Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

Last updated Friday, November 8, 4:15 pm by RJD


THE NEXT OPEN HOUSE WILL BE FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8TH; HOSTED BY PROFESSOR REGGIE DUFOUR AND RICE STUDENTS. Since we are now on Central Standard Time, sundown is ~5:30pm so we WILL START AT ~6 pm on the observatory deck on the 4th floor of Brockman Hall. At that time the bright planet Venus and the crescent moon will be viewable, but only during the early evening. As Thursday afternoon, the forecast for Friday looks uncertain. Be sure to check back Friday afternoon (after about 3 pm) to confirm that the event will not be cancelled. Because of the early evening objects, the lecture that is normally presented will be at 8 pm in Brockman 101 with emphasis on stars and constellations in the morning sky and how to view Comet ISON between Thanksgiving and Christmas when it is expected to be brightest and a naked eye object. Dr. Dufour will present the lecture and point out several interesting objects to look at with binoculars or small telescopes in the winter sky, then we will continue observing until ~10 pm if interest warrants.

The December open house is tentatively scheduled for Friday, December 6. Check this website a few days ahead for details.

The October Open House: The open house on Friday, October 11, 2013 was hosted by Dr. Hartigan, who also presented a lecture on binary stars beforehand. The weather started out quite poor, with broken clouds. But we opened the telescopes and were able to observe the three mulitple star systems discussed in the lecture - gamma Andromedae, beta Cygni, and epsilon Lyra. The Moon was great throughout the evening. After about 9pm the clouds parted and we were able to observe deep sky objects like the Ring Nebula M57, the globular cluster M15 in Pegasus, and the Andromeda Galaxy M31. To close the evening we observed Uranus and Neptune.

Thanks to Andy Liao and Wilson Cauley for their assistance in setting up the telescopes and operating the C-8. Additional open houses this Fall have been scheduled for Friday November 8, and Friday December 6. We also had an open house this semester in September.

Comet ISON: There is starting to be a lot of press about comet ISON. Some have even said it will the "comet of the century" (of course, the century is only 13 years old). 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. Recent images of comet ISON show it to be fainter than expected, and the nucleus may have undergone some fragmentation. This is not particularly good news, but 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.