27 Oct 2011
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Perseus holds the head of Medusa, whose eye is marked by Algol, the "Demon star." (Credit: Stellarium.org)

A star perfect for Halloween currently lies in the northeast evening sky within the constellation Perseus. It’s Algol—the “Demon Star”—and it represents the eye of Medusa.

According to myth, if you looked at Medusa you’d turn to stone. Perseus managed to chop off Medusa’s head by looking only at her reflected image in his shield.

Algol looks like a single star to us, but it’s actually a multiple star system. From our point of view on Earth, two of the stars in the Algol system orbit each other such that one star periodically passes in front of (eclipses) the other, blocking its light.

When the light from this “eclipsing binary” dims every few days, you can imagine it as the eye of Medusa, still winking after the head has been cut off.

Head of Medusa

Sorry, but you've just been turned to stone.

If you’d like to hear the full story of Perseus and Medusa along with other tales of madness, murder, and mayhem in the night sky, please join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a special edition of our live planetarium program Carolina Skies.  In honor of Halloween, we will have several “Scare-olina Skies” shows:

  • Adult versions: Scare-olina Skies shows on Saturday night, October 29, 2011 (at 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) feature themes designed for adults and older teens.
  • Family-friendly version: Scare-olina Skies on Sunday, October 30, 2011 (at 3:30 p.m.) is designed for children ages 5-12 and their families.

Watch out! Medusa will make an appearance on the planetarium dome during Scare-olina Skies.

Check out the trailer for our newest show – Solar System Odyssey. This show is a character-driven adventure set in the future, in a time when humans have depleted the resources of their home planet. A business tycoon recruits our hero, Jack Larson, on a mission to discover a new home for humans to colonize.

Join Jack Larson and stowaway, Ashley Trout, on a wild ride through our Solar System as they look for answers to these questions: How are the worlds of our Solar System alike? How are they different? What must those worlds have in order for humans to live there?

The journey takes the audience on an exciting exploration of our cosmic neighborhood, including the icy rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s volcano-ridden moon IO and the sub-zero methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

This photograph of the International Space Station was taken from the space shuttle Discovery after the two spacecraft undocked on March 7, 2011. (Credit: NASA)

Pretty much everyone in the Eastern part of the U.S. who has clear skies can get a view of the International Space Station (ISS) tonight (Monday, October 17, 2011). To see it, be outside by 7:16 p.m.

Over the following six minutes the ISS’s orbit around Earth takes it over the East Coast. For our area, the space station is predicted to first appear between 7:16 and 7:17 p.m. low in the southwest. It will pass almost directly overhead at 7:19 p.m., and finally disappear low in the northeast at 7:22 p.m.

Look for a very bright white “star” that is noticeably moving. And wave hello to the three people currently onboard.

If you don’t notice the ISS in the first couple of minutes, don’t give up. You can increase your chances of spotting it by inviting friends to help scan the sky with you. You might also practice “ambush astronomy” and introduce nearby friendly pedestrians to one of the coolest things to see in the sky.

Although the space station orbits our planet about every 90 minutes, you won’t see every pass. According to predictions on Heavens-Above and NASA’s satellite sightings page, tonight’s ISS pass should be the easiest one to see from this area for the rest of October.

If you miss the real thing, you can see a simulated ISS pass by attending Morehead's Carolina Skies planetarium program. Just ask your presenter before the show.

Have you explored the Rotunda of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center? It’s on the west end, adjacent to the Science Stage, and you enter through the UNC Visitors Center. The Rotunda showcases one of John Motley Morehead III’s gifts to UNC, a memorial to his wife: the Genevieve Margaret Birkhead Morehead Art Gallery.

The gallery features 11 portraits, mostly by 17th- and 18th century artists. Of these, perhaps the portrait of Liesbeth van Rijn is most famous — not because of what it is, but because of what it isn’t.

Portrait of Leisbeth van Rijn

Liesbeth van Rijn

Liesbeth (or Lijsbeth, following the Dutch spelling) van Rijn was a sister and a favorite model of master painter Rembrandt van Rijn. For hundreds of years, the Liesbeth painting at Morehead was considered to be an original Rembrandt portrait. It was purchased and displayed as a Rembrandt, not only in the Morehead gallery (where it arrived in 1949) but at galleries and in private collections beginning in the 1700s.

About 30 years ago, the Rembrandt Research Project identified Liesbeth as the work of another painter in Rembrandt’s workshop, probably his student Isaac de Jouderville. With her newfound notoriety as a faux Rembrandt, Liesbeth has earned quite a bit of publicity for herself, and this month she travels to the North Carolina Museum of Art to participate in a groundbreaking exhibit of paintings by Rembrandt and other artists in his workshop. You can read about Liesbeth’s road trip in this recent article from The News & Observer.

Beginning in a few weeks, you can view Liesbeth in Raleigh at the NCMA’s Rembrandt exhibit, or you can wait until she returns home in a few months and see her in the gallery here at Morehead. Be sure to check out her “neighbors” in Morehead’s gallery:

  • Capt. David Birrell, painted by Sir Henry Raeburn
  • Lord Mountjoy Blount, painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck
  • John A. M. Bonar, painted by Sir Henry Raeburn
  • Genevieve Morehead, painted by Nichola Michailow
  • Edmund M. Pleydell, painted by Thomas Gainsborough
  • The Scribe, painted by Aart de Gelder
  • Paulus van Beresteyn, painted by Michiel Jans Mierevelt
  • Gen. George Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peele
  • Martha Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peele
  • James Watt, painted by Sir William Beechey

In addition to these portraits, the Genevieve Margaret Birkhead Morehead Art Gallery features a larger-than-life statue of U.S. President James K. Polk, who was graduated from UNC in 1818. The statue was created by artist and UNC alumnus Stephen H. Smith in 1997. The gallery also houses a unique pendulum clock and barometer, both decorated with sculpted images from the constellations of the Zodiac.

And the origin of Liesbeth isn’t the only mystery that’s been solved in the gallery. There are 16 columns supporting the Rotunda, each carved from a single piece of green marble from the Ozark Mountains. One of these monolithic columns was cracked around its circumference when the columns were installed during construction. Can you spot which column was cracked?

Yes, we're the science specialists, but we like art too.