Light Pollution

Light pollution can drastically affect the number of stars visible in the night sky. Click on the picture to enlarge. Picture from http://stellarium.org.

Step outside the average suburban home at night, and you’re likely to see the fluorescent glow of streetlights, soft yellow light streaming from the windows of homes, and security floodlighting. One thing you may not be able to see is the night sky. The light sources around us at night can scatter photons upwards into our atmosphere, creating light pollution that blocks our view of the stars – particularly those stars that are smaller, farther away from Earth, or dimmer. For many urban and suburban dwellers, the only Milky Way they’ll ever see comes in a brown candy wrapper.

Astronomers try to monitor levels of light pollution, because it has serious consequences for scientists’ ability to study our universe (Earth-bound telescopes, just like our eyes, are hampered by light pollution). Astronomers can’t be everywhere in the world, though, so to effectively keep tabs on levels of light pollution around the world, they need the help of ordinary citizens.

From October 9th through the 23rd, you can participate in the Great World Wide Star Count along with thousands of other amateur observers around the world. The idea is simple – everyone will observe the same constellation (if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, you will observe Cygnus) and count the number of stars that are visible. Then, observers will post their results online, where they can also view the project’s results. To participate, simply visit the Star Count website and download an activity guide.

If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between light and astronomy, look for the Science 360 show “Bring the Universe to Light,” coming back on the schedule at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center later this fall.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

MESSENGER took this image of Mercury on September 29, 2009, during its third flyby.  This image shows portions of the planet’s surface never seen before by spacecraft.  (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

MESSENGER took this image of Mercury on September 29, 2009, during its third flyby. This image shows portions of the planet’s surface never seen before by spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Early tomorrow morning (Thursday, October 8th) will be a good time to spot a rarely seen planet—Mercury.

About 45 minutes before sunrise, look for Mercury low in the east and hanging out just a smidgen below and to the right of Saturn. You’ll need an unobstructed horizon because even at its best placement in the sky, Mercury never appears far from the Sun.

Mercury is not only rarely seen by humans, it hasn’t been seen much by our spacecraft either.  NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which recently flew by the planet, is only the second to visit Mercury, and in March 2011, it will be the first to orbit it. Mercury’s first visitor, Mariner 10, flew by the planet in 1974-75.

The scientific goals of the MESSENGER mission include answering questions such as why is Mercury so dense and what is its geological history and the nature of its magnetic field. You can learn more about this mission at NASA’s MESSENGER Web site.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 project manager. She's considering setting her alarm clock for 6:30 a.m. to see Mercury.

Friday, Nov. 20

Friday, Nov. 20

I can’t believe it’s already October. That means Jupiter Ball,  Morehead’s annual black-tie gala fundraiser, is coming up fast. Invitations are set to go out next week. Also by next week, you’ll be able to download an invitation or reserve your tickets online. I’d better check to see if I can still fit in my tux!

Also this year the Jupiter Committee, a wonderful group of volunteers who pull the event together, came up with another great idea, an online auction. The idea is fairly simple: an online auction has the potential to reach a lot more people than the ball itself — which usually ends up with around 300 guests each year. They’ve got a lot of really awesome items in the online auction. My personal favorite is the basketball signed by the members of the 2009 NCAA championship team. Just a guess — that’ll go for more than I can afford. The online auction preview starts tomorrow, Oct. 2. Bidding starts Oct. 10. Check it out.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

It is officially autumn, and here in North Carolina that means fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, squash, and, of course, pumpkins will be on display at farmers’ markets across the state. All of these fall treats, along with nearly all the other fruits and vegetables we eat, come from flowering plants.

Luckily for those of us who enjoy fresh produce, flowering plants are some of the most evolutionarily successful organisms on Earth – but their success does not come from luck. Instead, flowering plants have developed survival mechanisms that are almost as varied as their beautiful blossoms: from the color, size, and shape of their petals to their scents or pollen size, these plants are carefully designed to maximize their reproductive success through pollination.

Hornet

This rare orchid produces a chemical that mimics a distressed honeybee. Picture from UK Daily Mail.

Scientists in Germany have recently discovered that one flowering plant – a particular type of orchid – is trickier than most when it comes to ensuring its pollination. Scientists noticed that hornets displayed strange behavior around this flower – they would pounce on the center of the blossoms, as if attacking them. The researchers knew that the hornets typically prey on honeybees, and they discovered that the orchid actually produces the same pheromone released by honeybees as a distress call. The hornets pick up the scent and attack the flower expecting a juicy snack; instead, they unwittingly spread the orchid’s pollen!

This orchid is only one example of the diverse and creative world of flowering plants. To learn more about these incredible organisms, you can attend the Science 360 program “Flower Power,” where MPSC educators will share much more about the flowering plants around you.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Try this at home:

  1. Move the best views of the Aurora Borealis directly overhead.
  2. Plug the Aurora Borealis into a nuclear generator. Set it on max capacity.
  3. Add rock music — lots of it — and crank the volume.

Or, instead, come to Morehead and enjoy the laser show experience the easy way!

I’m pretty sure that Albert Einstein wasn’t thinking about rock music when he told the world about photons in the early 20th century. But we should probably thank Albert anyway. His work was key to the development of laser technology and, by 1959, Gordon Gould had introduced the term LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) to the world.

That was 50 years ago. Since then, lasers have become ubiquitous. They can correct your vision, play your DVDs, entertain your cat and eliminate the need for a razor, along with a bunch of top-secret military and corporate stuff that Albert never imagined. Somewhere in the South, someone is probably experimenting with laser-fried chicken (coming soon to a state fair near you!).

Laser shows at Morehead Planetarium

Laser shows at Morehead Planetarium

Those applications of laser technology are everyday activities. But a laser show is a rare experience, something you might see only at your favorite concert, at the Olympics, at the Super Bowl — and, only for the next nine weeks, at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

Morehead chose the very best shows. Led Zeppelin. U2. Pink Floyd, both “The Wall” and “Dark Side.” There’s a classic rock compilation show, and there’s a special Halloween show that we’ll only offer on Oct. 31 (hint: it’s a thriller!). The technology is amazing, many generations beyond that laser show you saw 20 years ago at the Rush concert. And the Star Theater dome is an incredible arena for every show on the schedule.

These laser shows are stunning. Experience them at Morehead. Thank you, Albert!

Craig Zdanowicz took this photo during laser shows at Morehead on Sept. 18.

It’s been a while since we did an overhaul on the moreheadplanetarium.org web site. In fact, the last time we rebuilt the website was 2003. In web time, that’s back in the middle ages. So we’ve decided it’s about time. We want to do two main things, modernize it visually and technologically, allowing us to utilize social media more and make it much more intuitive to use and to find information.

So, first step is that we’re going to “reskin” the homepage, which means that we’re going to keep the majority of the elements, but give it a new modern look. The second step is to take that new look to test with our users and then rebuild guts of the site from the ground up.

Here’s a first version mock-up of the reskinning of the homepage. If you have any thoughts, concerns, complains, compliments, or rants, please leave a comment and let us know. What would you want to see in a new Morehead Planetarium and Science Center website? More education? More information? More videos? Lay it on me.

moreheadweb_v1_091609

Jay Heinz is Morehead's digital production manager.

caiusIf you’ve ever visited Morehead, you’ve learned something new about science and the world in which we live.

What may be less obvious is that Morehead is a rich learning ground for UNC students, too.  There have always been student employees at Morehead.  However, in 2001, the organization made a bold and purposeful decision to strengthen the experience for student employees by aligning its staffing strategy to the academic mission of the University.  Now, over sixty UNC students work at Morehead, and they take center stage in our organization. It is the job of our full-time staff to mentor, nurture and support them as they learn skills related to teaching, nonprofit management and communications.

Students can be found in every aspect of our operations.  In addition to serving as the “public face” of the organization – giving shows, teaching in our programs and selling tickets and merchandise in our gift shop – students work behind the scenes designing curriculum, writing for our publications and planning events.  They learn to communicate complex ideas, manage projects and reflect on their successes (and occasional failures).

In addition, many of our more experienced student employees train and support their newer colleagues.  For example, Mallory and Eryn held a training session over the weekend for our exhibit facilitators.  They planned the agenda, prepared the materials and presented the information to our staff. They will then follow up with their colleagues, answering their questions and providing additional support.  This is just one example of a leadership role available to student employees through our organization.

For sixty years, Morehead has provided high quality science education to more than seven million people – schoolchildren, teachers, families and others. Now we’re also preparing the next generation of science educators, communicators and business people, too.  We are a learning organization through and through.

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning.

Io passing in front of  Jupiter. (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, Cassini Project, NASA)

Io passing in front of Jupiter. (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, Cassini Project, NASA)

In the Science 360 program “Bring the Universe to Light,” MPSC educators tell the story of Galileo Galilei’s surprising observations of the planet Jupiter.

With a telescope or even just a decent pair of binoculars, you can discover what Galileo did 400 years ago: Jupiter has moons that orbit it. This observation contradicted a commonly held view that everything revolved around Earth.

Tonight, something special happens with these dancing points of light that Galileo observed. Two moons, Ganymede and Europa, will appear to cast dark shadows on Jupiter as they pass in front of the planet. And Io will disappear as it passes behind.

The Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society invites the public to join them for an informal telescope viewing of this moon dance after 9 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, Aug. 26, at Farrington Point, Jordan Lake. (Please note this is not the same place where the regular Morehead skywatching sessions meet.)

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager.

When I was a young girl, I remember rationing the pages of the last book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I read only five pages a day because I just didn’t want that story to end! Unfortunately, it did end, but the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder started and sealed my passion for adventure stories – a passion that continues to this day. From this experience, I also learned about the power of a good story to engage, inspire, motivate and educate. My colleagues and I often talk about “the power of the story” and aim to share science through stories in our programs, exhibits and shows.

An obvious example is Magic Tree House Space Mission, our planetarium show based on the popular book series by Mary Pope Osborne. In this original story, Jack and Annie go on wondrous adventures – to an observatory, a Moon colony and even a black hole – as they try to complete a task for the mysterious “M.” We, as audience members, travel with them and learn about stars, the Moon and space travel along the way.

Similarly, we integrate myths and legends of the night sky in our live Carolina Skies programs. And Morehead programs like Meet-A-Scientist and Current Science Forum offer firsthand accounts of UNC scientists’ quests to understand our world better. In addition to sharing their research findings, the scientists treat us to behind-the-scenes stories.

Why the emphasis on story in our science education programs? Many reasons. First, good stories are captivating. They are powerful hooks for learning. They capture our minds and our hearts. And, once minds and hearts are opened, our ability to learn science is a snap!

Good stories can also provide context – making something difficult, foreign, scary or dry feel accessible and doable and exciting and real. For example, in our DESTINY curriculum module called Brand Name Genes, rather than giving the textbook lesson about genetics and heredity, our educators developed a scenario whereby the participating students must role-play insurance company employees who are deciding whether or not to provide coverage to particular clients, some who may have the BRCA 1 and 2 genes. Of course, the high school students involved in the role-play must learn about genetics and heredity, but they do so for a purpose and in a context which may have some familiarity for them.

And, a really good story leaves us wanting more – just like my experience with the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Our staff hopes that sharing science through stories inspires our visitors to become more interested in science, both while at Morehead and after going home.

So, what’s your favorite science story? Feel free to share it here. And, if you’re looking for a good source for high-quality science books for children (and adults who love them!), try Esme Raji Codell’s web site, PlanetEsme.com. Ms. Codell is an award-winning educator and an advocate for sharing excellent stories with children. Fiction and non-fiction science stories are regularly featured on her blog.

Happy reading!

Denise

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning. She is currently reading Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them and Grossology.

The production team is hard at work putting the finishing touches on the new digital version of one of Morehead’s most popular planetarium shows, “Magic Tree House: Space Mission.” We’re set to wrap our seven month production at the end of September when it will be mixed in 5.1 surround sound. The story and even the audio from the original show is almost exactly the same, except for one change – the voice of Jack. We worked with new voice over actor Blake Pierce (seen here with writer Will Osborne) to record a slightly older sounding Jack voice.

But the majority of our time has been spent using 3D animation and modeling to create more realistic and immersive environments for Jack and Annie to explore. Check out this still from a reimagined scene below!

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.


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