Open Houses at the Rice University Campus Observatory

The last open house was Friday March 29, 2024. We don't have current plans for more this semester, as everyone is focusing on their plans for the April 8 solar eclipse. But we may have another one at the end of the semester.

--WEATHER UPDATE (as of 5pm Monday, March 29):
The weather seems fine for the March 29 open house

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. More open houses tend to occur in the fall, as in the spring the telescope is used heavily by classes.

Here are summaries of the ones we've had over the last several years:

Mar 29, 2024: [host: Dr. Mustafa Amin]
Dr. Amin gave a talk entitled "Light’s Straight Path — from Einstein’s 1919 Eclipse to Dark Matter and Blackholes'. Through partly-cloudy skies, the attendees then viewed the Orion Nebula, Jupiter and several binary stars. Observing continued until past 10pm. About 80 people overall attended the open house.

Oct 21, 2023: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan]
There was a talk on recent science results from the James Webb Space Telescope followed by observing on the terrace. Clouds poured in from the hurricane over Baja, but we still managed to see Jupiter, Saturn, and a blurry view of the Moon through the clouds. About 30 people in all attended the open house.

Oct 14, 2023: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan]
We had a lecture about annular and total eclipses, followed by viewing of the partial phases from the roof of the observatory. The partial phase was quite deep, about 85%. Weather cooperated and the event was busy, with perhaps 200 people coming and going during the three hours of the eclipse duration.

----------- telescope mount issues -------------

Sept 11, 2022: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan]
The observatory was open as part of the `Moon to Mars' celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Rice University Kennedy speech about going to the Moon. We mainly focused on Jupiter, Saturn, and, of course, the Moon.

May 15, 2022: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan]
There was a talk about the lunar eclipse at 8 pm, followed by observing the eclipse on the terrace until 1 am. The weather cooperated and we got very nice views of the entire event. The talk was well-attended, with something like 100 people overall observing the eclipse, with several attempting photography.

November 16, 2021: [host: Prof. Johns-Krull]
The telescope was opened for observing the Moon and planets.

October 16, 2021: [host: Prof. Patricia Reiff]
A lecture was given in honor of International "Observe the Moon Night", followed by planetary observations.

----------- pandemic -------------

Feb 1, 2020: [host: Dr. Patricia Reiff]
No lecture was given this month; instead, the 30 people who came early saw a naked-eye view of Mercury and Venus, and then went to the telescopes for Venus, Uranus, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Moon, the Orion Nebula, the Crab Nebula and the Pleiades. In total, approximately 50 people participated through the evening. Thanks to MST student (and local teacher) Mary Ann Quintana for helping with the telescopes.

December 6, 2019: [host: Dr. Patrick Hartigan]
We initially had clear weather for this open house, though high clouds and haze moved in later. After a talk in BRK 103 entitled "Our Two Interstellar Visitors", we mainly looked at the Moon, with the craters Copernicus and Bullialdus taking the spotlight. By request, we also found Uranus, and the C-8 telescope looked at the Pleiades. The weather was too murky to get a good view of Orion. Attendance over the course of the evening was about 30 people. Thanks to Shail and Pat Reiff for setting up and operating the C8.

November 1, 2019: [host: Dr. Andrea Isella]
The evening started off with a public lecture in BRK 103 entitled "Where Did the Earth Get Its Water" followed by observing at the campus observatory on the 4th floor of Brockman Hall. Attendance over the course of the evening was about 30 people. The weather was compromised by clouds, but attendees had views of the Moon, Saturn, and some double stars.

October 5, 2019: [host: Moody Center for the Arts]
In collaboration with the Moody Center of the Arts Rice Physics and Astronomy faculty David Alexander, Christopher Johns-Krull, and Patricia Reiff participated in Moonlight at the Moody. As part of the evening, two small telescopes were set up outside the gallery to allow visitors to get views of the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. A few hundred gallery visitors got a chance to glimpse the heavens through these telescopes. Special thanks go to graduate students Asa Stahl and Shail Mehta for their help with the telescopes.

October 4, 2019: [host: Dr. Patricia Reiff]
The evening started off with a public lecture in BRK 103 on the "Phases of the Moon, of Venus, and of Charon" followed by observing at the campus observatory on the 4th floor of Brockman Hall. Attendance over the course of the evening was about 50 people. The weather was quite good and we had excellent views of the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and Albireo. The folks who stayed to the end ended up seeing all four gas giants, by observing Uranus and Neptune as well.

September 6, 2019: [host: Dr. Christopher Johns-Krull]
The evening started off with a public lecture in BRK 103 on "The Violent Center of the Milky Way Galaxy" followed by observing at the campus observatory on the 4th floor of Brockman Hall. Attendance over the course of the evening was about 50 people. The weather was quite good and we had excellent views of the Moon, Jupiter (clear cloud banding was visible on the planet and all 4 Galilean moons were strung out in a nice line), Saturn (the rings were beautiful and a total of 5 moons were visible), and the Ring Nebula.

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.

Location: The Rice campus observatory is situated atop the Brockman Hall for Physics building located right behind Hamman Hall. Here's a map. If you are driving from off campus, enter the North Annex Parking Lot via Entrance 20 off Rice Blvd, and take a right at the stop sign (north side of campus). Park in the Annex Lot and walk maybe 100 meters or so down Campanile Road past the first building and take a right to get to Brockman Hall. Brockman has a large rectangular elevated water pool near its entrance. If you have an access card to the North Lot you can enter that lot via Entrance 21 and save yourself the walk.

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.