturus, by the way, is the fourth brightest star we ever see at night, but the brightest one Americans ever see on a September evening.

As the Dipper gets lower, look for five stars in the shape of an ‘M’ directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper’s handle.  This is Cassiopeia, the Queen—the ‘M’ is the outline of her throne.  Her stars are about as bright as the North Star and the stars of the Big Dipper, so she’s not too hard to find. 

星空下的汗腾格里峰 / Mt. Khan Tengri under Galaxy
Creative Commons License photo credit: livepine

High overhead, look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.   This triangle was up all night long from June to early August, hence its name.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest at dusk.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is to its left.  Between these two star patterns is the center of our Milky Way—the brightest part of that band as wee see it.  On a cloudless night far from the big city, see if you notice the Milky Way glow near the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius. 

Look for the Great Square of Pegasus rising in the east.  The vast stretch of sky under Pegasus is largely devoid of bright stars—ancients called this the ‘Celestial Sea”. 

Moon Phases in September 2010:

Last Quarter                  September 1, 12:22 am, September 30, 10:52 pm

New Moon                       September 8, 5:29 am

1st Quarter                     September 15, 12:49 am 

Full Moon                        September 23, 4:18 am

At 10:13 pm on Wednesday, September 22, the sun is directly overhead at the equator.  As a result, everyone on earth has the same amount of daylight and the same amount of night.  That’s why it is called the equinox (‘equal night’ in Latin).  In the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve seen the days get a little shorter and the midday Sun a little lower each day since June 21.  For us, the season changes from summer to fall at the equinox.  In the Southern Hemisphere, people have seen the days lengthen and the midday Sun get a little higher each day since June.  For them, the season changes from winter to spring.

Spot the Planet Uranus with the Naked Eye

The “Great Planet Race” in the western evening sky this summer is beginning to wrap up; Venus has caught up with Mars as they both leave Saturn behind. As these planets set in the west, though, another rises in the east at about 9:30, and will have cleared most buildings and trees by 10 p.m. And this one is involved in a conjunction of its own.

This is none other than Jupiter, king of the planets. Once Jupiter rises, it is easy to find because it outshines everything in the sky except the sun, the moon, and Venus.  Just look east for the brightest thing in the night sky.  Last I checked, Jupiter is still missing one of its belts.  For the rest of this year, Jupiter remains well placed for observing in convenient evening hours.  If you have a telescope, watch for yourself and see if the belt returns!

Although Jupiter seems to be by itself among the much, much dimmer stars of Pisces, it in fact has a close companion that few of us ever get to see without a telescope, the planet Uranus. We typically identify Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as the five naked eye planets, and for practical purposes, that’s true.  However, Uranus is actually visible to the unaided eye under perfect conditions.  In the time before man made light dimmed the skies, many people could see Uranus.  However, they were unable to recognize it as a planet because it is dim and changes position very slowly. (It takes 84 years for Uranus to reappear near the same stars).  Thus Uranus, although plainly visible, went undiscovered for centuries.  For example, in 1690, John Flamsteed was cataloguing stars and constellations, numbering stars in each constellation from west to east.  However, the ‘star’ he catalogued as ’34 Tauri’ (#34 in Taurus) was in fact the planet Uranus. 

 Replica of Herschel’s telescope

In March 1781, William Herschel became the first to identify Uranus as a planet when he observed it in his telescope.  As Uranus is about twice as far from the sun as Saturn, Herschel’s discovery doubled the size of the known solar system.  Herschel wanted to call the new planet ‘George’ (actually Georgium Sidus in Latin) after his patron, King George III.  German astronomer Johann Elert Bode, who had calculated an orbit for the new planet, suggested calling it ‘Uranus’ because in Graeco-Roman myth, Saturn had been the father of Jupiter and Uranus the father of Saturn. 

Here are charts showing the relative positions of Jupiter and Uranus from now into the new year.  The event depicted is a triple conjunction, in which two outer planets align on three separate occasions only a few months apart.  This occurs when distant planets align while Earth is on the same side of the sun as they are.  As Earth passes the slower outer planets, we see them slow down, stop, and reverse direction for while.  We see the planets resume direct motion once Earth has pulled far enough ahead on its much faster inner orbit.  As a result, we see three conjunctions instead of just one.  The three closest alignments of Jupiter and Uranus occur on June 8, 2010, September 18, 2010, and January 3, 2011.  At all three, Jupiter is less than one degree (about the width of an adult’s pinkie held at arm’s length) under Uranus.  The conjunction of June 8 occurred in the morning sky, but the two yet to come will be visible in convenient evening hours.  On the night of September 20-21, Earth is directly in line with the pair, causing them to rise at dusk at set at dawn–Jupiter and Uranus will be up all night long.  By winter, Jupiter and Uranus will be high in the south southwest at nightfall. 

Late 2010 is a good time to get a glimpse of a world we don’t usually notice in the sky.  A small telescope or even binoculars will reveal Uranus.  And if you find yourself away from the city on a moonless night, see if you can pick out which of the dim points of light just above Jupiter is a little more than meets the eye. 

What Galileo Almost Saw

Throughout this International Year of Astronomy, 2009, we have been thinking back on Galileo Galilei and the historic discoveries he made with is telescope back in 1610. However, it’s also interesting to reflect on a discovery that Galileo almost made–the planet Neptune.

europa 606
Galileo Galilei
Creative Commons License photo credit: dizarillo

Astronomers did not become aware of  Neptune until 1846.  On September 23 of that year, Johann Galle of the Berlin Observatory received a letter from Urbain Le Verrier in Paris.  Le Verrier had been trying to understand why Uranus was not quite where people expected it to be.

When William Herschel announced the discovery of Uranus in 1781, astronomers went to work calculating its orbit around the Sun.  In 1821, Alexis Bouvard noticed that his tabulated positions of Uranus, based on Newton’s laws, did not quite match up with Uranus’ real positions.  He suggested that an eighth planet beyond Uranus was perturbing Uranus’ orbit.  Urbain Le Verrier painstakingly calculated where in the sky this planet might be in order to affect Uranus’s orbit in just the observed way and mailed his predictions to Galle.  Galle, assisted by a student, Heinrich d’Arrest, found Neptune in his telescope the same day he received Le Verrier’s data.  (John Couch Adams of England made similar observations and calculations over the same period.)

Galle and d’Arrest were the first to recognize Neptune, but not the first to see it.  At magnitude 7.9, Neptune is too dim to be seen with the unaided eye, but it does show up as a point of light in simple telescopes and even in binoculars.  From the moment of its discovery, astronomers wondered if earlier telescope users might have seen Neptune without realizing it.

01 The Solar System PIA10231, mod02
Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor

In the winter of 1612-1613, Jupiter began to align with Neptune from Earth’s point of view.  The alignment was so complete that on January 4, 1613, Jupiter’s disk actually blocked (occulted) Neptune’s.  Galileo, having discovered four moons around Jupiter in January 1610, was still observing Jupiter three years later.  He made careful drawings of Jupiter, its moons, and any background stars in his telescope’s field of view.  Upon comparing the background stars in Galileo’s drawings to the positions Neptune would have had that winter, astronomers have concluded that Galileo drew Neptune as a background ‘star’ in drawings he made on December 28, 1612, and on January 27 and 28, 1613.

Galileo’s simple telescope was not powerful enough to resolve Neptune into a disk.  (You need a telescope at least 10-12 inches in diameter to do this).  In order to recognize it as a planet, Galileo would have needed to see Neptune change position against background stars. Since it orbits about 30 times as far from the Sun as Earth does, Neptune takes 146 years to go around the Sun once.  As a result, its motion against the background stars is harder to notice.  Once a year, Earth comes around to Neptune’s side of the Sun.  This makes Neptune seem to slow down, stop, and reverse direction against the background stars.  (This is called ‘retrograde’ motion.)  As it turns out, in December 1612, Earth was just coming around to Neptune’s side of the Sun, and Neptune was virtually stationary and about to begin retrograde motion.  Neptune’s motion against the background stars would have been all but unobservable in December 1612.

The Roman god Neptune, for whom
the planet is named.
Creative Commons License photo credit: OliBac

By January 1613, however, Neptune was in full retrograde motion.  On January 27 and 28, Galileo did notice that one of his background stars had slightly changed position compared to another.  According to University of Melbourne physicist David Jamieson, this indicates that Galileo knew he had found a new planet.  However, we see no sign that he attempted a second observation of that mysterious star, or that he reported the finding of a new planet. Thus Galileo, first to see Neptune, does not get credit for discovering it.

Others who saw Neptune in their telescopes and mistook it for a star include Jerome Lalande of the Paris Observatory, whose staff conducted a detailed survey of the sky in 1795, and William Herschel’s son John, who happened to see it in 1830.

Uranus is another planet seen before its formal discovery.  In fact, at visual magnitude 5.6, Uranus is right at the threshold of visibility to the naked eye.  This means that if you’ve been out on a clear night with no clouds or light pollution, and Uranus happened to be up, you’ve probably seen it.  And so have countless observers across the globe throughout history who looked up in pristine skies.  Uranus moves so slowly (taking 84 years to orbit the Sun once) and blends in so well with the stars in its general direction, that our eyes pass right over it.  That’s why it took William Herschel’s telescope in 1781 to recognize Uranus for what it is.  When John Flamsteed, the very first Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom, prepared a catalog of visible stars, he misidentified Uranus as a star, designating it ’34 Tauri’ (the 34th star of the constellation Taurus).

As 2009 ends, Jupiter is once again approaching Neptune in our sky.  As I write this (late November 2009), Jupiter is by far the brightest thing in the south-southwest at dusk (unless the Moon is out).  Neptune is just under 4 degrees to Jupiter’s upper left (three fingers held together at arm’s length block about 5 degrees).  Since Jupiter is orbiting much faster than Neptune, we see Jupiter gain on Neptune’s position  during the next few weeks.  Unlike in 1613, Jupiter will not align with Neptune exactly; the two planets are just over half a degree apart at closest approach on December 21.  (One half of one degree is about the apparent size of the Moon’s disk.)  Jupiter then pulls ‘ahead’ of Neptune and is just over two degrees away by New Year’s.  Here is a  finder chart to help you identify which point of light among the stars is Neptune.  This holiday season, then, you have the chance to repeat Galileo’s observations from the winter of 1612-1613.  But you, unlike Galileo, will know exactly what you’re seeing.