Welcome to Houston Astronomical Society

Founded in 1955, Houston Astronomical Society is an active community of enthusiastic amateur and professional astronomers with over 60 years of history in the Houston area. Through education and outreach, our programs promote science literacy and astronomy awareness. We meet on the first Friday of each month at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center. Membership has a variety of benefits, including access to a secure dark site west of Houston, a telescope loaner program, and much more. Joining is simple; you can sign up online, by mail or in person at a monthly meeting.

Outreach report for Valentine’s event at the Schaefer Observatory

Friday night could not have been better weather for a public observing event. Folks seemed to know it, too, as they travelled to Schulenburg from as far away as the east side of Houston. Inside a warm classroom, I gave a brief talk about what we were going to see, and why, to a couple of dozen stargazers ranging in age from 3 to 63. For this crowd, Lepus became the Bunny Rabbit and Orion the Hunter was armed with shield and club. We did have several teenagers, so Messier 35 in Gemini became Castor’s toe ring. One 12-year-old boy didn’t see the Big Dipper asterism rising in the north but the Rocket Ship! You can see it, too, if you extend the end stars of the dipper bowl to the snout of the Big Bear. I told him I’d be using that asterism of his from now on.

the_Rocket_Ship.pngWe continued with questions as we walked across the Blinn College parking lot to line up with South Street, a straight as an arrow boulevard running east to west and conveniently lined with large oak trees. After pointing out Venus blinding us from above, we started navigating down to Mercury which had just crested a tree and was making its way front and center. Not many in humanity have seen Mercury so one-by-one the adults and teens thrilled to spot it. It took a little while for the under 12 crowd, but parents would not give up until their children had seen it too. My funny wizard hat saved the day for one mom as she was able to position me so that Mercury was at the hat’s tip and lifted her son to her eye level to spot it. “Oh, that orange dot?” And after a chuckle, we moved on to the observing field.

Winter is a great time to talk stellar evolution while pointing out naked eye objects like the Pleiades—stars in their childhood; the Hyades—teenaged stars who prefer some distance but still hang out together; and, of course, the most spectacular stellar nursery the night sky affords us—the Great Orion Nebula. Winter is not known for globular clusters, but Lepus came to the rescue with Messier 79 to round out the other end of the stellar life cycle. Equipped with printed Skymaps, clipboards, soft pencils and red flashlights, we began the constellation tour. Both of my tested green light pointers gave out, but I needn’t have worried. Moms and dads used their flashlights to identify objects from map to sky, calling me over to check, and I got a kick working the line of star gazers who finally got to put a name to stars they’d heard about or had seen in their own childhoods.

On deck we had two Dobsonian reflectors with part-time operators (myself and a teenaged sister and brother) and one Celestron NexStar 8se. GoTo scopes take a while to get aligned, but once they do, they’re a great tool for outreach. Hats off to Phil Bracken who tag teamed it with me for the second half of the night with his NexStar. I suggested objects to see, he got us to them, and then I ran folks up and down the stairs of the observatory to show them the ‘70s era Celestron 14” SCT on an equatorial fork mount. I consider this a museum piece as the 9x50 finder needs serious nighttime alignment to the scope's view, plus the dome needs three adults to open the window and turn the dome manually to follow the sky. Oh yes, and a crowbar to lift a temperamental track wheel back onto the rail when it hops off. But the visitors were charmed (so was I) to be in the dimly red-lit dome peering through a narrow slit to look out at the dark sky they’d just seen outside. We followed M 42 in the finder but never got anything of note in the eyepiece. Maybe I can convince Blinn to give me a night to get things aligned before the next public event.

I can’t end this report without mentioning the police officer who joined us. And then another, and another, evidently taking turns. They were three of six locals to check things out and told me how much darker it was where they lived; one even had a scope of his own that he’s trying to learn how to use. Soon I may be sending out the call to an invitation-only star party and training session in Fayette County. We’ll definitely need to figure out other ways to publicize this event as there’s a large, underserved community in this area. But our members have seen it on our website event calendar and are attending or plan to. I was pleased to be able to caravan back to our own Dark Site in Colorado County to show two new HAS members our astronomers paradise there.  

Rene Gedaly
Membership, etc.
[email protected]

Get your observing on!

In my personal opinion, the greatest benefit of membership in HAS is the access to our Dark Site.  One thing I see so often on astronomy forums is people like us who live in urban areas talking about the things they have to deal with when trying to do astronomy from dark locations.  Things like needing portable power packs, to dealing with critters, local law enforcement, or even yokels with guns.  On top of this, many of these people, especially in the Northeast, have to drive for 3+ hours just to get to a site decently dark enough for deep-sky astronomy.  How fortunate we are that we don’t have to deal with any of these things.  
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The HAS Dark Site is an hour or less from parts of the West side of the metro area and no more than 2 hours from the furthest reaches of the East side.  It has all of the amenities you need for observing: solid ground to set your scope on, electricity, restrooms, bunkhouses to sleep in, a legal right for you to be there, and no one waving a gun in your face (critters can be a wild card, but they tend to stay away too).  There’s even telescopes you can borrow out there.  There are also all kinds of great events going on at the Dark Site throughout the year, like the Messier Marathon, Annual Picnic, and other great events put on by Jim King, our Field Trip and Observing Chair, as well as my Novice Lab program.

But there’s also no need to wait for an event to get out there!  Remember, your membership gets you 24-7 access to the dark site (with completion of the orientation, of course).  If the conditions are good there’s bound to be someone out there.  If you’re still worried about being there by yourself, connect with other members! Several folks, including myself, will frequently post to the email server or to the Facebook group when we are heading out there.  Feel free to send a post out there yourself if you’re thinking of going.  

Also, please note, if there IS an event going on at the site, you’re not required to participate in it just because you’re at the site.  The event does not close the site off to folks exercising their right to use it.  If you’re not interested in attending my Novice Lab, for example, but you’d prefer to make your first trip to the site on a night when I’m there in case you have any issues, well then go ahead and come on my Novice Lab night and just do your own thing.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  

If your interest in observing extends beyond the moon and bright planets, dark skies are more important than any piece of equipment in your arsenal.  Thanks to the HAS Dark Site, getting those dark skies is a lot cheaper than your equipment too.  Get on out there and explore the universe.  

Clear Skies,
Stephen Jones
Vice President, Houston Astronomical Society

Editor's note: Recent sky quality meter readings at the Dark Site show 21.34 & 21.42; that's Bortle 3. Yes, we still get nights like that so keep your “to go bag” ready with your “go-to” and “get to” the dark site.

Dark Site hot beverage bar to open

It gets cold outside observing. Warm up with a cup of coffe, hot chocolate, or tea at the Dark Site in front of the Dob shed. I’ll open up the hot beverage bar on third quarter and new moon Saturday nights through March. That’s 2/15, 2/22, 3/14, and 3/21. During third quarter, the moon does not rise until after midnight. During new moon, we don’t see the moon at all during the night time hours. So review the light rules, pick out your spot on the field, and when it’s cold, share some conversation over a hot brew at the Dob shed. —Rene Gedaly, [email protected] 

Time to Renew Your Membership for 2020

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Time to RENEW YOUR HAS MEMBERSHIP so you can take your 2020 Dark Site Training January 1st and get the new gate code before it changes on March 7th! HAS memberships run from 1 January to December 31. Fortunately, renewing your membership is fast and easy!

As a renewing member you will continue to be part of one of the most active and fun astronomy clubs in Texas and continue to have access to our member benefits including:

  • Supporting our active outreach programs which show the night sky to school children and the public, and encourages interest in STEM activities
  • Access to our controlled access dark sky observing site in Columbus
  • Active Novice Astronomer programs including Nite Sky Labs at our dark sky site which teach you how to use your telescope and navigate the night sky
  • Access to our growing library of online videos of presentations of interest to both Novice and Seasoned Astronomers alike

Membership dues are a bargain. Dues amounts:

  • Regular - $36/year
  • Associate - $6 (lives at same address as regular member)
  • Student - $12 (full-time student)
  • Sustaining - $50 or more (if you want to give a little extra to keep the club strong)

As always there are three ways to renew:

  1. Renew online with PayPal - Login to your account at https://www.astronomyhouston.org/members/renew
    We greatly appreciate if you pay by PayPal because it automates the process.  With 500 members, it saves us a lot of work.
  2. Renew at a monthly meeting and pay by check or cash.
  3. Mail a check the old-fashioned way to Treasurer, Houston Astronomical Society, PO Box 6657, Katy, TX 77491.

We hope that you will continue to support HAS and look forward to seeing you at our next meeting or event at the Columbus dark sky site! — Mike Edstrom

At the February meeting

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At the February meeting: Larry Mitchell speaks on The Amateur in Astronomy: Past, Present, and Local, Val Ricks receives an Astronomical League award from AlCor Doug McCormick, Bill Spizzirri shares 21 Lunar Facts.

Bottom right: Take care to read the Mendenhall group meeting room board correctly. Two organizations with similar names meet on the same night.  

HAS meetings are held the first Friday of the month at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Rd, Houston, TX 77055. Astro Café starts at 6:00 pm, Novice Session at 6:30 pm, and main meeting at 7:15 pm. Check the website in case of changes.

Posted by: rene-gedaly Link: https://www.astronomyhouston.org/content/february-meeting

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