Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

Observing 8:15-10 pm (Brockman 400)

We normally try to have a public night a couple of times during the semester. About half of these, on average, are wiped out by clouds. Scheduled lectures usually proceed if the weather conditions look questionable, but still possible. If the conditions are so bad that we can be assured of no observing, open houses are generally not scheduled or postponed.

Here are summaries of the ones over the last two years or so:

April 10, 2019: [host: Dr. Patricia Reiff]
About 40 visitors observed the Moon, Mars, and the Great Nebula in Orion. Lead observer was Professor Reiff. There was no talk this time. Thanks to graduate student Shail Mehta and teachers Jimmy Newland, Jakarda Varnado and Mary Ann Quintana for their assistance with the telescopes.

January 20, 2019: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan, assisted by Drs C. Johns-Krull and P. Reiff]
A talk held in BRK 101 entitled "Tonight's Lunar Eclipse" was followed by observing of the eclipse from both the observatory platform and with telescopes on the ground. We set up two 8" telescopes on the roof in addition to the 16", and had an 8" and a pair of binoculars on the ground. We had a large crowd, perhaps 200 people in all. The weather cooperated, and while lines for the big telescope were long, there were no major problems. Thanks to graduate students Shail and Asa for their assistance with the small telescopes, and RUPD for crowd management.

October 27, 2018: [host: Dr. Andrea Isella] Observatory Open House was held Saturday evening, October 27, 2018. The evening began with a talk "From galaxies to planets: how astronomical images have revolutionized our understanding of the Universe" at 6:45 pm. We observed planets, including Saturn and Mars and Jupiter.

September 28, 2018: [host: Dr. Christopher Johns-Krull] The weather did not cooperate, so we were not able to use the telescope; however, about 35-40 people attended the talk on "What Killed the Dinosaurs."

August 1, 2018: [host: Dr. Patricia Reiff] In honor of the Mars closest approach, the Observatory was open on August 1 from 9 to 11 pm. Views were had of several of the planets up at this time.

July 24, 2018: [host: Dr. Patricia Reiff] The open house originally scheduled for Monday, July 23, 2018 was also held on July 24 because of the cloud forecast on July 23. On July 23, approximately 30 visitors observed Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon (at which time the clouds closed in). On July 24, approximately 80 visitors observed Venus, Jupiter, the Moon, Saturn, and Mars. On both days Mercury was up but in the clouds.

May 19, 2018: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan] The open house on Saturday, May 19, 2018 had some ambitious goals, but we were successful in all of them. The evening began with a lecture, The Celestial Clockwork of Jupiter's Moons, which described transits and shadows of Jupiter's four large Galilean satellites, as well as some of the historical signficance related to their discovery. We then observed a series of lovely rilles on the Moon while the smaller telescope viewed the phase of Venus. The International Space Station then flew by around 9:30, appearing as bright as Jupiter and then disappearing into the Earth's shadow. Another satellite, this one on a polar orbit made an appearance. All eyes then turned to Jupiter, where we observed the entire shadow transit of Europa as a small, but distinct black dot on the planet. Quite a bit of detail was visible on the jovian cloud decks, and during the middle of the transit we actually were able to see both Europa, projected onto the jovian disk, and Europa's shadow. Soon thereafter the Great Red Spot rotated into view, and Europa popped off the disk of Jupiter so we saw clearly both the satellite and its shadow simultaneously (as well as the other three Galilean satellites). Weather was partly cloudy, but held well enough through midnight, when we closed. Roughly 40 people attended these events.

April 22, 2018: [host: Dr. Christopher Johns-Krull] An observatory open house was held on the evening of Sunday, April 22, 2018. The evening began with a lecture, "The Parade of Planets," at 7:30 pm. The ~45 minute talk was attended by 25-30 people and was held in BRK 103, where most open house lectures are held. We then adjourned to the observing deck on the 4th floor of Brockman Hall to observe the Moon, colorful binary stars, the Orion and Eskimo nebulae, and the M3 globular cluster. Observing continued until approximately 10 pm. Over the course of the evening, about 35 people attended the event.

November 25, 2017: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan] An open house was held on the evening of Saturday, November 25, 2017. A lecture on nebulae, Where Star Meets Cloud, was held before observing the Moon, a colorful binary star, and three open clusters. A total of about 15 people observed with the telescope over the evening, the weekend after Thanksgiving. The weather was initially cloudy, but cleared after the talk. We had many nice views of craters, especially the multiple craters that make up Cassini. We were also able to get good views of the lunar Apennine and Alps mountain ranges, as well as several rilles that are located near the Apollo 15 landing site.

October 28, 2017: [host: Dr. Christopher Johns-Krull] An open house was held on the evening of Saturday, October 28, 2017, preceded by a lecture on Meteor Showers and the Science Behind Them. Following the talk, we looked at Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, the first quarter Moon and the Ring Nebula. The open house was well-attended with about 20-25 people at the talk (some in costume!) and 2-3 times that over the course of the night at the telescope. The weather was cool and clear and there were no instrument problems.

September 30, 2017: [host: Dr. Patricia Reiff] Dr. Reiff gave a talk on In a Blaze of Glory - Cassini's Best. Observing afterward was successful, and included views of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the quarter Moon. Somewhere around 100 people in all attended the event.

August 21, 2017 [hosts: Drs. Isella and Bradshaw] Solar eclipse! Faculty from the Rice Physics and Astronomy Department set up telescopes on the main academic quad near the statue of William Marsh Rice for students, faculty, and visitors to view the Sun with the Moon passing in front of it. The eclipse began at 11:46 am as the Moon started to pass in front of the Sun. The peak was at 1:17 pm when about 66% of the Sun's surface was covered. Many people came out to enjoy this rare event.

May 5, 2017: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan] The open house on Friday May 5 began with a talk entitled, The Great American Solar Eclipse, that discussed the specifics of the upcoming eclipse on August 21, 2017, including what to expect and how to observe it safely. The talk also explored how this eclipse fits into patterns of previous and future eclipses. Following the talk we observed the gibbous Moon with lovely views of the crater Copernicus and the Apollo 12 and 14 landing sites near Fra Mauro, as well as several rilles. Jupiter and its four main satellites were well-placed, and we even observed an unusual storm just above one of the belts on the planet. We'll also looked at a the muliple star system Mizar, and demonstrated how to use projection to image the Moon, and by inference, the Sun. The weather was lovely, clear and dry. About 50-75 people attended some part of the lecture or the observing afterwards.

April 1, 2017: [host: Dr. Christopher Johns-Krull] The open house of Saturday, April 1, 2017 was attended by about 20 people due to poor weather. The evening started at 7:30 pm with a talk by Dr. Johns-Krull entitled The Pleiades and Praesepe Star Clusters and the Evolution of the Sun . Clouds and rain prevented use of the telescopes that evening.

March 4, 2017: [host: Dr. Andrea Isella] The open house held Saturday, March 4, 2017 was attened by about 25 people. While the weather was quite poor, the audience enjoyed a lecture by Dr. Isella entitled How do Planets Form? How Did We Get Here?. Due to the poor weather, no observing took place.

February 4, 2017: [host: Dr. Mustafa Amin] The open house held Saturday, February 4, 2017 was attended by about 30 people. The evening started with a talk by Dr. Amin entitled "Seeing" the Invisible: Dark Matter and Dark Energy in our Cosmos followed by a tour of the observatory on the 4th floor observing deck of Brockman Hall, hosted by Dr. Andrea Isella. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate (light rain), so we were not able to open the dome.

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: From the North parking lot, go across the street, walk between Hamman and Mudd halls (motorcycle parking and sometimes a food truck[!]) and bear right to the central open area of Brockman, past the fountain. From here you can either enter the building on the left and continue to the end of the hall to the very slow elevator, or take the stairs to the fourth floor. Alternatively, walk around the back of the building on its south side, enter through the rear door (labeled "118 Receiving"), and take the same slow elevator from there up to the fourth floor. Once on the fourth floor, go through the double doors on the right to the observing terrace. The terrace will usually open around sunset. You will be able to see the dome on top of the building from the ground. 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 open during observing.

For Lectures:, it depends on where they are held. Usually they are on the first floor of Brockman Hall, with an entrance to the right building under the archway near the fountain. The large lecture hall (capacity 100+) is BRK 101, but if the group is smaller we often hold the talks in BRK 103, located to the left as you walk in the door.

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. If there is a lecture, it is often held regardless of the weather.

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 eyepiece. Your results may vary.