Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Closed for Remodeling

Hey, that film's already opened.  I saw that on a marquee just last week.

And if you remember that go all the way back to the A-Team in the 1980s.  Good for you.

So for this installment, I wanted to explain why the Abbitt Planetarium closes down after Labor Day every year.  Let me start by explaining how things used to work.

Back before our renovation, when we were still a "traditional" planetarium (meaning no digital equipment), we closed for 5 different weeks each year.  During those weeks, we would be programming and installing a new planetarium show.  This meant dealing with hundreds of slides, synchronizing everything with SMPTE time code, and then testing and debugging the show for days on end.  We generally got very little sleep during those weeks...and we had to close every time we wanted to install a new show.  Plus, we could only do one at a time.  Ever.

These days, with our digital technology, programming a new show is much, much easier.  We no longer need to close for a full week when we want to get a new program in place.  And having multiple programs that can run during a day is simple!  So...why do we close for three weeks then?

The main reason is that it allows us some time to do all the maintenance tasks that we used to do back in the day when we were closed for show installation - clean the carpets, repair the seats, back up the computers, repair the dome, clean the projectors, remove outdated materials, and all that other stuff that is so much easier to do when you don't have to worry about customers coming in.  Another reason is that we do need some time in the theater to work out programming issues, and September is generally slow, what with kids just back to school and all.  Finally, the Abbitt Planetarium is run mostly by two people, and after a long summer of 7-days-a-week operation, we're pooped!  We generally get to take our "summer vacation" after the summer months, so we can be here during the time when other folks are looking to enjoy the theater on their vacations.
So while we won't really be remodeling, the Abbitt Planetarium will be closed from September 6 through September 30, to spruce things up a bit, and get some more shows ready to go.  So what can you expect to see on October 1?

One thing we'll have going on is a continuation of our summer preschooler program The Zula Patrol: Under the Weather.  What will make it extra fun is that we're partnering with the Children's Museum of Richmond, who will be hosting a Zula Patrol themed exhibit during the fall!  If you're a member of the VLM, you can visit the Children's Museum for free and enjoy the Zula Patrol experience.  If you're a member of CMoR, come visit the VLM for the planetarium show!  You'll receive a discount on your admission to the museum, and the Zula Patrol show for free.

The Zula Patrol.  Courtesy Spitz Creative Media.

We'll also be featuring IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System.  If you've not yet seen this visually stunning show about NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, come join us this fall for sure.  This show will be gone in November, as we'll be transitioning over to our holiday programming by Thanksgiving (which we'll also be working on this September!).  IBEX is studying the region of space where the Sun's influence ends, and interstellar space begins.  Scientists are learning some amazing things about how this boundary keeps us safe as we journey through the Milky Way.

An artist's conception of the IBEX spacecraft.  Courtesy NASA.

And on the weekends, you can always catch Virginia Skies, our classic program about what's going on in skies above us on any given night.  Plus we'll be busy behind the scenes, getting ready for our Halloween event, Night of the Living Museum, and work has already begun on the shows that will premiere in 2012 (A doomsday show?  Oh yes, you bet we'll have a show about the end of the world!).  Can't wait until October for some fun in the planetarium?  Join us on September 10th for our monthly star party and laser light night.  Catch an evening showing of IBEX at 7:30pm, and then stay for some amazing laser shows.  At 8:30pm is Laseropolis, a fun and funky mix of great music for families.  At 10pm is Laser X, a hard-rockin' alternative experience.  Wrap up the night with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at 11:30pm.  We're really hoping for clear weather, after the rain washed out August's star party.  Hope I'll see you there!

So come by and see us this Labor Day weekend.  Take in one of the shows that will be leaving us for a while.  And then stay tuned - more fun will be coming soon!  So until then...

Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Little Robot that Could

Greetings all!

I've got a friend who loves little robots.  And no, it's not Grant Imahara.  She's a science educator here at the museum with me.  And I have to confess, I totally understand.

There's something wonderful about a little, plucky machine, doing its job despite all obstacles.  Maybe that's why we love movies like Wall-E so much - little robots are just so darn cute!  Okay, so I'm anthropomorphizing...a lot.  But I can't help it.  Because the subject of this post is a truly amazing little robot - MER-B, better known as the Mars-exploring robot Opportunity

An artist's conception of Opportunity on the surface of Mars.  NASA

It's hard to believe, but Opportunity and its twin sister, Spirit, arrived on Mars in January 2004.  That's right - this rover, which was designed for a 90-day mission, has now been traveling around on the surface of Mars for over seven years.  That right there is reason enough to love this intrepid little robot.

The science achievements from the Mars Exploration Rover program have been nothing short of extraordinary.  We've learned an incredible amount about Mars and its history.  Thanks to the rovers, we know that Mars did indeed have a wet past, and most certainly still has water which occasionally makes a surface appearance.  Opportunity discovered the first meteorite on another planet - Heat Shield Rock - while investigating the site where its own heat shield landed.  The rover has traveled about 20 miles across the surface of Mars, inspecting rocks, digging holes, taking photographs and measurements, and performing numerous other scientific tasks.  It has survived dust storms, a cranky shoulder joint, and even getting stuck in a sand dune for a time.  Its exploits are far too numerous to detail in this space, but I strongly encourage you to read about them.  Opportunity's story is an incredible one, full of achievement, drama, and most of all, the strength and determination of her human crew back here on Earth.

I felt it was time to interest people in the Mars rover again, because Opportunity has achieved quite a milestone in the past few days.  It has been traveling toward Endeavour Crater on Mars for three years, and at long last, arrived at the massive hole in the Martian surface just last week, sending back this lovely photo.

The far rim of Endeavour Crater as seen by Opportunity.  NASA.

Thus Opportunity begins another new chapter in its long and varied history.  Its twin, Spirit, sadly has ended its mission, and has been out of contact with NASA for more than a year.  But Opportunity seems to still be going strong.  I hope this "Little Rover That Could" keeps on keeping on for a long, long time to come.

If you'd like to see Mars, and wave hello to the rover, check your early morning skies.  Mars shines in the eastern sky before sunrise, looking like a dull orange or yellowish star.  Keep watching it, because Mars and Earth are now approaching each other rather than receding, so the Red Planet will grow steadily in size and brightness in the coming months.  While Opportunity may not be able to see you, nor you see it, it's incredible to think that as you look at a small planet millions of miles away, something made by human hands is driving along, helping us discover the wonders of another world.

Until next time,
Carpe noctem,

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Dog Days are Back

Hey everyone!

Well, here we are again.  It's August.  The weather is hazy, hot, and humid.  Going outside for more than about 4 seconds results in sticky wet clothes, lots of sweat, and generally feeling nasty really fast.  It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an astronomer's favorite time of year.

And yet, there's still stuff to talk about, even if we'd rather stay inside while we do it!

Traditionally, August days are called the Dog Days of Summer.  The phrase refers not to the lolling tongues of dogs desperately trying to stay cool, but to the brightest star in the nighttime sky, Sirius.  It's the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog, and therefore it is often called the Dog Star.

The star Sirius.  NASA

The ancient Greeks noticed that in August, when things were getting pretty hot, the star Sirius rose in the East just before the Sun, meaning that Sirius shares the sky with the Sun virtually all day.  Since Sirius is so bright, the Greeks figured it must be pretty close, and the extra heat in August was caused by Sirius adding its light and heat to the powerful rays of our own Sun.  The Romans and the Egyptians also shared this same belief - and in fact, the Egyptians were especially attentive to Sirius, as the Dog Days occured just before the annual flooding of the Nile.  Score one for the ancients, no?

Well, the ancients were unaware of just how far away stars are.  They were correct in their assumption that Sirius is pretty close to us - it's about 8 light years away, or 47 trillion miles.  As close as that is as stars go, that's still much, much too far away for Sirius to have any kind of effect on our weather.  The Sun is only 93 million miles away, and that's the cause of our weather changes.  The heat at this time of year is the result of the Earth's tilt - the Northern Hemisphere is tipped towards the Sun during summer, giving us long days and lots of intense sunlight.  No additional stars required.

Don't feel too bad for the ancients.  They might not have been right about everything, but they did hand down some wonderful stories and ideas that are still fun to share.  Take the exciting tale of Perseus, son of Zeus and legendary hero.  His story is best known today as the campy classic film Clash of the Titans (trust me, for maximum enjoyment, stick to the original, not the sad modern remake).  You might want to rent it around August 12, and enjoy a midnight movie at home.  When the film is over, head outside and look up.  You should be just in time to catch some of the annual Perseid meteor shower, which will peak around 2AM on the morning of August 12.  Meteors will seem to come from the direction of the constellation Perseus, so put him at your back if you can. 

The constellation Perseus.  NASA

Staying away from bright sources of light will also help...and the best way to enjoy any meteor shower is from the comfort of a lawn chair so you can watch the sky as long as possible.  The beautiful streaks of light you see are bits of Comet Swift-Tuttle disintegrating in the Earth's atmosphere.  Want more information on meteor-watching.  Come by the museum any day at 1:30PM for our Virginia Skies program - one of our staff astronomers will be happy to help you with your questions about meteor showers, or any other astronomical topic!

And, just in case you were wondering...that bright golden star in the West in the early evening is Saturn, still nicely visible.  Out a bit late and noticing a bright white star in the East?  That's Jupiter.  Enjoy!

Carpe noctem!