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Brazos Bend State Park

Travel thousands of light years in the comfort of the George Observatory.

By Melissa Gaskill

The M15 star cluster is 33,000 light years from Earth, but you can see it by traveling a somewhat shorter distance to George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. A satellite facility of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the observatory features three domed telescopes and a location on high ground surrounded by wetlands and woodlands that helps preserve a dark viewing sky (as does a model low-light ordinance for Fort Bend County). The short walk to the facility, through woodlands and over Creekfield Lake, is lined with low fixtures that light the way and also provide a graphic illustration of the immense distances in space; markers for the planets in our solar system are placed on the lights on a distance scale of 1 foot to 4.43 million miles. From the sun on the observatory building, it is roughly four-tenths of a mile to the marker near the parking lot for the last planet, Pluto. (Using this scale, you’d find the next closest star somewhere near Denver, Colorado.)

The observatory is open to the public every Saturday. Tickets costing $5 include viewing in two small domes at your leisure, and specific viewing times in the large dome, scheduled by group number every 15 minutes from dusk to 10:00 p.m., and 11 p.m. in the summer. Start with the orientation lecture that includes tips on how to make the most of your evening — important when you’re walking around in the dark and a few minutes might mean missing your viewing time. The large dome houses the 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope, one of the largest regularly open to public viewing, and a high-quality, 11-inch F/15 refracting telescope. Hydraulics raise the floor of the dome up to the viewing station, then lower it when everyone has had a chance to peer in at star clusters, the Milky Way, Saturn’s rings, cloud belts on Jupiter or whatever stellar phenomenon is on the evening’s agenda. On the outdoor observation deck, amateur astronomers often set up their equipment and are happy to show you these and other sights free of charge. While the park closes at 10 p.m., telescope viewing continues until 11 for those who are camping in the park. A perk for campers: the 10:30 telescope time is just for them.

The ground floor exhibit room opens at 3 p.m. and houses fragments of several meteorites, a display on how to tell a meteorite from a mere rock, interactive computer panels that answer questions like “Why do stars twinkle?” (the proper term is scintillate) and more.

This 5,000-acre state park on the Brazos River also has camping, screened shelters, picnic areas, fishing and 21.6 miles of trails around its lakes and swamps, with observation decks and towers that make it easy to spot some of the many alligators and birds that live there. Stargazing around the campfire is encouraged as well.

Park entrance fee $3 per person age 13 and older. George Observatory, (281) 242-3055 or (979) 553-3400, <www.hmns.org/see_do/george_observatory.asp>. Brazos Bend State Park is on FM 762 about one hour south of Houston; (979) 553-5101, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/brazos_bend/>.

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