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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


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!

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,

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!