OK, the title may be a bit dramatic but since moving to North Carolina there is one pressing issue that has caught my attention.

Like so many, I love my coffee in the morning. I watch the sun slowly waking up my world as the coffee slowly wakes me up; it really is one of my favorite things. Because of this, I decided a while back to take my coffee making to another level. I purchased a French press. 

For those who don’t know, to use a French press one needs ground coffee and boiling water. The coffee is placed in the carafe followed by boiling water.  A screen/filter/plunger is then used to push the grounds down, thus allowing this barista to enjoy his coffee!  

Upon arriving in North Carolina, however, I found a glitch in the system. Water seems to take FOREVER to boil here! I know a watched pot never boils but this is a little ridiculous. How did the move to North Carolina change a seemingly simple operation?

It turns out there is quite a large difference, a little more than 3,500 feet to be exact. As a child I heard people taking about high altitude cooking directions and I thought they were crazy—up until now. As I agonize over the extra minutes of not having my coffee, I can’t help but think more about this.  

We moved from an elevation of 4,100 feet above sea level to an elevation of 564 feet above sea level. What this boils down to is the temperature at which water boils. I was taught it boiled at 212 degrees F or 100 degrees C and this is true, under specific circumstances. One of these is to be at sea level. The higher the elevation, the lower the temperature at which water boils.  In fact, every 500 feet lowers the boiling temperature by about 1 degree F.

In doing the calculation, this means water boils at 204 degrees F in our previous home, Helena Montana.  Eight degrees may not seem like that much of a difference, but when you are waiting on your coffee, I assure you it feels like hours!

Pressure is responsible for disrupting my morning coffee procedure. At sea level there is about 14.696 pounds of pressure per square inch pushing on you, water, everything. The amount of pressure in Helena (depending on where you are standing) is around 12.228 pounds.

We are accustomed to feeling the air “pushing” on us so we do not notice it unless we change elevations quickly–like driving over a mountain pass or flying in an airplane.

This affects the boiling point of water because at the higher elevations, water molecules are not held together as tightly as they are under the more weight.

Having come to the realization that there is really nothing I can do to make my water boil faster, I have given up my French press. That and I broke it, but still, lesson learned! C’est la vie!

Kyle Hunter is afterschool coordinator for Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

You can wave hello to these 6 people on the International Space Station, as they pass overhead tonight at about 17,000 miles per hour. (Credit: NASA TV)

You can watch the International Space Station pass over tonight. And unlike this morning’s Quadrantid meteor shower, which required finding a dark location in the freezing early morning cold, this skywatching opportunity requires only that you step outside wherever you are* for a few minutes before 6 p.m. tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012).

Viewing tips:

  • The ISS will look like a VERY bright star that is noticeably moving. It will be easily visible even though the sky won’t be completely dark yet.
  • Head outside by 5:54 p.m. and start looking toward the northwest sky. Don’t worry if you don’t notice the ISS right away. Recruit your friends, family, neighbors, or nearby friendly pedestrians to help look and increase everyone’s chances of seeing it. If all else fails, keep your eyes on the Moon—the ISS will appear to go just past it at 5:58-ish.
  • Between 5:54 and 6:00 p.m., the ISS will appear to move from northwest to southeast. At 5:57 p.m. it reaches its highest point above the horizon, in the northeast, not terribly far from the top of the sky.

*If you’re reading this from outside central North Carolina, see NASA’s spacecraft sighting opportunities website for better predictions of when and where to look.

What not to mistake the space station for:

  • A planet. (Venus and Jupiter are prominent in the current evening sky. Like the ISS, these planets are very bright. However, they will not noticeably move over a few minutes.)
  • An airplane. (The ISS does not have red or green blinking lights.)
  • A meteor, aka “shooting star.” (Meteors appear to streak through the sky quickly, whereas the ISS will take minutes to pass over.)

Tonight’s ISS pass is predicted to be the best (highest, brightest) for us in the early evening for the time being. But if you miss it, the next couple of weeks bring more chances. Check Heavens-Above or NASA’s spacecraft sighting opportunities website. For both sites, begin by indicating your observing location.

And please join Morehead for our next skywatching session, weather permitting, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, from 6 to 8 p.m. Although the space station isn’t predicted to make a visible pass then, we will see the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and other celestial sights.

Amy Sayle plans to step outside tonight to wave hello to the crew members of Expedition 30 on the ISS.

If you’re willing to suffer a little (okay, a lot), you can see one of the best meteor showers of 2012.

Very late tonight—technically, early tomorrow morning, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012—is the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower. The eastern half of North America is favored for this year’s shower.

The Quadrantids have a short peak, but it can be a good one. Estimates vary, but from a dark site, you may see up to 100 meteors (“shooting stars”) streaking through the sky per hour. The best time to look is between 3 and 6 a.m.

On top of that being ridiculously early for many of us, it’s going to be super cold around here. So dress really, really, really warmly. Then get away from outdoor lighting, especially unshielded lights, and look toward the darkest part of your sky.

For further information about the 2012 Quadrantids, see the web sites of Sky & Telescope and the American Meteor Society.

Prefer much warmer weather? You can hold out for the Perseid meteor shower in August.

Are you considering buying a telescope?  Check out these resources so that your new telescope is right for you (or the person you’re giving it to), and won’t end up collecting dust in the garage:

  • Advice from the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society: On the CHAOS home page, look for the “Starting Right” link. This article by Jon Stewart-Taylor explains why unaided-eye observing is the way to start an astronomy hobby, explores why binoculars are a good next step, and provides tips for choosing a telescope that meets your needs, as well as advice on what NOT to buy.
  • Advice over email: Additionally, CHAOS and RAC are collaborating on an advice service for people who are considering buying a telescope. You can email your questions to help@chaosastro.com.

To see a variety of telescopes in action, please join Morehead for our monthly skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake (Ebenezer Church Recreation Area). Members of CHAOS and RAC help Morehead educators present these free, informal sessions for the public. Our next skywatching session (weather permitting) is Saturday, January 28, from 6-8 p.m.

You can also jumpstart your astronomy hobby by learning what’s up in the winter skies. On Wednesday evening, December 21, we’ll have “Starry Nights: Winter Skies,” a 90-minute class for adults and teens. A version designed for families with children ages 7-12 – “Star Families: Winter Skies” – will be offered Saturday, January 28, from 9:30-10:15 a.m. Please register in advance at our website, or call (919) 962-1236 for more information.

After shivering through the December skywatching session, Amy Sayle is looking forward to teaching "Starry Nights: Winter Skies" under the climate-controlled planetarium sky.

06 Dec 2011
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I recently donated blood for the first time. It was an interesting experience because, not only did I feel like I did something good, it also raised a lot of questions.

To donate blood, they stick you in the arm with a needle that is connected to a tube that takes the blood from your body to a collection bag.  I was watching my blood flow into the bag when I wondered, if I am donating a pint of blood, how, where, and when will I replenish what I am donating to get back to my body’s normal supply of about 10–12 pints?

When they took my blood, they took whole blood which includes red and white blood cells, plasma, and platelets. 

All of the components of whole blood are made in bone marrow, the flexible tissue found inside hollow bones like our skull, sternum and pelvis.   Interestingly, each type of blood cell has a different life span. Red blood cells, for instance, can last for four months whereas platelets only survive about nine days. 

Under normal conditions, one’s donated pint of blood is completely replenished in about 6 – 8 weeks, and when one is healthy and well prepared, there’s really nothing to it. 

When I had finished giving my blood, I felt pretty good and walked to the “recovery room” which consisted of tables with pizza, soda, cookies, and candy. I sat down and started talking with my friends. All of the sudden my head started spinning and I did not feel so good!  I tried to shake it off but  the next thing I knew I was in being laid down on the ground in someone’s arms with them yelling, “Kyle, Kyle!” 

As I said, this was my first time donating blood. 

I did not know I was supposed to do so on a full stomach and well hydrated with plenty of water and juice.  I showed up having consumed my normal morning breakfast of yogurt and two cups of coffee.  

This was less than ideal for a couple reasons.

First, we rely on glucose—sugar–to keep us functioning because it is the main source of energy for the cells in our body. We get glucose from foods we eat.  Second, without having consumed enough liquid, and then losing more liquids through the donation, my blood pressure dropped and me with it.  The reason?  Not enough blood was getting to my brain, so my rescuers lowered me to the ground and got my legs up, to increase the blood flow to my brain! 

To aid my recovery, I ate some pizza and drank some soda and was my chipper self again in no time!  

Will I donate blood again?  Yes!  I learned so much from doing it this time; I can only imagine what I will learn next time if I eat and drink enough beforehand so I don’t faint!

Kyle Hunter is afterschool coordinator for Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

A radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 (credit: NASA/JPL)

A radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 (credit: NASA/JPL)

A space rock about a quarter-mile-across whizzes by Earth tonight (Nov. 8, 2011). The asteroid, called 2005 YU55, is coming closer than the Moon’s orbit.

But don’t bother taking cover—the asteroid will miss Earth by 200,000 miles when it reaches its closest point around 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Its gravitational influence will have no detectable effect on our planet.

Although 2005 YU55 has been classified as a potentially hazardous object, NASA’s Near Earth Object Program says this asteroid poses no threat of colliding with Earth over at least the next hundred years.

The asteroid is way too dim to see with just your eyes. But if you have at least a 6-inch telescope, you could try to spot it. Sky & Telescope’s website has a good article about the asteroid with a link to a finder chart.

For something easy to spot with your eyes alone, try Jupiter. It's that bright "star" blazing away in the east after sunset.

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.


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