Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

Updated Sunday, Sept 27, 10:20pm 2015 by PMH

The lunar eclipse was wiped out, but we will have another public night or two sometime this semester, probably mid-October or mid-November. Updates will be posted here once the date is scheduled.

September 27, 2015 Lunar Eclipse Open House: [Dr. P. Hartigan] The lunar eclipse would have been a nice event, but sadly was completely blanketed by clouds and drizzle that funneled in from a low pressure area in the Gulf. About 25 people attended a talk about the eclipse, and another 50 people or so came throughout the evening to look at the telescope and the Houston skyline. Better luck on Jan 20/21, 2019, when an even better (and closer) total lunar eclipse will occur in the evening from Houston! There will also be a decent one at dawn on January 31, 2018, and another on May 16, 2022. So don't despair if you missed this one, there are other equivalent opportunities in the near future well before October 2033.

September 19, 2015 Lunar Observing Open House: [Dr. P. Reiff] We hosted a public night as part of `International Observe the Moon Night' that was well-attended throughout the evening by approximately 130 people.

June 30, 2015 Venus-Jupiter Conjunction Open House: [Dr. P. Hartigan] We began the evening with a lecture about the conjunction and its historical significance. About 20 people waited to see the event through clouds from the terrace. Bad weather prevented all views until the very end, but the handful who stayed were treated to a spectacular sight of the planets setting behind the Houston skyline. We have photos of the planets as they set.

February, March and April 2015 Open Houses: were cancelled owing to clouds and rain.

January 23, 2015, Winter Sky Open House: [Dr. Johns-Krull] Several folks braved the chilly weather as the skies cleared to reveal nice views of the crescent Moon, the Orion Nebula, and Comet Lovejoy.

November 29, 2014, A Fall Sky Open House: [Dr. R. Dufour] Starting at 6 pm, Prof. Dufour gave a public talk on several of the interesting things visible in the night sky in late November. The observatory opened for viewing at 6:30 pm offering some good views of a few globular clusters as well as the Ring Nebula in Lyra and the Great Orion Nebula, and a few other objects.

October 23, 2014, The Partial Solar Eclipse and Evening Observing: [Dr. Johns-Krull] The observatory opened at 4:00 pm on Thursday, October 23, 2014 to observe the Sun and follow the eclipse as long as it was visible. The solar eclipse began at 4:58 pm with maximum phase occurring 5:58 pm. The eclipse ended just after sunset. The observatory reopened again at 8 pm for nighttime viewing and stayed open until 10:30 pm. Clouds hampered the view of the Sun for much of the eclipse, but some excellent views were available, particularly close to sunset. A large active region on the Sun was visible in addition to the eclipse itself. Nighttime viewing was good, with views of Mars, a few globular clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, and the Ring Nebula in Lyra. A few double stars were also observed.

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. Usually they are on the first floor of Brockman Hall, with an entrance under the archway near the fountain. 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 or stairs 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 eyepiece. Your results may vary.