Last updated Saturday, April 20, 11:30am by CMJ
The March Open House: The March public night was held Saturday, March 23 and hosted by Dr. Hartigan and grad student Andy Liao. The skies cleared by about 9pm as expected, and we had about an hour and a half observing with the 16" and 8" telescopes. We had nice views of the Moon, including a wonderful rille system near the crater Aristarchus. Jupiter's moons and belts were clear, and we also looked at a binary star, the Orion Nebula, a bright planetary with a visible white dwarf star at its center (NGC 2392) and several bright stars at the end of the evening. Skies were hazy, and even smoky at the end of the observing session, but we managed to squeeze in some pretty good views of objects in between the clouds early and the fog late. We did not do the (wimpy) comet, which requires very clear skies.
The April Open House: The most recent public night was held Friday, April 19 and hosted by Dr. Johns-Krull, Wilson Cauley, and Andy Liao. The weather was very nice after the front had moved through earlier in the week. Very nice views were had of the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, the Orion Nebula, the Eskimo Nebula, the galaxy M82, and the globular cluster M3. The smaller telescopes also focussed on a few nice binary stars. Jupiter was very nice, clearly showing its cloud bands and all 4 Galilean moons. Saturn's rings were beautiful, with the Cassini division visible at times of good seeing and 5 of its moons also visible.
The Next Open House: The next Observatory open house has not been scheduled yet. Check back here regularly for updates. There may be one scheduled for mid May.
Comet PanStarrs: There has been a lot of press about comet Panstarrs, and many people have seen spectacular photos taken in very dark skies like Arizona and Hawaii. Dark skies tend to reveal the tail much better than we can do from the center of Houston, and it is important to realize that the eye does not see what is revealed in time-exposure photographs. While visible from Houston, the comet is very low in the western sky at dusk and is not particularly bright. It can be a decent binocular object, but it is rather 'high-maintenance' in that you must observe it after 8:05pm or so because the sky is too bright beforehand, but before 8:20pm because after that it is so low in the sky that it disappears into the haze. There is a fuzzy core and a little tail. To find it (as of 3/16), locate Aries in binoculars during the comet's brief time window and pan directly to the horizon. The comet should be visible between about 3 and 8 degrees above the horizon. Hence, you must have a very good western horizon with no trees in the way, and a good clear night with no clouds near the horizon. The comet will gradually drift to the north and fade over the course of weeks, always close to the horizon after sunset.
While comet Panstarrs is not the best, and certainly not in the class of the recent apparitions of Hale-Bopp (1997), Hyakutake (1996), or even Halley (1986) and IRAS-Araki-Alcock (1983), it does look like a cute little comet in binoculars with the right conditions. For the March public night we did not do it, because the skies cleared too late, and in any case it was a hazy night.
A better comet may be on its way though. Comet ISON is a sungrazing comet that will appear in the eastern sky before dawn the second week of December this year. Now, sungrazing comets are often disappointments because they may not survive their passage close to the Sun, but if it does this comet could be quite impressive. With comets you never know, stay tuned.
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.