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Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

Updated Tuesday, October 21, 2014 by CMJ-K

The next observatory open house is the afternoon and evening of Thursday, October 23 to observe the partial solar eclipse. Weather permitting, we will open the observatory at 4:00 pm to observe the Sun and follow the eclipse as long as it is visible. The solar eclipse begins at 4:58 pm with maximum phase occurring 5:58 pm. The eclipse ends just after sunset. The observatory will close after eclipse viewing at 7 pm, but, weather permitting, we will reopen the observatory at 8 pm for nighttime viewing and stay open until 10:30 pm. This time of year offers some good views of a few globular clusters as well as the Ring Nebula in Lyra. We will also observe a few double stars. If we are lucky, we may be able to see Mars as the Sun is setting. For the solar eclipse viewing, there will be a second location available to observe the Sun from. The view of the western horizon is obscured from the observing deck on top of Brockman Hall, so the latter parts of the eclipse will not be visible using the main telescope. Therefore, the partial solar eclipse will be observed from the Rice stadium on the mezzanine level on the west side. Park in the Greenbriar lot (only $1) and go to stadium entrance number ONE (southwest corner of stadium). Walk up the ramp at the left up to the second floor west mezzanine (under the stadium seats). At this location there will be some telescopes, shielded binoculars, and "eclipse glasses" for safe viewing. More details on the solar eclipse can be found here. The campus observatory is on the 4th floor of Brockman Hall. For more location information see Location below. The current weather forecast for October 23 looks very favorable, but of course it can change. Check back to this website regularly for updates.

The Lunar Eclipse Open House: The observatory opened up at 4 am the morning of Wednesday, October 8 to observe the total lunar eclipse. Even though it was almost too early for some, many visitors made their way to the roof of Brockman Hall to observe the lunar eclipse which began at 4:14 am with the Moon entering total eclipse at 5:25 am. The Moon began to emerge from total eclipse at 6:24 am. The weather stayed clear the entire time, though we did have to battle high humidity. The observatory stayed open until 7:30 am. After the Moon went below the local horizon for the main telescope, we had excellent views of the Great Orion Nebula and Jupiter.

The May Open House: Starting off the evening, Prof. Johns-Krull gave a short lecture on the object in the evening sky in May, focussing on the planets that were be visible in the night sky. May was a good month for planets with nice views of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn available. After the lecture, the group went to the observing deck and had some brief views of the Moon and some planets. Clouds hampered the observing, making it impossible to see any deep sky objects.

The December Open House: The December open house did not have any telescope viewing due to poor weather. However, Prof. Christopher Johns-Krull gave a public lecture in Brockman 103 on comets, emphasizing their role in studies of the early solar system and their possible role in mass extinctions on the Earth. This 45 minute talk honored the visit of comet ISON to the inner solar system, even though it turned out to be a dud.


Location: The Rice campus observatory is situated atop the new Brockman Hall for Physics building located right behind Hamman Hall. If you are driving from off campus, enter the North Parking Lot via Entrance 21 off Rice Blvd (north side of campus) and go through the yellow bar gate to the right of the entrance.

For Observing: go across the street between Hamman and Mudd halls to the central open area of Brockman, past the fountain, turn left on the sidewalk behind the building on its south side, and enter through the rear left door (labeled "118 Receiving"). Take the elevator up to the fourth floor and then through the double doors on the right to the observing terrace. The terrace will open around sunset. If it looks like the dome is open but the door to "118 Receiving" is locked, yell up to the dome from the ground. Sometimes someone will close and latch the ground-floor door, which is meant to stay propped open during observing. The elevator is very slow, sorry about that.

For Lectures:, it depends on where they are held. If they are in Brockman 200 you will need to get to the second floor, which can usually be done by stairs if the main entrance is open, and/or by the elevator on the east side of the building. There ought to be signs posted to assist you. If it is the first floor of Brockman, you can get there directly from the main entrance. For Hermann Brown Hall, you will need to gain access to the building (it needs to be open or you need to have someone let you in), and then take the elevator to the second floor.

BAD WEATHER: In the event of clouds and uncertain weather, check here and the top page for updates to see if the public night will be held (remember to refresh the page!). Any official notice of cancellation will be posted, but you should also use your judgment - if you cannot see the Moon through thick clouds the telescope won't be able to either.

General Information: The primary mission of the campus telescope is to serve Rice's undergraduate classes, but we also offer public viewing nights for the enjoyment of the Houston community. Several times during the semester we hold these open houses on a night near first quarter Moon (usually a weekend). The dates for these are posted at this website at least a few days in advance. Because they are contingent upon good weather, there are some advantages to `last-minute' scheduling. Our open houses are always hosted by a faculty member in the Physics and Astronomy Department, so bring your astronomical questions with you! When special astronomical events occur we may also have public viewing sessions. The times for open houses depend on local sunset times, but generally start about an hour after sunset and go on for 2-3 hours thereafter. During summer months, when school is not in session, we may or may not have additional open houses.

Reservations for special nights by groups are not practical given our limited staff. Viewing through the 16-inch telescope on public nights is done on a "first-come, first-served" basis (sign-up sheets during high attendance nights). School groups interested in seeing an astronomical observatory and looking through telescopes should contact the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park (281-242-3055), which is a larger facility dedicated to serving schools in the Houston area, and one which has weekly public viewing on Saturdays.

Fees: Unless specifically noted as Rice-only or private above, the open houses are free and open to the public. Some Rice lots charge a nominal fee for parking.

Getting the Most Out of Your Visit: The best views of planets, star clusters and nebulae are with our computerized 16-inch telescope inside the dome, but we can only accommodate about 60 people an hour looking through it and on busy nights a sign-up system is employed. However, in addition to this telescope, there will be 2-3 (or more) smaller telescopes set up on the terrace for viewing. These smaller telescopes do not require sign in. Our experience has been that the large telescope is able to see planets and the Moon well through thin clouds, and if it is clear we get good views from the smaller portable scopes as well. When the Moon is out, we will get some wonderful resolution with all the telescopes.

If you have small children (i.e., less than about 5 years old, we strongly recommend that they use only the telescopes set up on the terrace. The wait to see through these telescopes is much shorter than for the telescope in the dome, and small children are rarely able to discern any additonal detail through the large telescope. To see through the 16-inch, small children must be lifted up, and because the telescope cannot be touched during observation, it is extremely difficult to place the child's eye at the right distance from the eyepiece, even if the child was accustomed to looking through an eyepiece, which most are not. In contrast, the smaller telescopes offer a more controlled environment closer to the ground, and provide particularly good views of the Moon, which is probably the ideal target for children, as it is bright and easy to see.

If you have poor near-vision (i.e. need reading glasses) but can focus fine on objects at a distance you should take off your glasses when observing through a telescope and no special focusing should be required. If you are myopic (near-sighted) and require glasses to see distant objects, then usually the right choice is to take off your glasses and refocus the telescope for your eyes. Ask the professor or telescope operator if this can be done for you. Some objects are easier to do this with than others. If your eyes are highly astigmatic, you could try with or without glasses, but both views may be unsatisfactory for all the brightest objects. Likewise, if your retinas are not sensitive to light for some reason, then not a lot can be done. In all cases you should never touch the telescope or eyepiece with your hands, as this could dirty/damage the optics, and also makes the telescope vibrate. Position your eye close enough to see the entire field of view.

If you wish to photograph the Moon or other bright object with your camera, sometimes it works to just stick the camera right up by the eyepice. Your results may vary.