Night Vision: The George Observatory in Southeast Texas
By Joan Whetzel
The mood of anticipation increases as the sun dips behind the tall oaks and pines that surround the clearing. Families and scout troops have been roaming Brazos Bend State Park all day and are anxiously awaiting nightfall, and a visit to the park’s George Observatory. The day gives way to night, and the darkest section of the park comes to life with amateur astronomers, all looking up to witness the enchantment of the constellations.
The observatory's main telescope and dome were built in 1969 for Louisiana State University (LSU). After they were purchased from LSU by the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), the equipment was dismantled, each piece labeled according to precisely laid out blueprints, and reassembled in Brazos Bend State Park. The original analog controls and computers for telescope positioning are still in place and are still operational. However, they are now superseded by more modern and more accurate computers that record information and can be set up to track across the night sky as the Earth revolves. Actual viewing is done the old-fashioned way, in the dome with an eye to the lens. The George Observatory is used by local universities and astronomy clubs during the week as a research telescope.
On Saturday’s the three permanent telescopes are opened to the public for a small fee. On nights when the weather is overcast, the stars may not be visible, but a tour of the observatory’s main telescope still inspires wonder. The MacDonald Observatory, in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, has a 107-inch and an 84-inch telescope available for research, but they only allow public viewing through their smaller 24-inch telescope.
The main telescope at Brazos Bend, a 12-ton, 36-inch Cassegrain reflector telescope, has a separate 10-ton mount that was built for the telescope. The mount is isolated from the building and surrounding structures in order to avoid vibrations. It is considered one of the largest telescopes available for public viewing. The telescope uses a Ritchey-Cretien optical system, with f/7.6 to f/13.5 secondary mirrors. One of the main features is an hydraulic platform that brings viewers to the eyepiece.
Two smaller domes on the site include 14-inch and 18-inch telescopes also used by professional and amateur astronomers for research. They are opened to the public on Saturdays as well. Many local amateur astronomers bring their personal telescopes and set them up on the deck surrounding the domes. These are free to the public for viewing. The owners are glad to explain what their telescopes are aimed at as well as sharing any information about their equipment.
On clear nights, you can almost see forever, even with the Gulf Coast’s high humidity. Thre telescopes may not compare to the MacDonald and Kitt Peak Observatories, but they are still spectacular optical instruments considering the viewing limitations,. The main problems faced by the George Observatory are light pollution from Houston and the Gulf Coast humidity.
The light pollution is controlled somewhat by the tall trees surrounding the facility. However, with home building expanding further out, and closer to the Observatory, special laws had to be enacted both locally and at the state level, to restrict lighting so as not to further pollute the night sky.
The trees surround the dome site cause another problem. They diminish the horizon, further restiricting viewing due to their increasing height. It’s kind of a trade off. The viewing is either restricted by tree growth or by light pollution.
The Houston area’s humidity can only be minimally controlled by the evening breezes., this means that a 36-inch telescope is as big as it gets. Anything bigger may magnify the starlight, but it also magnifies toe moisture in the air.
One other side effect of being in a remote location is bird droppings. The reflector telescopes used at George Observatory, because they have no lens covering the end of the telescopes, they are open to the night air. This means that birds flying overhead sometimes leave their calling cards all over the mirrors. The mirrors require special cleaning. But over time, the bird droppings take their toll on the reflectivity of the mirrors, which means they periodically need replacing.
Other Attractions for Visitors
Some of the additional public draws to the Observatory include astronomy related educational programs (i.e. viewing solar flares and pictures of the Mars landrover) as well as the Challenger Learning Center, which provides an interactive educational experience for schools and scout troops. It’s a “Space Mission” field trip with half of the class or troop playes mission control while the other half are the astronauts on the mission. Other attractions include lectures about the night sky viewing on Saturday evenings so those with tickets to view through the 3 domed telescopes know what they will be seeing.
Also opened to the public is the George Observatory’s annual Astronomy Day held on the 2nd Saturday of October. The event includes: simulated space mission at the Challenger Center; sunspot viewing through filtered telscopes, indoor astronomy displays; local astronomy club displays and information; information on how to purchase and use buy and use telelscopes; astronomy lectures; children’s crafts; and guided tours of the observatory domes.
The best part of all, is that the Brazos Bend State Park and George Observatory are only about an hour’s drive south of Houston. Overnight camping is availbable in the Park with reservations. It is a great envirnment for families, schools and scout troops alike. WHer else on earth can you find telescopes and Gulf Coast alligators in one location?
1) Brazos Bend State Park
21901 FM 762
Needeville, TX 77461
Phone: (979) 553-5102
2) Challenger Learning Center
21901 FM 762
Needeville, TX 77461
3) George Observatory
21901 FM 762
Needeville, TX 77461
4) Houston Museum of Natural Science
One Hermann Circle Drive
Houston, TX 77030-1799
Explore the Cosmos at George Observatory
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