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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It...

...and I feel fine!

Actually, I seem to have caught the delightful virus that's been making the rounds here in southeast Virginia.  On week 2 of the darn thing and I am ready to be done with it.  But back to the matter at hand...

Holy cow!  The world is coming to an end this Friday!  The Mayan Long Count calendar says so!

The Seven-Day Forecast for this week.  Found on Facebook by my friend Jim Drummond.

Actually, it doesn't say anything of the kind.  It's a calendar.  All calendars end...that's how the calendar companies stay in business.  In all seriousness, when the calendar we use today, the Gregorian calendar, comes to the end of a cycle, no one worries that the world will end too...they just go buy a new calendar.  The Mayan Long Count calendar is no different - a new long count cycle will begin on Saturday, and life will go on.

Doomsday predictions and fears have been a common theme in humanity's long history.   It is not, by any means, a modern thing.  In fact, the first known "prediction" for the end of the world dates back to 2800 BC!  An Assyrian clay tablet dating to those times was found with the inscription "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."  Just in case you thought that bribery and corruption were something invented in the modern era as well...clearly, we've always been good at those things.  Perceived degeneration of morals has long been seen as an indication of the coming end of the world.

There's a long tradition of apocalyptic destruction coming from space as well.  One of the earliest space-related predictions for the end of the world was made in the 1180s, when John of Toledo circulated a letter stating that the coming planetary alignment in Libra on September 23, 1186 would signal the end of the world, and only a very few people would survive.

Comets have long been seen as harbingers of doom.  One of the first comets to be directly associated with the coming end of the world was seen in 1532.  The prediction was made by a Viennese bishop, Frederick Nausea (!), after he heard numerous reports of bizarre occurrences, including bloody crosses being seen in the sky alongside the comet.  One wonders if this is the origin of our use of the word nausea today.

"Astronomical Chart of the path of the Comet of 1532", artist unknown.  From the Gedden Museum.

Sometimes the astronomical predictions get really exciting.  Tomasso Campanella, a Dominican monk, predicted that the Sun would collide with the Earth in 1603.  You'd think we'd have seen that one coming.

Obviously, none of these doomsday predictions came true.  But the long history of man's fascination with the end of the world is, in itself, quite fascinating!  Not being a psychologist, I can't really say why we are so fascinated with the concept of the end of the world.  But I wonder if it doesn't indicate a desire on our part to be involved in something greater than ourselves.  Even if that something gets a little scary at times.

So all in all, Friday should boil down to little more than Mayan New Year.  And you know what New Year's means...it's time for a party!  We're having an End of the World Party at the Virginia Living Museum, and everyone is invited!  We'll be scanning the skies with our telescopes, searching for any killer asteroids (weather and disasters permitting), plus we'll have some fun activities and games going on in the Wason Education Center.  Activities and observing are FREE!  Plus, we'll be having some fun in the cafe, and you can grab a last meal, snack, or even some beer or wine.  In the planetarium, we'll have shows throughout the evening, including Star of Wonder: Mystery of the Christmas Star (6pm), Laser Holidays (7pm), 2012: The End of the World? NOT! (8 & 10pm) and Lasers at the End of the World (9 & 11pm).  Shows are $6 each, or two for $10.  Make it an End of the World Combo: any 2 shows and a $5 cafe gift certificate for $12!  Members always pay half price!  Stick around until midnight and help us end the world with a bang...or ring in Mayan New Year...whichever comes first.

As this will be my last entry of 2012, let me take a moment to wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and a joyous and blessing-filled 2013.

Carpe noctem!
See you in 2013,
Kelly

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Something's Coming...

Come on in, don't be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair!

Okay, you know it's been a tough day when I break into show tunes.

Seriously, good things are happening around here at the Virginia Living Museum.  It's getting kind of exciting.

First of all, we're getting pretty close to being done with flood recovery!  We hope to have the lower level of the museum reopened very soon.  So watch the museum's webpage for an official announcement on that score, hopefully before the end of the year.  It's been a long, slow recovery process, and we're very excited to get the museum fully opened again.  I hear tell there will even be some new exhibits coming downstairs, which is also pretty exciting!

Naturally, this is an exciting time of year in general, with the holidays in full swing.  I have an 8-year-old daughter at home and that makes Christmas extra-special, I can tell you.  Our annual trip to Christmas Town is coming up this weekend (can't wait!), plus all the decorating and visiting and baking and whatnot the season brings.  The Virginia Living Museum is all decorated up for the season, too.  In the planetarium lobby the tree has a lovely silver and blue theme this year which I think suits us well.  And of course, holiday programming continues in the theater until the end of the year, so don't miss out on that!

Jupiter and its largest moon, Ganymede.  Courtesy STScI.

Most exciting in my book is that this Saturday is our monthly star party and Laser Light Night!  It's a special one, too.  Jupiter is just past its opposition, so the giant planet is close to the Earth and looking fabulous even in a small telescope.  Rising close to sunset and remaining visible all night, we're hoping for the clouds to part and show us a fabulous view!  Ten times larger than the Earth, Jupiter shows an amazing amount of detail with only a small amount of magnification.  Probably the most wonderful thing about viewing Jupiter is that you usually get to see a few of its moons as well - most notably the four Galilean satellites.  These four largest moons of Jupiter were first spotted by Galileo Galilei (hence the name Galilean satellites) in the early 1600s.  He called them "the Medicean stars" since at the time of his discovery of them, his bills were being paid by the prominent Medici family (Galileo was no fool!).  Later, all of the moons of Jupiter we renamed for various lovers of Zeus/Jupiter.  Today, the four largest moons of Jupiter are known as Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io.  It's a fair bet we'll get a glimpse of all four of them this weekend, so be sure to join us.  Remember, observing is always FREE!

An artist's conception of an eruption on Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io.  A new panoramic wallpaper will be installed in the lobby of the Abbitt Planetarium this January based on this poster.  Courtesy NASA Langley.
 
 In addition, we'll be celebrating the hard work of the many good people who helped raise funds for the museum's flood relief campaign during Walktober!  This dedicated group of walkers raised over $8000 and counting!  And you can help by purchasing a Walktober Flood Relief T-shirt for only $5 this Saturday during the Star Party.  To thank our walkers, we've got extra shows on the docket, and everyone is welcome.  Check out the schedule online.  Shows in the theater, whether planetarium or lasers, are $6 each, or 2 for $10.  Members always receive half off.

Many other things are coming down the pike for the remainder of the year, so I'd better get back to work!

See you in two weeks! And until then...
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pass the Astronomy, Please

Happy Day Before Thanksgiving!

I'm in a food mood, folks.  I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.  Maybe because I don't have to do all the cooking myself this time!  Or maybe because the Mythbusters took on some classic food myths - including that turkey tale of tryptophan.  But whatever it is...let's take a moment to explore some ways to bring a little astronomical fun to the holiday.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is just get outside!  After the massive meal and the inevitable 4 hours on the couch to recover, get up and head outdoors.  It will be dark by then, and maybe you'll be treated to some lovely sights!  As early as 6pm, the Moon will be climbing high towards the south, being just a bit past first quarter at that point.  This will be a great time to get out the binoculars or a telescope and sweep along the terminator - the line of shadow that separates day and night on the Moon (or any other celestial body) - and explore the wonders of the lunar surface.  The deep shadows to be found at the terminator make for an excellent view of mountains, craters, and other magnificent features.

The Moon's terminator.  Note the strong detail visible thanks to the deep shadows.  Courtesy stargazing.net


By 9:30pm, Jupiter will be a blazing beacon of white light in the eastern sky.  It will be tantalizingly close to the red right eye of Taurus the Bull, Aldebaran.  The color contrast should be quite lovely.  And here again, a telescope or binoculars will provide some extra excitement, showing you several Jovian moons and maybe a couple of cloud bands on the massive planet.

Jupiter and its 4 largest moons as seen through a small telescope.  Courtesy Universe Today.


But perhaps you're just not going to be able to get up off that couch.  Maybe we'd better add some astronomical fun to the meal itself, or there's no chance you'll get anything spacey in at all.

One easy way to stellar up any meal is with a little starfruit!  When you slice this unique little fruit correctly, the pieces come out star-shaped.  Scatter them around as garnish on almost any dish - they have a mild, white-grape like flavor which is very pleasant and goes with almost anything.

Star fruit, shown whole and sliced.  Image courtesy www.yummy-ness.tumblr.com

For those who really want to do up the astronomical flair - may I suggest a little pizazz during the pie course?  Big round things always put me in mind of the planets.  Perhaps an apple pie might be topped with a red-food-coloring tinted top crust and become the surface of Mars!  Or the whipped cream on top of the pumpkin or coconut cream pie might be striped to look suspiciously like the clouds of Venus or Saturn.

Gracious, I've just given a whole new meaning to "The Face on Mars," haven't I?


However you celebrate, be it astronomically or not, have a wonderful and peaceful Thanksgiving.
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hooray!  The election is over!

Okay, sorry, I couldn't help myself.  Whether your favored candidate won or lost, I think we can all agree it's been a long and rough election season.  I confess I am happy to be done with political ads, phone calls, and mail.  The holidays are just around the corner, and that is indeed my favorite time of year.

But before we get into the holiday season, we've got something fun coming up this Saturday!  Yes, it is once again time for our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night here at the Virginia Living Museum.  While the flood damage has stopped us from using our lower level, the observatory is in great shape, and the planetarium is running just fine.  So we hope you'll be able to join us for some great sky watching and planetarium and laser shows this weekend!  Here's a quick preview of what we'll be looking at in the night sky (weather permitting, of course!).

Actually, I can pretty much sum it up in one word - Jupiter.  The largest planet of the solar system has once again returned to the evening skies and we cannot be more excited!  Mars (technically) remains low in the southwestern sky after sunset, but let's face it...it's nothing to write home about.  Even on the flattest western horizon you'll have difficulty finding our little neighbor planet.  It's not very bright, it's a dull orangey color, and at only half the size of Earth it's not particularly big, even in a telescope.  On the other hand, Jupiter is the second brightest of the planets (behind only Venus, now dominating the early morning skies), at ten times bigger than Earth it shines like a brilliant white star and shows amazing amounts of detail in a telescope, and rises in the early evening to then spend the rest of the night crossing the sky.  You can bet we'll have a telescope or two trained on Jupiter throughout the star party.  Join us to see how many Jovian moons we can spot, whether the Great Red Spot is facing towards us, and how many dark cloud bands can be seen on the face of the mighty planet

Jupiter, largest planet of the solar system.  Courtesy NASA

We often spend time hopping around various deep sky objects as well...galaxies, globular clusters, open star clusters and nebulae are frequent sights in our eyepieces.  There's also a chance you might see something impressive without even needing a telescope.  The North Taurid meteor shower will peak in the wee hours of Monday November 12...but it's not unthinkable that we might see a few early shooting stars on Saturday November 10.  The Taurids occasionally produce some brilliant fireballs, so if we do see a meteor, it's likely to be a doozy. 

A Taurid Fireball from 2005 photographed in Japan.  Courtesy NASA.  Photograph by Hiroyuki Iida

In the planetarium we'll be featuring the night sky and lots of great music.  At 7:30pm, I'll take you on tour of the evening sky with Virginia Skies.  Once you've seen the stars in the planetarium, step outside and check out the real thing!  Bring the kids for our 8:30pm laser show: iPop.  It's a great mix of some of today's hottest pop stars...including some of those super-popular teens from the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.  Hoping for some music more to an adult's taste?  No problem - stick around until 10pm for the psychedelic sounds of Laser Doors...and keep the trip rolling on with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at 11:30pm.  It all kicks off at sunset with FREE observing of the night sky...shows are $6 person, or any two for $10.  Members always get their tickets half price.

Okay, in the interests of full disclosure...there's another reason why I'm so excited for the star party this month...it's happening on my birthday, which I share with two wonderful people...a dear friend of mine (Happy Birthday, John David!) and Martin Luther, architect of the Reformation.  I suppose I could nail my doctoral thesis to my church door...nah, it wouldn't make much sense...plus the doors are made of glass anyway...

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Ultimate in Star-Power

Did you have trouble with the radio in your car this past Monday?  Did the GPS in your phone suddenly go on the fritz?  If so, then you've experienced the power of the Sun.

The Sun cracked off a wicked little flare which impacted us this past Monday, disrupting some radio and GPS signals.  Many people don't realize just how much the Sun impacts us.  Sure, we all know it gives us light and heat, but did you know it can cause power outages, disrupt communications, and is responsible for the auroras?  There's an entire industry devoted to predicting what the Sun is going to be doing...it's called space weather.

The area of the Sun which unleashed Monday's solar flare in several different types of light.  The bright spot on each of the pictures is where the flare originated, except on the magnetogram (there the spot appears dark).  Courtesy NASA.

The Sun is a massive ball of plasma - a highly electrically charged state of matter that has similarities to both gases and liquids.  Material comes streaming out of the Sun almost all the time.  But sometimes, the Sun gets pretty stirred up, and it can unleash an extra burst of material on out into space.  If that material happens to be headed in the direction of Earth, we may experience a variety of effects, from the merely beautiful to the highly dangerous.

The most common effect of solar activity is the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis.  These shimmering colored lights are most easily seen in the extreme north (or, if you're living down under, you can see the Aurora Australis in the extreme south), and occur when charged particles from the Sun strike particles in our atmosphere and excite them.  Eventually the particles give up the extra energy they've received from the Sun and produce a variety of colored lights that seem to dance through the sky.  Auroras are amazingly beautiful, and completely harmless.

Red and green auroras over White Dome Geyser in Yellowstone National Park this month.  Picture by Robert Howell.  Courtesy Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Sometimes, when the Sun is really agitated, those particles come in towards the Earth at speeds sufficient enough to allow them to punch down into the lower atmosphere and affect high-voltage power lines.  Since the particles from the Sun are themselves charged...well...this can do very nasty things to equipment designed to send charged particles in only one direction.  We've been able to trace the causes of several wide-scale blackouts back to the impact of solar material.

The flare that disrupted radio and GPS on Monday was not all that intensive.  Scientists track what happens on the Sun so companies with satellites in orbit and power companies can be made aware of when solar material might be on the way.  We expect an uptick in solar events over the next year, as the Sun reaches the peak of its 11-year activity cycle in 2013.  Want to stay up to date on space weather happenings?  Check out spaceweather.com for the latest on solar events.

Until next time, enjoy the sunshine...
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

So What's on Your Mind?

I came to the shocking realization the other day that I've been writing this blog for over a year now.  It certainly hasn't seemed that long to me.

One of the things I was hoping would happen as I began this blog hasn't really materialized yet.  I'd really love to be fielding your questions...talking about the topics that interest you, my readers, the most.  Anyone is welcome to leave a comment on any post - even if your question has nothing to do with the post!  I'll be more than happy to answer your question...and I might even make it the topic for the next blog post.  So please - ask away!

In the hopes of inspiring some new questions, let me share with you the answers to the questions I get asked most frequently.

Who invented the telescope? -OR- Galileo invented the telescope, right?

Actually, Galileo Galilei did many amazing things that advanced our understanding of the solar system we live in, but inventing the telescope was not one of them.  He was the first person to use a telescope for astronomical purposes, turning his simple instrument on the Moon, the Sun, Jupiter, Venus and even Saturn.  But credit for inventing the telescope is generally given to Hans Lippershey, a Dutch lensmaker. 

Hans Lippershey.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

What was that bright thing I saw last night/morning in the east/south/west?

About 99% of the time, the answer to this question is one of the 5 naked-eye visible planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn.  Most often, it's Jupiter or Venus, as they are the brightest of these five, with Venus being the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon.  The planets are generally brighter than the stars near them, and they won't twinkle the way the stars do, making them stand out against the background stars.  These days, Mars is extremely low in the southwest in the early evening.  In the early morning skies, you'll find Jupiter high in the south and Venus mid-way up in the east around sunrise. 

On rare occasions, the answer to this question is Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.  You'll find Sirius in the winter sky, easily located by following Orion's famous belt to the left.  Sirius will twinkle quite a bit, and it is impressively bright.

Sirius by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The small white dot in the lower left of the image is a tiny white dwarf companion to the main star.  Courtesy NASA.

Where can I buy a quality telescope?

Some camera shops still carry high quality telescopes, but my personal favorite place to purchase observing equipment is online from Orion Telescopes.  They carry an excellent "house" brand, plus the usual players like Meade and Celestron.  Their customer service is excellent, and their prices are quite reasonable.  One word of caution - be wary of purchasing anything manufactured by Meade.  This once-excellent company was bought out several years ago and now offers little or no customer service, and has become increasing difficult to deal with.  Stick with Celestron or Orion's own stuff. 

Where to NOT buy a telescope (especially with the holiday season just around the corner) is any big box store of any kind.  Most "Christmastime" telescopes are cheap, fall apart quickly, and use inferior optical elements.  A good rule of thumb - if the telescope costs less than $150, you are probably going to be disappointed.

When is the best time to see shooting stars in the sky?

Shooting stars are actually meteors - chunks of rock from space coming in to the Earth's atmosphere at high speed.  When they make contact with the Earth's air, the friction generated by the rocks passage causes the air it passes through to glow - making the streak of light we call a shooting star.  While random bits of rock can plunge Earthward at any time, Earth does regularly pass through rocky debris left behind by the regular orbiting of comets.  Such times are called meteor showers, and they are the best times to go out and look for shooting stars. 

The best meteor showers of the year and the rough dates they peak on are:

The Quadrantids  January 4
The Perseids       August 12
The Orionids       October 21
The Leonids        November 17
The Geminids      December 14

I say rough dates because the exact peak date and time changes every year.  In general, the best time to be outside to look for meteors is around 2AM as the combination of the forward motion of the Earth in its orbit and the rotation of the Earth carrying us in the same direction make it more likely that meteors will be visible.  Astronomy is not a hobby for those who like to go to bed early. 

My birthday was yesterday.  Why couldn't I find my sign in the night sky?

Your "sign" is the constellation in which the Sun was located on your birthday.  During the course of the year, the Sun appears in the sky against the background of the zodiac stars, which are part of 12 (13 if you count Ophiuchus, which the ancients really didn't) different constellations.  Today's astrological signs are generally determined by the way the sky looked 6000 years ago, when astrology was getting its start.  In 6000 years, the sky has shifted a fair bit, mostly because very few motions of the solar system actually occur in even numbers of hours or days or months or years.  So what the newspaper says is your "sign" is actually probably not where the Sun really was on the day you were born. 

For example, I was born on November 10.  According to classic astrology, my sun sign is Scorpius the Scorpion.  However, on the actually date I was born...the Sun was located in the constellation Libra the Scales.  6000 years makes a measurable difference in such things.

However, none of that has to do with why you can't find your sun sign constellation in the sky on your birthday.  You can't find it at night, because it isn't there!  By definition your sun sign is in the daytime sky on the day you were born - because it's near where the Sun is on that day.  So if you want to see your sun sign in the sky...wait for 6 months after your birthday.

So what astronomical question have you been longing to ask?  I await your comments eagerly.

Until then,
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

To Boldly Go...

Status report, number one.

The museum continues to be only partially open after our major flood.  Work is beginning on restoring the lower level, and while that proceeds, we continue to offer discounted admission and free planetarium shows.

Set course for new topic, warp one...engage.

Sorry, I just love Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I love it even more than the original.  I got in the mood to talk about this when I stumbled upon this article (thanks gmail news snippets!).  They do have an interesting point - little of today's science fiction (and we won't even discuss the travesty of the stuff now running on Syfy) embodies such a positive and enthusiastic outlook on the future of humanity.

Certainly the state of our manned space program (at least here in the U.S.) doesn't bode well.  Since the retirement of the shuttle, we've now become completely dependent on the "kindess of strangers" if you will...or at least the kindness of our Russian partners, who are now our only means of getting astronauts into orbit.  I fear that the longer we go without sending humans into space, the more likely it is we will lose the skills that will allow to do so in the future.  The road to Mars, or indeed, even back to the Moon, is going to be a long and hard one at this point.  I continue to hope that our need to explore will reassert itself.  And more importantly, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the economic advantages for exploration.  Opening up "new worlds," be they terrestrial or in space, always opens up amazing economic opportunities as well as advancing our scientific understanding. 

But on to other aspects of Star Trek.  While manned spaceflight is a reality, many other things that Star Trek is famous for are not yet in the realm of possibility.  Warp drive, for instance.  Nothing yet can break the speed limit of light, and honestly, without that, our ability to range much beyond our solar system will be severely limited.  Even if we reach the point where we can travel at the speed of light, some 186,000 miles per second, it would take us four years plus to reach the nearest star after the Sun.  Everybody else is even further away, and the distances grow incredibly rapidly.  The nearest potentially habitable exoplanet thus far identified is 15 years away at the speed of light.  That's a long trip to just drop by and say hello.  Physics is by far not done with this one - we've been searching for ways to overcome this limitation for a long time, and there may yet be a way to do it.  We don't understand everything about the universe yet.

An artist's conception of exoplanet Gliese 876d, 15 light-years away from Earth.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

I always chuckle every time I hear Miles O'Brien complain about some kind of problem with the Heisenberg compensators in the transporter system.  It's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that makes the idea of matter transporters so untenable, so of course they'd have to have found some way to compensate for that.  The HUP tells us that we cannot know the exact position and momentum of any particle at the same time - if we know its position really precisely, then we can't have much information about where it is going or how fast, or vice versa.  Problem is, if you're going to break someone into atoms and send them whizzing across empty space, you're going to need to know exactly how to put them back together again at the other end...and that would require having very precise measurements of the exact state of all those atoms.  Or you might end up with some very unhappy (probably very dead) people at the other end.  Still, there are people working on such systems - most for non-living matter, at this point.  Maybe someday...

Finally, as someone involved in theater and acting, I am always so very impressed with the quality of the work of several of the actors on ST:TNG.  Patrick Stewart is phenomenal as Captain Picard, Brent Spiner as Data is quite probably my favorite character of all time.  Jonathan Frakes did an excellent job as William Riker.  My two favorite recurring characters have to be John de Lancie as Q (as a side note - he does voice overs for planetarium shows.  Listening to him read the phone book would be fascinating!  What a voice!) and Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan.

ST:TNG turns 25 this Saturday.  Like every incarnation of Star Trek, TNG has its good seasons and bad ones...its amazingly brilliant episodes...and its...well...turkeys.  But overall, it remains one of my all-time favorite science fiction television series.  If you've never seen it - I highly recommend it.  If you have - celebrate their silver anniversary by rewatching some of your favorite episodes.  I know I will.

The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Top row: Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes.  Second row: Marina Sirtis, Levar Burton, Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner
Shall we proceed to our next desitination, Captain?  ETA is two weeks.
Make it so, number one.
Carpe noctem,
Kelly


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Keep Looking Up

Greetings all!

I know, I know, I'm a day late again.  Once again, the internets refused to let me in to my blog if I'm not at work.  I'm not sure what's broken, but I think I'm going to stop trying to fix it.

Things are still a little shaken up here at the museum as we work on recovering from the flood, but overall, we're trying to get everything settled down into something resembling a routine.  So I thought I'd go back to a routine here as well and just talk about what's visible in the sky right now.  Sometimes doing the "normal" things helps the most when things are decidedly not normal.

We're getting ready to make the transition into fall, with longer nights and cooler temperatures, thank goodness.  It's a pleasure to be outside in the evenings now...you might even find you need a light jacket if you plan to stay outside for any length of time.  What a wonderful thing!

It will still be a couple of months before the brilliant stars of winter begin to grace the evening skies, but until then you can enjoy the last hurrah of summer - The Summer Triangle.  Three bright stars form a brilliant triangle that sits high overhead just after sunset and descends towards the west as the evening passes on.  To the East, you'll find the familiar Great Square of Pegasus - four stars in an almost perfect square dominate the eastern sky and mark the location of the legendary winged horse.  Two simple bright shapes that are pretty tough to miss.

The Summer Triangle and its surrounds.  Courtesy the University of Illinois.  Note that the Milky Way passes directly through the center of the triangle.

Looking westward at sunset might allow you a final quick glimpse of the planets Mars and Saturn, both sinking rapidly towards the Sun.  By the end of the month, both planets will be lost to our view.  Mars will still be in the news regularly however, as Curiosity really gets rolling on its mission to explore the Red Planet.  Sadly, with Mars and Saturn so low, and both relatively dim, you might miss them if you have anything other than a totally clear flat western horizon...hard to come by on the east coast of the United States.

However, don't get too downcast just yet.  If you can stand an early morning wake up call, you can see a pair of beautifully brilliant planets in the early morning sky.  Head outside around 5am and look to the east to see Venus and Jupiter dominate the pre-dawn sky.  Jupiter stands high in the east (almost to the south) with Venus lower but still plenty high enough to be seen quite easily.  These two are the brightest of the planets visible to the unaided eye, and make a stunning pair.  Well worth the effort of rising before the Sun to enjoy them.

Venus, The Moon and Jupiter in the early morning sky.  Photograph by Alan Dyer.  The Moon is the brightest object in the field, with Venus slightly up and to the left.  Jupiter stands up towards the top of the image to the right of the Moon and Venus.

Ah.  Just talking about the beautiful skies of fall helps me feel a bit better.  There's plenty of work still to be done, but taking the time to enjoy the simple things in life really does renew your spirit.

See you in two weeks...and until then...
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I'm starting to feel a little like Han Solo here...

You know...every time he desperately needs to get away in the Falcon, the darn hyperdrive fails.

Well, as I was anticipating writing a long, lustrous update this week...circumstances conspired against me again.  There's been major flooding here in our part of the world...including right here at the Virginia Living Museum.  We took a very serious flash flood last weekend, with water flooding the lower level of both of our museum buildings.

Water pours over the tops of our floodgates and through the doors to the lower level of the museum.  Approximately a foot of water entered overall in the main museum building.  The Wason Education Center took on about 3 feet of water.
Fortunately, the planetarium was spared any major damage.  Unfortunately, little else was.  We've reopened the museum to the general public, but the lower level exhibits remain closed.  To offset this, admission has been reduced by $5 and the planetarium is included in your general admission ticket (that saves you another $4!).  So if you've ever wanted to stop by and check out a show...now's a great time.  Plus your admission fee and any donation you can make will help us rebuild the lower level of the museum.  Estimates of the total damage are still being made, but believe you me, there's been a lot of damage.  Another great way to support us is to come on out to our Star Party & Laser Light Night on September 8th!  The planetarium and observatory are still in great shape, so we'll be open and hopefully enjoying some clear skies and some great music.

Also uppermost in my mind as I hastily update is the painful loss of Neil Armstrong this past Saturday.  Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon, and his death at age 82 has made me realize that soon there will be very few people left who remember seeing the Apollo Moon landings, and even fewer who actually participated in them.  In fact, of the 12 men who walked on the Moon, only 8 are still alive today (besides Neil Armstrong, James Irwin died in 1991, Alan Shepard died in 1998 and Pete Conrad died in 1999).  As this generation passes, and the American space program shrinks into obscurity,  we run a greater and greater risk of forgetting how to accomplish these amazing achievements...or even disbelieving that we ever did.  Already polls show that some 6% - 20% of Americans do not believe we ever landed on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong 1930 - 2012.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Such numbers are a slap in the face to the 12 brave men who actually did indeed walk on the lunar surface.  I hope we'll be able to get ourselves back into the space race in the not too distant future.  I hope that our first tentative steps out into the solar system won't turn out to be our last.

And finally, Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.

I'll try again in two weeks.  You hear that, ship?  Hold together!
Carpe noctem!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beautiful...exciting...and short

Much better than nasty, brutish and short, don't you think?

Forgive my absence, dear readers, but I've been traveling for several weeks and the internets have not always been kind to me.  I couldn't get internet at all for the first few days, and then once I could, no power in the universe was allowing me in to my blog.

But back home again and trying to get caught up, I had to take a minute to share this with you in lieu of the post I should have made a week ago and more.  Please enjoy, and watch for regular postings beginning again this coming Wednesday!

Curiosity photographs itself (at least in part) on Mars.  Courtesy NASA.
Be sure to click the link above and watch the video.  And to think some people believe scientists are boring.
 
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Thursday, August 2, 2012

We are experiencing operating difficulties...please stand by...

Okay, so not really.  What I am experiencing is my final week of teaching class here at the Virginia Living Museum before hitting the road for a conference and then a little vacation time.  So needless to say, it's been a little crazy.

In fact, it's been so crazy that I totally forgot that yesterday was Wednesday.

So...this week I've been teaching kids about the solar system.  We've been having a great time, and they seem to be really enjoying our tour of our local neighborhood.  Why don't you do the same while we wait for the landing of Curiosity?  Try here, and here.  You also might enjoy this.  If you're local to the area, and looking for something fun for the kiddos to do, we offer some really excellent classes, if I do say so myself.  Check them out!

The solar system, with a bonus nebula at the bottom. Courtesy NASA.

I'll certainly be updating again after the August 5th (August 6th for some of us) landing of Curiosity.  So hang on for just a few more days...

Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror.  If it can get through this, it will be home free. Courtesy NASA.

Until then,
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Hey everyone!

So today I thought I'd share the story of how I got where I am today.  For some reason, I've been asked the question a lot lately, so the twisted tale of my journey to running a planetarium and observatory has been much on my mind lately.  Besides, it's so bloody hot outside, no one wants to do any observing anyway (but you still have a good shot at seeing Saturn and maybe even Mars in the early evening sky if you want to give it a try...look to the southwest just after sunset!  Saturn is the golden yellow bright "star"...Mars is a faint, dull orangey-looking "star" just to the right a bit).

The night sky of July 18, 2012.  Facing South.

So, me.  Everyone loves talking about themselves, don't they?

I've always been interested in the sky and astronomy, ever since I was a little kid.  I grew up in New York City (New York City!!??!!???) so my skies were most definitely not the best.  Still, when I was old enough to travel into Manhattan by myself, I would spend long days at the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium (now the Rose Center for Earth and Space) enjoying the darkest skies around.

I also loved music, and as I headed into Wagner College on Staten Island, I thought I'd major in that.  But the summer before I began college, I realized that to be a professional singer I needed more talent and an agent, not a degree.  I was also good at math, so I thought I might major in that.  Had no idea what I could do with a math degree except teach, which didn't excite me.  So I went undeclared and sampled lots of cool courses during my first year...including a physics class.  I was hooked.  I majored in physics, doing my senior thesis on energy audits of buildings.

I knew very quickly that I wanted to take a higher degree in physics, and was accepted to the Ph.D. program at the College of William and Mary.  I eventually did my thesis in theoretical nuclear physics, but during my studies I got to do some papers on astrophysics as well.  More importantly, I found I really needed a break from the work, so I started volunteering in the observatory at the Virginia Living Museum, giving me 4 hours a week where I wasn't obsessing about my thesis.

Seven years later I was still plodding along on the thesis, but I was also panicking.  Years of working in the ivory tower had taught me that research was not at all my favorite thing.  Suddenly, I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  Luckily, an opportunity came up at the Virginia Living Museum.  Their part-time planetarium lecturer was leaving.  I'd love to say they begged me to work for them, but the truth is I begged them to wait for me.  I needed to finish the thesis...but then I couldn't imagine anything more fun than working in the planetarium and observatory every day.  They were willing, and I got the job.

Fifteen years later I've worked my way around to being in charge of all the astronomy stuff here at the museum.  My job is a wonderful mix of teaching, live performance, film & theater production, and occasionally blowing things up.  It's the best thing I could ever imagine doing.  Okay, maybe the second best thing.  See the image below for the best thing ever.

My husband Philip, me, and our little girl, Margaret.  Totally the best thing ever.

So sometimes it really does pay off to follow your heart and do what you love.  It's worth a heck of a lot to be able to get up everyday and be happy to go to work.  So, I guess the point of today's post is try to find a way to do what you love to do.  When I was trying to figure out what that was for me, I got great help from a book called What Color is Your Parachute?  - I highly recommended it to anyone out there who's trying to figure out what they'd like to do with the rest of their life.

Next time, we'll probably be talking about a certain Mars rover...but until then...
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Hello everyone!  Just a quick post todqay, as it's a holiday, and I'm home with my family.

In a little while I'll be heading to the museum, as we'll be running our brand-new laser spectacular, Spirit of America, for the holiday tonight.  Come check it out!  But get your tickets soon - they are going fast!  Our 6pm show is already sold out!  Here are the details:

Spirit of America
6pm (SOLD OUT!), 7pm, 8pm & 9pm
TONIGHT! July 4th
$6 per person ($3 for museum members)

You can check out the playlist for the laser show online.  It's a great mix of patriotic and uniquely American music.  A fun show for adults and kids alike!  Plus no bugs, no parking problems, and it's indoors and air conditioned!

Also - if you purchase your tickets in advance, you get free laser 3D glasses when you come in!  So call the museum at (757) 595-1900 now and purchase your tickets by phone with a credit card.  We'll have them and your laser glasses waiting for you at the door.

An just in case you thought there was nothing particularly spacey about the Fourth of July holiday, allow me to offer these:


These are Hubble (left) and Spitzer (right) Space Telescope images of the North America nebula.  The visible light image (Hubble) shows how the nebula got its name.  Spitzer's image (in infrared) shows just how different things look when you see in different wavelengths of light.


This image is from the Hubble space telescope and looks remarkably like fireworks bursting in the night sky, doesn't it?  It's rather unromantic name is NGC 3603 and it's located in the constellation Carina.  I think the Fireworks Cluster would be a much better name, don't you?

So enjoy the fireworks tonight, either in the planetarium, or live, or on television, or even on the Hubble website.  Happy Fourth of July!

See you in two weeks...and until then...
Carpe noctem!
Kelly

Thursday, June 21, 2012

There's 104 days of summer vacation...

...and it all officially began yesterday!

Wait...what?

Yesterday was the official first day of summer, with the season truly beginning at precisely 7:09pm.  More significantly, perhaps, yesterday, June 20, was the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

By rights, I should have posted yesterday, but the day conspired against me.  You see, I'm teaching summer camps again, and yesterday was the Virginia Living Museum's annual meeting, so I was tied up all day and...

Oh, what?  You're confused...you thought it was today, didn't you? 

Let me explain.

Most years, the equinoxes and solstices fall on the 21st of the months they occur in.  So usually, summer begins on June 21.  But this year is a leap year...meaning there was an extra day to count in February.  That extra day in February is something we humans add to the calendar...the Earth doesn't care what day it is on the calendar.  It just keeps on moving and doing its thing.  So this year, because of the extra day in February, the solstice arrived on June 20.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice.  This image was take in 2005.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

So happy summer.  Go outside, if you can stand the heat, and have yourself a double dip ice cream cone to celebrate.  Heck, with these temperatures, make it a triple.

I'm super crazy busy with summer camps, so I'm going to keep this one short.  See you in (about) two weeks!

Carpe noctem (what little there is of it!)
Kelly

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Listen...Do you smell that?

But more importantly...did you see it?

Wow, the transit of Venus was amazing!  Weather locally here at the museum almost killed us...but just at the eleventh hour, the clouds parted a bit, and we got a decent view of the Sun.  We had 5 telescopes trained on it and got views of Venus in all five.  Plus we had the live stream from Mauna Kea in Hawai'i thanks to NASA.  It was an amazing evening, and I think our sold-out crowd really enjoyed themselves!

It's been a crazy day here at the Abbitt Planetarium, trying to recover from our big event, but I wanted to share a few photos with you all.  All of these shots were taken by one of our wonderful volunteers, Eric Hedden.

First, some of our telescopes:


In this image, you can see our 8" Celestron, our Coronado Personal Solar Telescope, and our Sunspotter Keplerian telescope.  We also had our 4.5" Orion refractor in use, plus another couple of our great volunteers brought their double-stacked solar scope for a truly excellent view.

Some images taken quickly through our 4.5" using nothing more than a cellphone:






These were taken with a white-light filter on the 4.5".  If you look closely, you can see not only wisps of clouds going by, but also one or two tiny sunspots in the images.

Finally, a shot through the PST:


This image is red because the PST uses a hydrogen-alpha filter, meaning that only red light is passed through the telescope.  Note that although the image is smaller, the dot of Venus is still quite clear.  It's also mirror reversed compared to the images from the 4.5".  This too was taken simply by holding up a cellphone camera to the eyepiece of the PST.

Aren't they amazing shots!  Just you guys wait until we get our new cameras from Orion up and working!

We might be ready to do some testing with them at the upcoming Star Party and Laser Light Night this Saturday!  Join us for solar viewing early (weather permitting) and evening viewing after sunset (probably starting around 9pm).  Observing is FREE!  Come and enjoy!

We'll also have a great selection of laser and planetarium shows for you.  For summer, we're adding an extra early family laser show so even the little ones can get in on the fun!  At 6:30pm enjoy Laser Beatles, at 7:30pm we'll run Saturn: The Ringworld, at 8:30pm you can rock to Laseropolis, at 10pm get psychedelic with Laser Doors and keep the mood going at 11:30pm with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.  Hope we'll see you then!

Until next time,
Carpe Noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

COSMIC STRINGS ALERT: Transit of Venus!

Red alert!  Red alert!  All hands to battle stations!

Hee hee, I've always wanted to say that.

Okay, seriously...I'm posting a special update to make sure all of you out there in internet land are aware of the incredible astronomical event taking place next Tuesday.  On the late afternoon/early evening of June 5, we have our last opportunity to witness Venus cross directly in front of the Sun.  Such events are called transits of a planet, and this will be the last one Venus will consent to do in our lifetimes...unless any of us plan on living 105 more years (Adam Savage excepted, of course).

So what is it we are going to see on June 5th?

The 2004 Transit of Venus.  Photo by Jay M. Pasachoff.

Venus orbits the Sun closer in than we do.  It's the second planet from the Sun...we're the third.  So on June 5th everything is going to line up just right to allow us from here on Earth to see Venus silhouetted against the solar surface.  Normally, this doesn't happen.  The solar system is not perfectly aligned - everybody is just slightly off kilter - and so usually Venus passes above or below the visible surface of the Sun from our perspective.  Mercury can do this too - it's the closest planet to the Sun, and moves faster than Venus, so the alignment works more often.  But Mercury is much smaller than Venus (and in fact, smaller than several of the larger moons of the solar system), making it much more difficult to see against the solar surface.  Venus is bigger and closer to us, so the perfectly round black dot of Venus will visible to the unaided (BUT NOT UNPROTECTED!!!) eye.

Notice the yelling up there?  Please, please, do not attempt to Venus the transit of Venus without proper eye protection.  This can result in PERMANENT eye damage.  Sunglasses are not enough, nor is it safe to look at the solar surface during sunset when the Sun is red.  The only safe ways to view the transit are by projecting an image of the Sun, protecting your eyes with solar eclipse glasses or shade #14 arc welder's glass, or using an endcap solar filter on your telescope.  Any other method can be terribly dangerous, so please don't attempt it.  If you're not sure if you have the right equipment to safely view the Sun, contact us at the museum.  We can help.

Okay, so what's the big deal?  A dot on the solar surface.  So what?

So what!!!???!  It's AWESOME!  You're watching a planet cross in front of its star!  WOOT!  That would be the geek explanation of why this is so cool.

Historically, transits of Venus gave us a yardstick by which to measure the sizes and distances of our own solar system.  If you can measure the size of the disk of Venus against the size of the disk of the Sun, and measure how long it takes for Venus to cross the disk of the Sun, you can use that information to calculate a whole bunch of things...most importantly, the distance between the Earth and the Sun.  Since getting out your tape measure and walking to the Sun is...well...highly problematic...transits of Venus gave us the best way of measuring distances in the solar system prior to spaceflight capabilities.

In the 21st century, we've become very interested in planet transits...around other stars.  The Kepler telescope looks for the tell-tale drop in brightness from stars that have planets crossing in front of them, as the planet prevents some of the light from the star from reaching the telescope.  The transit method has allowed us to discover numerous other solar systems in our galaxy...and perhaps one day will aid in us finding another Earth-like planet somewhere out there.

NASA's Kepler Mission.  Courtesy NASA.

If you're looking for some help in viewing the transit, we've got you covered.  We're hosting a special "Dinner with Venus" event, as the transit will begin around 6pm and continue well past sunset (of course, we won't be able to see the Sun after that, so our viewing will be over).  Tickets are $30 per person and include an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet at the Wild Side Cafe, eclipse glasses, telescope viewing of the transit (or internet viewing if the weather goes bad), prize drawings and more.  Space is limited, so contact us today to reserve your spot.  And if you can't get here - get outside on June 5 and watch the sunset with PROTECTED eyes - you'll get a bit more than you bargained for!

Carpe diem et noctem!
Kelly

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Welcome to Mesozoic Park

Honestly, when you get right down to it, that's what eccentric billionaire John Hammond should have named his theme park.  Let's face it - not all dinosaurs lived in the Jurassic, but all dinosaurs lived in the Mesozoic

So what's up with the dinosaur talk, you ask?  Well...summer is nearly upon us.  I can't believe it, but this weekend is the unofficial start of summer (Memorial Day Weekend) and the beginning of the long crazy summer schedule we run here at the Abbitt Planetarium until Labor Day rolls around.  This summer is certain to bring three things to the Virginia Living Museum...heat, humidity, and Dinosaurs!

Indeed, as the days lengthen, the dinosaurs are moving in to the changing exhibit gallery.  We'll once again be featuring the big moving and roaring critters that have always been so popular here at the museum.  An added bonus this year...non-dinosaurs!  You might not be aware of this, but all dinosaurs lived primarily on land.  Flying reptiles, like pteranodon, we not dinosaurs.  Neither were marine reptiles like elasmosaurus and mosasaurus.  You can see all three of these "dino-buddies" at this year's exhibit.

1916 Pteranodon painting by Harder.  Courtesy Wikimedia.

Want some extra dinosaur fun?  Consider joining us overnight on June 1 for Dinosaurs!  The Camp-in!  Yes indeed, you'll get to sleep overnight in the museum and learn more about dinosaurs than you ever thought possible.  It's going to be a whole lot of fun.  To get more information or to register, call Betty or Julia at (757) 595-9135.  There are only a few spaces left available - trust me, you don't want to miss this.

The planetarium will be getting in on the dino action as well, with our featured program "Dinosaur Prophecy."  We've got a brand-new opening segment focusing on the wonders of the summer night sky, and then we investigate four fossil sites to learn how dinosaurs lived and died, and what their demise might say about the fate of humanity.  It's a pretty amazing show...especially the parts where dinosaurs thunder across the dome thanks to some amazing animations!

For those not ready to walk with dinosaurs, we've got some other options in the planetarium as well.  With this year being the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, we take you on a journey through the final days of the doomed vessel with "Night of the Titanic."  As always, "Virginia Skies" will take you on a live, guided tour of the evening skies for the day of your visit.  Rounding out the planetarium offerings through the end of June will be an all-new laser show especially for kids - "Here Come They Might Be Giants."  If your kids like the albums and videos produced by these awesome rockers, they'll be entranced by this laser show.  And if you've never experienced TMBGs kid-friendly music...don't miss this show.  You're in for a real treat.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the successful launch of the Dragon capsule currently in orbit around the Earth by private space exploration company SpaceX.  Currently America's only means of getting into low-earth orbit, we're excited to see this program moving forward.  Watch the news on May 25th, as the Dragon capsule will be attempting to link up with the International Space Station on that day.  Best of luck for a smooth docking, guys!

SpaceX's Dragon capsule launches with their Falcon 9 rocket on May 22, 2012.  Courtesy NASA.

There's a lot happening here at the museum this summer, astronomically speaking and otherwise, and I'll be posting updates as needed to keep you informed about it all.  If you're not already signed up to receive updates from my blog, you might want to do that now, as I might be running a bit off my usual every other week schedule for a while.  But right now, I've got more work to do to get ready for the dinosaurs.  See you in two weeks!

Carpe noctem,
Kelly

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mars Attacks!

Well, actually, when you get right down to it...we're the ones attacking Mars.

Even as I write, the latest in a long series of robotic explorers is on its way to the Red Planet.  The Mars Science Laboratory, with its already-famous rover, Curiosity, launched toward Mars on November 26 of last year and is expected to touch down on the Martian soil in the wee morning hours of August 6, 2012.  If you're a devotee of Mars-exploring robots, you can sit up and watch the landing at the Virginia Air & Space Center, NASA Langley's Visitor Center.  Some folks from the Virginia Living Museum will be on hand too, discussing the ever-popular question of whether life ever got a foothold on Mars.

Mars is a tough planet to land on.

The road to Mars is a hard one, and landing on the surface is an even greater challenge.  Kind of like the superstitions surrounding the Scottish Play in the theater world, there's a long-held fear of Mars in the space exploration community.  It is definitely picky about what probes it chooses to welcome.  Half of all the missions ever sent to the Red Planet have ended in failure.

Russia's Phobos (meaning fear; also the name of one of Mars' two moons) 1 and 2 both suffered from the "Mars Curse."  Phobos 1 died of a software glitch - it lost its lock on the Sun, and since it was running on solar power, that was the end of that.  Phobos 2 seems to have suffered a similar fate - after a successful Mars orbit insertion and just prior to the scheduled release of two landing probes, contact was lost and never regained.  While the official explanation is an onboard computer failure...the subject of alien tampering was raised, and has never really been silenced.

The last image taken by the Phobos 2 spacecraft.  The dark object is often claimed to be a UFO responsible for the loss of the craft, but is most likely a distorted shadow of the craft itself on the surface of Mars.

The U.S. craft Mars Observer was also mysteriously lost.  Three days before a planned Mars orbit insertion, engineers lost contact with the spacecraft.  We'll never know exactly what happened, but the most likely cause seems to have been a ruptured fuel tank which sent the craft into a massive tailspin.

Russia tried again with Mars 96, with disastrous results.  The fourth stage of the rocket failed to ignite, and the whole kit and caboodle came crashing back down to Earth.  The bulk of the craft seems to have landed in Chile, though no pieces of it were ever recovered.  Russian telemetry on the rocket was severely limited, and no specific cause for the crash was ever identified.

The Japanese tried reaching Mars with the Nozomi (meaning Wish or Hope) spacecraft, but a malfunctioning valve resulted in a loss of fuel so great that the poor craft was left with insufficient fuel to reach Mars orbit.  Some science did come out of the mission though - Nozomi was able to make 2 successful fly-bys of Earth and one of Mars.

Probably the most embarrassing loss of a spacecraft goes to the United States and Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO).  MCO was lost when it traveled out of communications by passing behind Mars 49 seconds earlier than expected.  Contact with the spacecraft was never re-established.  Turns out that while the spacecraft software was written expecting flight data in metric units, engineers on the ground were uploading the data in English units.  The spacecraft ended up flying too close to Mars, and likely disintegrated in the Martian atmosphere.  Oops.

We didn't do much better with Mars Polar Lander (MPL).  Contact with the spacecraft was lost during the descent phase as MPL tried to land at the Martian South Pole.  We never heard from the spacecraft again.  No trace of the craft was ever found, but the official explanation for the loss states that vibrations during the descent phase may have tricked the lander into thinking it was on the ground, and it shut off its thrusters, causing it to plummet the last 130 feet or so to a very hard, fatal landing.

Even the British have had trouble with Mars, losing a lander, Beagle 2 (named for the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyages).  No explanation or cause has ever been agreed upon - the little lander simply disappeared and never made contact after descending towards the surface of the Red Planet.

Clearly, entry, descent and landing (EDL) is a tough time for a Mars-bound spacecraft.  NASA engineers often call the EDL phase the "7 minutes of terror."  This Saturday, we here at the Virginia Living Museum are going to be celebrating Mars with our monthly star party and laser light night...and we've got a special guest planned - NASA!  Exhibits all about Mars and Earth will be available, and Jill Prince, NASA's Mars EDL expert, will be giving a special talk about the 7 minutes of terror.  If the weather holds, we'll be looking at Mars with our telescopes all evening (plus peeking at Venus and Saturn too, I'm sure!), and there will even be a bit of Mars-themed music in the planetarium with Laser Mania!

So come join us for some Mars Mania this Saturday!  Mars activities and exhibits open at 5:30pm, Jill Prince speaks in the planetarium at 6pm, and observing begins after sunset.  All are FREE!  In the planetarium: at 7:30pm enjoy Virginia Skies (with a focus on Mars); 8:30pm see Laser Mania featuring "Attack of the Radioactive Hamsters from a Planet Near Mars" by Weird Al Yankovic; finish the night with a Laser Pink Floyd double feature: The Wall at 10pm and Dark Side of the Moon at 11:30pm.  All planetarium shows are $6, $10 for any two.  Members are always half price!

Don't forget to watch the news for information on the Mars Science Laboratory landing in August...and let's hope the Great Galactic Ghoul keeps his mitts off this one.

Carpe noctem!
Kelly