Looking Up: George Observatory at Brazos Bend State park
The George Observatory at Brazos Bend state Park offers astronomy enthusiasts opportunities to conduct their own star search
By Melissa Gaskill
As day fades from the sky, pinpoints of light begin to appear above Brazos Bend State Park, about an hour southwest of Houston. The darker it grows, the more stars become visible, and a few hours after sunset, one particularly bright point rises above the trees to the east. I climb to the observation plaza of the George Observatory here in the middle of the park, and enter the largest of its three domes, each of which houses a high-powered telescope. I peer through the 36-inch Gueymard telescope, which reveals that this star-on-steroids is actually Jupiter. I can see the big planet’s stripes, four of its moons, and even a shadow made by one of the moons on Jupiter’s surface.
After soaking up that amazing sight, I step outside the dome and onto the broad plaza, which is ringed by red lights. The light is just bright enough to keep stargazers from smacking into the railings or each other without interfering with our night vision. Here, Jim Zabcik, a Houston resident and amateur astronomer, encourages me to check out his elaborate telescope setup; he tells me it’s a 5.5-inch TEC refractor. I have no idea what that means, but I’m impressed when he uses it to show me Messier 92, a star cluster discovered in 1777 in the constellation Hercules, some 26,000 light years away. A fuzzy blob to the naked eye on a clear night, it appears as a splash of individual stars through the scope. He then focuses on Epsilon Lyrae, a pair of double stars known in astronomy circles as a double-double. Then we join Sim Picheloup, another stargazing buff, who designed a swivel chair with a pair of binoculars mounted on it. Picheloup even rigged the chair with a counter that keeps track of how many people enjoy his invention. My seat duly counted, I look through the binoculars at a pattern of stars resembling ET, then another in the shape of a coat hanger—constellations interpreted for modern times, if you will.
The George, as everyone calls it, offers amateur astronomers an opportunity to enjoy their hobby and share it with others. Zabcik comes out three or four times a year, when clear weather and his schedule align. “I especially enjoy introducing my telescope to people who’ve never looked through a high-quality telescope before,” he says. He also gets a thrill from pointing out how star patterns sometimes require time and patience before they’re apparent. Epsilon Lyrae qualifies, requiring a long, slow look and a just-right gaze, not straight on but slightly to the side of the star pairs.
Friday nights at the George Observatory are reserved for groups—often Scouts or school groups—but on Saturdays, the Observatory opens to the public, and the plaza fills with astronomers, telescopes, and eager stargazers of all ages. These public-viewing nights begin with an orientation lecture, which includes tips on making the most of the evening. Tickets (available at the Observatory Gift Shop from 5-9:30 p.m.) cost $5, and give you unlimited viewing in the small domes (which house 18-inch and 14-inch telescopes), a specific viewing time in the large dome, and plenty of opportunity to mingle on the observation deck. On cloudy nights, employees give a presentation on what’s up in the sky behind those clouds, then introduce visitors to the workings of the 36-inch telescope, turning on the lights in the large dome to show how its mirrors, gears, cameras, and other parts work.
The Gueymard has been undergoing a series of repairs in recent months, but Observatory staff expect it to be fully operational late this summer. Until then, a high-quality, 11-inch refracting telescope attached to it adds a second perspective on celestial phenomena. The dome has a narrow band running up its side like a flat Mohawk, which slides open to create a window for the telescopes, and the entire dome rotates 360 degrees to make it possible to look in any direction.
The George Observatory is a satellite facility of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a venerable institution more than a century old. The main facility in Houston’s Museum District includes exhibits on space, paleontology, Native American culture, chemistry, and wildlife, plus a planetarium and a butterfly center. The Observatory’s location in Fort Bend County means that stargazers enjoy skies six times darker than those over Houston, says HMNS education specialist Peggy Halford, in part thanks to a county ordinance requiring shielded lights on all new development. The ordinance, modeled after existing ones in Arizona and New Mexico, went into effect in 2004. Texas counties normally do not have authority to enact ordinances, so the Legislature had to grant Fort Bend County that ability, an effort that took several years and the support of observatory volunteers and county officials.
Find more starry spots.
From the August 2012 issue.