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Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

Updated Tuesday, June 30, 11:21pm 2015 by PMH

Dr. Hartigan gave a lecture on the Venus-Jupiter conjunction, and about 20 people braved the rain to try to see the event from the terrace. A nasty cloud obscured the event for two hours and followed the objects as they set. Most left around 10:20 without seeing anything, but the few who stayed were treated to something truly spectacular - the planets right next to one another setting over the Galleria. Venus appeared as a crescent in the telescope and we could see Jupiter and its moons as well in the same field of view. Wow, amazing sight to see. We watched as they sunk slowly behind the Houston skyline, as bright as airplanes. One of the attendees took some amazing photos of the event. I'm sorry for those of you who left. Ten more minutes would have done it. Hope you got to see it on your way home.

By the way, a small child seems to have dropped his/her retainer, and I have it in my office. Email me (hartigan@sparky.rice.edu) if it is yours.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter 6/28 - 7/2, 2015

Venus and Jupiter are typically the two brightest planets in the sky (Mars sometimes competes with Jupiter for second place), so whenever they get close together in the sky it is a spectacular sight to see. Beginning around June 24, a rather rare astronomical event will slowly unfold in the evening sky that is easy to see from Houston. It is something easy to show to children before bedtime. Between about 8:30pm and 10:30pm in the western sky you will see two bright objects: the brilliant one is Venus, and the somewhat fainter but still bright one is Jupiter. Within the next few days the planets will appear to approach one-another in the sky, and on Tuesday night will be closer together than the diameter of the Full Moon. They will make for a pretty sight. It is a great way to show that planets move in the sky. The planets are in actuality far-separated, with Jupiter on the opposite side of Sun as seen from the Earth, and Venus on the near side.

I looked into this a bit, and from the period 2000-2035 there does not seem to be as good of a combination of close approach and distance above the horizon at sunset in Houston as this one has. So the combination is quite special. The only one of comparable quality in the evening sky will be in 2023. There will be an even closer one between these two next year, but it will be much lower in the dusk sky. In our current event the planets are closer together than ~ 1 degree for 5 nights centered on next Tuesday.

More details regarding this type of conjunction, including a summary of all of the good ones between the years 2000 and 2040 are available. If you are feeling adventurous, you can learn about the various series of Jupiter/Venus conjunctions and how they relate to the present one.

Venus-Jupiter Conjunction Open House June 30: Dr. Hartigan gave a lecture, and 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 event.

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

January 23, 2015 Open House:. 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 Open House:. Starting at 6 pm, Prof. R. 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 Open House:. 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. 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.