I heard an interesting comment the other day from one of my colleagues: “Spring break is the longest holiday.” And in a lot of ways that’s true. At Morehead, we see a spring break surge for about two weeks because some schools break before Easter while others wait until the week after. For parents, it may just feel like the longest holiday. Unlike the holiday season, there aren’t a lot of holiday-specific activities to fill the days, and unlike summer, the period isn’t long enough to settle into a comfortable routine.

My two-year-old checks out the fish at the Georgia Aquarium

My two-year-old checks out the fish at the Georgia Aquarium

As a result, a lot of families take to the road for a vacation or a few day trips. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ideas based on my recent experiences:

  • Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Duh. It IS my job to encourage people to come here, and with the new fulldome video system that’s easy to do. Make sure to check the calendar on the home page before making the trip on a weekday because we still have field-trip groups and a lot of shows are sold out.
  • North Carolina Museum of Life and Science (Durham). My two-year-old loves Loblolly Park and the petting zoo. While the entire museum is worth seeing,  go on a day with nice weather because so much of what they have to offer is outside.
  • Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta). If you’re making your way to Atlanta and haven’t been to the aquarium, put this on your list (and buy tickets in advance). Located close to Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium is world class all the way.
  • Zoo Atlanta: I think the zoo has gotten overshadowed by the aquarium, but the zoo is worth the trip. Pandas, kangaroos, a petting zoo, zebras, tigers — all in a manageable space for most kids.
  • N.C. Aquariums (Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores and Roanoke Island): I’ve heard great things about all three locations, but I can only speak firsthand regarding the Fort Fisher aquarium. If you are thinking about the Fort Fisher aquarium from your own childhood, this isn’t it. Dramatically expanded between 1999 and 2002, this aquarium is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon when you are in the Wilmington area.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of science-themed museums and attractions in our area, state and region. We’re fortunate to have a number of high-quality options. If you are looking for something to do with the kids, check ‘em out.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations and is sorry that he didn't have enough space to mention the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, the National Aquarium, The Health Adventure, the Schiele Museum, SciWorks, the Science Museum of Virginia, and ... (you get the idea!)

When I was a kid, I had a junior detective wristband. (Maybe you did, too.) It was colorful and plastic, the kind of toy you’d find in a cereal box. And it had a tiny plastic magnifying glass, because every junior detective needs to be able to see tiny things in detail. That’s how you solve mysteries.

I magnified ants. And flower pollen. And feathers. I magnified almost everything I could find. And the close-up views from that tiny magnifying glass offered some amazing lessons about the world. (Wow — butterfly wings have scales!)

In nanotechnology, scientists do the same thing, but they have much better toys.

Nanotechnology is the study of things at the atomic and molecular levels. Very, very, very tiny things. Scientists use specialized microscopes and other laboratory instruments for nanotechnology research. They’re solving mysteries.

nanotubeTake this model of a nanotube, for example. It represents one way that carbon atoms can be structured. Nanotubes are very strong, maybe one hundred times as strong as steel. They’re very tiny, just a fraction of the width of a human hair. They conduct heat and electricity. Scientists are still learning about the properties of carbon nanotubes and about the ways we can use these structures.

If you’re curious, you’ll have a rare opportunity this weekend to take a behind-the-scenes peek into nanotechnology research on the UNC campus. Morehead is hosting NanoDays on Saturday, March 27.

You can learn more about nanotechnology with hands-on activities for the family. Discover where you can find examples of nanotechnology in your own home. Tour research labs with scientists from the UNC Department of Physics and Astronomy (that’s where the cool research toys — I mean, laboratory instruments — live).

It’s fun, and it’s free. Come check out NanoDays.

Junior detective wristbands might be the coolest cereal box toy ever.

Todd Boyette and other members of the North Carolina delegatiion with their Chinese counterparts

Todd Boyette (3rd from right) and other members of the North Carolina delegation with their Chinese counterparts

Greetings from Beijing, China! I am traveling with 11 other North Carolinians as guests of the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. We actually make up the entire U.S. delegation, which is a tremendous opportunity for North Carolina. Traveling with me are: Dr. Fran Nolan – leader of the delegation and Executive Director of the NC Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative; three members of the NC House of Representatives – Susan Fisher (Buncombe), Maggie Jeffus (Guilford) and Joe Tolson (Edgecombe, Wilson); Robin Bergeron of Guilford County Schools; Becky Grant – CEO of Greensboro Children’s Museum; Lew Ebert – President of the NC Chamber of Commerce; and four high school student-winners of the NC International Science Challenge – Shilani Chudasama, Victoria Jones, Victoria Melbourne and Chelsea Sumner.

One of the first items of business once we arrived in Beijing was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. This is a five-year agreement that formalizes a training and exchange relationship between the United States and the Beijing Association of Science and Technology (BAST). Morehead Planetarium and Science Center joins the NC Science, Math and Tecnology Center and the Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative to form the U.S. side of the partnership. This is a tremendous opportunity for Morehead. The MOU was signed during a formal signing ceremony at BAST Headquarters. I have attached a picture of the participants right after signing the agreement. I look forward to utilizing this partnership to enhance our efforts at Morehead.

Todd Boyette has been director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center since 2006.

Orion the Hunter

Orion the Hunter

How well can you see the stars from where you live? Through March 16, you and your family can collect scientific data right outside your house (or anywhere you choose) for GLOBE at Night, an annual worldwide project to measure light pollution.

Participating is easy:

1)  Go outside at least an hour after sunset between now and March 16, and wait 10 minutes or more for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

2)  Find the constellation Orion, and compare what you see with the GLOBE at Night magnitude charts.

3)  Go online to report your results.

The Globe at Night Web site provides helpful activity packets with printable magnitude charts. A few weeks from now, the organizers will release a map of light pollution levels worldwide—including your data point.

To experience skies that may be darker than at your home (or maybe not, depending on where you live), join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a skywatching session. We’ll be at Little River Regional Park on Friday, March 19, and at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake on Saturday, March 20. Both sessions are 8 to 10 p.m. and are weather permitting.

You can also visit Morehead at 8 p.m. on either April 23 or 24, when we will use our new technology to present the live planetarium program “Our Vanishing Night.” Telescope observing will follow, weather permitting.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. One year while leading a stargazing seminar at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, she and the seminar participants documented a sky of limiting magnitude 6 at Ocracoke Island, NC. How dark is YOUR sky? Please leave us a reply.

Phobos

The Mars Express orbiter will skim the surface of Phobos at a distance of just 50 km on March 3, 2010. For comparison, this image of Phobos, taken by NASA, was captured at a distance of 9,670 km.

Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos, named for the minor Greek deities Fear and Panic (what could go better with a planet named after a god of war?). On March 3, Mars Express – a Mars orbiter operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) – will set a record for the closest-ever flyby of Phobos when it skims over the moon at a distance of only 50 km (about 30 miles). ESA scientists hope that by venturing so close to the rather lumpy moon, Mars Express can gather data that will help answer lingering questions about Phobos.

Earlier Mars Express flybys have determined the mass and volume of Phobos, using a variety of instruments. Surprisingly, the data suggest that parts of Phobos may actually be hollow. The March 3 flyby should help to either confirm or negate this idea.

Another goal of the flyby is to determine the internal chemical composition of Phobos, in the hopes that such information may help scientists determine the origin of this moon. There are three current theories about Phobos: one, that it is a captured asteroid; two, that it formed at the same time and from the same basic materials as Mars; and three, that it was formed from debris shot into Mars’s orbit by a large meteorite strike.

The Mars Express orbiter is only one of many experiments designed to discover more about our planetary neighbor. If you would like to know more about past, present, and future Mars exploration, come see the live show Mission to Mars, one of two Science 360 shows on MPSC’s spring schedule.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. In case you're wondering, Deimos has also been explored at close range: in 1977, the NASA Viking Orbiter II flew over this moon's surface at a distance of only 30 km.

A recent Bioblitz, in which over 100 citizens worked with scientists to identify species at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in central North Carolina.

Perhaps you’ve attended an art festival before.  Or a movie fest.  Or a Greek fest.  Or a beer fest.  But have you ever attended a science festival?  If that thought appeals to you, then 2010 is your year!

Morehead is coordinating the first ever North Carolina Science Festival to be held this Sept. 11 – Sept. 26.  The goal of the Festival is quite simple – to engage more North Carolinians in science.  We’ll do this by highlighting hands-on activities, science talks, exhibits, nature experiences, lab tours and other science-related activities taking place across the state.  Whether you’re a kid or an adult, it’s going to be lots of fun.

Please check the North Carolina Science Festival web site regularly for updates.  If you have a cool idea for the Festival, please let me or Julie Rhodes, Festival coordinator, know.

And if the North Carolina Science Festival leaves you wanting more, join Morehead staff – and about a million other people (literally!) – on the National Mall in DC for the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo from Oct. 23-24.  Morehead is an official partner of this event.

Go science!

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning. She’s never met a festival she didn’t like.

Earth's Magnetic Field

Earth's magnetic field protects us from solar radiation, as shown in this image (an artist's conception from NASA). Is it possible that this protective shield might disappear on December 21, 2012?

So far, we’ve debunked four end-of-the-world claims in our 2012 blog series (see them all here). But those who are predicting a 2012 doomsday seem to have taken a “more is more” approach in terms of their ideas about just what will bring about an apocalypse on December 21, 2012 – one website lists 22 possible causes! One pervasive claim on 2012 sites is the idea that Earth will undergo a magnetic pole reversal on 12/21/2012, leaving us completely unprotected from fatal levels of solar radiation.

First, let’s examine the facts behind this claim:

  1. The Earth’s magnetic field has been declining in strength over the past century or so.
  2. Earth’s magnetic field does protect us from solar radiation.

Unfortunately for the 2012 crowd, that is where the facts end. While Earth’s magnetic field strength has been declining recently, it is still well above average. A graph of field strength over time shows many fluctuations – the current decline is nothing unique. While there’s no way to prove that we aren’t heading for a reversal, there is also no definitive proof that we are.

Secondly, the protection from solar radiation afforded by our magnetic field would not disappear during a reversal. While the magnetic field strength does decrease during this process, it does not fall to zero – and even a weak field can stop many solar rays. Those that do get through a weakened magnetic field would then have to deal with our atmosphere, which is as effective at stopping solar radiation as a 13-foot-thick wall of concrete! The greatest risk during a reversal would be to satellites and astronauts orbiting the Earth at high elevations, where our atmosphere is too thin to provide much protection. If previous magnetic reversals coincided with damaging levels of solar radiation here at ground level, we would see evidence of it in the fossil record – and we simply don’t.

If these arguments haven’t convinced you, then here’s one more: magnetic reversals take thousands of years to complete, not a single day! So rest easy – and don’t be afraid to step into the sun on 12/21/2012.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens on February 6.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. Her favorite 2012 possibility is #21; the phrase "catastrophic pinball machine" conjures up some great images.

Mars HiRISE Image

Think you're seeing trees on the Martian surface? Guess again - it's an optical illusion. The "trees" are actually dark streaks on the sand caused by evaporating gases. This image is one of thousands in the HiRISE collection.

When someone says the word “Mars,” what image comes to your mind? Most likely, you picture a dusty, cratered, rust-colored wasteland. But thanks to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), you can see our planetary neighbor like never before. The HiRISE camera, part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is operated by NASA and the University of Arizona and is currently the most powerful camera on any NASA spacecraft. The beautiful images it has sent back to Earth highlight the fact that while parts of Mars may seem familiar to us, other features of the Red Planet are bizarre and mysterious.

Unlike Mars rovers, which are designed to investigate only a tiny portion of Mars’s land area, the HiRISE camera orbits the entire planet and can be directed to take images of any interesting area. It has taken thousands of detailed images, all of them available to view online. Now, with the release of the HiWish public suggestion tool, you can help determine future target areas for the camera. After registering for the program, you can browse large-scale areas of the Martian surface and send in your suggestion for where HiRISE should take its next close-up image. The site also allows you to track your suggestions and receive notifications when your images are taken.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Red Planet, plan to attend our Science 360 show “Mission to Mars,” which returns to the MPSC schedule on February 6, 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

The secret is revealed!

nextgiantleap_lowWe’ve installed a fulldome digital video system that will completely, radically, astonishingly change the way you experience planetarium shows. And you’ll be able to experience the immersive environment of fulldome digital video at Morehead beginning Feb. 5, 2010.

This is our Next Giant Leap — our biggest change in 40 years. And we thank GlaxoSmithKline for making this possible with a generous $1.5 million gift to Morehead. We’ve renamed the Star Theater to commemorate this change; it’s now the GlaxoSmithKline Fulldome Theater.

Be one of the first to check it out, because you’ll want to tell all of your friends about the new fulldome shows. There’s “Astronaut,” from the National Space Centre. “Black Holes: Journey into the Unknown,” from Museum Victoria. And a new fulldome version of an original Morehead production, “Earth, Moon and Sun.”

So what’s different about fulldome? There’s an app — I mean, a Top Ten List for that:

  1. New Shows

    In addition to the multimedia shows, there are changes to “Carolina Skies,” too. Now you can view the universe from any point in space, even beyond our solar system!
  2. Super HD and Better Sight Lines

    Fulldome’s 4000×4000 pixel resolution is like high definition on steroids. And the theater seating has been rearranged, so every seat faces the “sweet spot” of the dome.
  3. Surround Sound

    Yeah, 5.1 channel digital surround sound, baby!
  4. Immersion

    This is the numero uno characteristic of fulldome — the sensation that you are surrounded by the planetarium show, right in the middle of things. (Which is good until you get chased by the dinosaur in “Earth, Moon and Sun.”)
  5. More Science

    Analog planetarium projectors are great at projecting astronomy and space images, but they aren’t so good at projecting images from oceanography and medicine and other science disciplines. Guess what? Fulldome is great at projecting all kinds of science images! So as Morehead adds new shows, you’ll see more science disciplines reflected in show content.
  6. Less Equipment

    Guess how many pieces of equipment Morehead needed with its analog system? More than 50 different projectors (slide and video) in addition to the Zeiss star projector, plus dozens of custom-built special effects — at least several hundred pieces of equipment. That’s no longer a problem. The fulldome system has two projectors and an array of graphics computers that replace all of that analog stuff. This is a very good thing.
  7. Revenue

    Since fulldome is based on universal standards, the shows Morehead produces to use here can be used just as easily by any other fulldome planetarium. In fact, the new version of “Earth, Moon and Sun” has been leased to four planetariums in the U.S. already.
  8. Fresh Schedules

    Morehead can lease shows FROM other planetariums as well as TO other planetariums. So you’ll see new shows on the schedule more often.
  9. Mobility

    Can’t come to Morehead? Morehead comes to you! Morehead’s new PLANETS Portable Planetarium Program uses fulldome technology, too, so it can bring fulldome shows to schools that are too far from Morehead to plan a field trip here.
  10. Brand Identity

    We’ve been producing planetarium shows for years. Now, we’re going international. Planetariums in Brazil and Hong Kong have already asked about leasing Morehead’s first original fulldome production, and more original Morehead shows are in the works.

That all sounds wonderful, but we know you’ll want to see this for yourself. So we’ll be looking for you soon. Come experience fulldome digital video, Morehead’s Next Giant Leap!

Kudos to Laura Walters for creating the image Morehead is using with its "Next Giant Leap" theme.

Massive Terrestrial Impact

A huge asteroid like the one in this image (an artistic rendering from NASA) would likely wipe out all life on Earth. But should we be worrying about this happening in 2012?

As if Mayan “doomsday prophecies,” Sun-damaging planetary alignments, and fatal alignments with the galactic center were not enough, 2012 apocalypse proponents are also stating that on December 21, 2012, Earth will be hit by a huge asteroid that will cause mass extinction and global chaos.

As with the other 2012-doomsday scenarios, the asteroid strike claim has a good deal of scientific evidence against it. Of course, asteroids have hit our planet before – scientists believe a huge one (several miles wide) was probably responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs – and it is virtually guaranteed that Earth will be hit again at some point in the future. But precisely because of that high probability, scientists around the globe are searching the skies for what they call “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs) that may one day strike Earth.

NASA, in conjunction with several other astronomical organizations around the globe, has been cataloging NEOs since 1998. These organizations search the sky for asteroids and comets that are in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. When one is found, advanced computer programs model the object’s future path, taking into account the object’s size and speed as well as the influences of gravity from the Sun, Earth, and other planets and moons in our solar system. As the object comes closer, we can gather more information about it and further refine this model.

But why are scientists spending so much time searching for NEOs – it’s not like we could stop them from hitting Earth, right? It may sound like something out of a big-budget blockbuster, but astronomers actually do think that we would have a chance of deflecting a comet or asteroid headed for Earth – if we discovered it well enough in advance. Proposed methods for NEO deflection include solar sails, “gravity tractors,” and rockets – but NOT nuclear weapons as seen in Hollywood, which would only break the object apart and send deadly mini-asteroids our way. Russia has recently announced preliminary plans to deflect the asteroid Apophis (which technically has a chance of hitting us in 2036, albeit a very small chance).

So, could an asteroid strike the Earth on December 21, 2012? Sure – but a strike is no more likely on this particular date than on any other. Scientists in the NEO discovery program have not found any large object that is likely to even pass close to Earth on this date, or on any other in the near future. Even if they did, it is likely that we could deflect such an object before it intercepts Earth’s orbit.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. She prefers "Deep Impact" over "Armageddon," if only for the escaping-a-tidal-wave-on-a-moped scene.