Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

We normally try to have a public night once a month during the semester. About half of these, on average, are wiped out by clouds. Scheduled lectures usually proceed regardless of weather conditions. Here are summaries of a few of the recent successful ones:

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 will 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 in BRK 103. 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? in BRK 103. 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.

December 13, 2016: [hosts: Drs. P. Hartigan and A. Isella] We opened the terrace with the hope of observing the last Supermoon of the year as it rose over the Houston skyline. Unfortunately, skies were cloudy. Dr. Hartigan went ahead with a lecture entitled 'Supermoons and Mini-Moons', which discussed what they are, why they happen, and which seasons currently have what type of Moon. Returning to the terrace we found the skies to be mostly clear. The Moon had risen by then, but we brought out one of the smaller telescopes to have a look before the clouds and mist rolled in once more. About 15 people attended this Tuesday night event held during finals week.

October 8, 2016: [host: Dr. P. Reiff] There was an observatory open house on Saturday, October 8, 7:30 - 10 pm in honor of International Observe the Moon Night. Approximately 100 visitors enjoyed views of the Moon and Mars.

September 9, 2016: [host: Dr. P. Hartigan] The observatory open house from 8pm - 11:30pm on Friday, September 9 was conducted in warm, humid conditions, with skies that were partly cloudy after a rain storm had moved past. Later in the night it cleared but was quite hazy. Nonetheless, we had wonderful views of the straight wall on the Moon, and the rings of Saturn in the smaller telescopes. Later in the evening we observed the Ring Nebula M57, the colorful binary star Gamma Andromeda, and the Andromeda Galaxy in the large telescope, and several binary stars in the smaller telescopes. A lecture on the constellations and planets visible in the Fall sky, and an overview of features visible on the lunar surface was given to a full room of about 40 people before the open house. Overall, the public night was attended by about 75 people.

February 7, 2016: [host: Dr. P. Reiff] The observatory open house on Sunday, February 7 had excellent views of Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, and an amazingly-skinny old Moon. It was a chilly morning but 20 people enjoyed the view.

February 5, 2016: [host: Dr. P. Reiff] The observatory open house on February 5 had clear skies and great views of all five naked-eye planets (Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury), plus the Moon. We even tracked them after sunrise, and closed at 7 am. Approximately 25 visitors and five helpers were present.

November 21, 2015: [host: Dr. C. Johns-Krull] The observatory open house was held be Saturday, November 21, 2015 from 7 - 9 pm. We had excellent views of the Moon, the Andromeda Galaxy, open star clusters, and Uranus and Neptune.

September 27, 2015 Lunar Eclipse Open House: [host: 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: [host: 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: [host: 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.

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.