Sternberg Museum hosts Astronomy Night alongside MakerSpace


FHU’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History hosted Astronomy Night last week alongside MakerSpace. Two blue balls were arranged in the museum. Each ball was a small planetarium that could seat 25 individuals.

The participants were led in batches into different halls. The event’s guide used a projector to showcase astronomical phenomena and explain astronomy knowledge to them.

Entering the ball, Although it is not clear from the inside, there are direction signs on the curtain. When you look up at the sky, you can see the equatorial line across the sky, which is a line in yellow.

“Yellow line going across the sky. That is something that we call the equatorial line. And it’s just an imaginary line that traces the path of the Sun across the sky. That’s something that people use as a reference point in astronomy,” MakerSpace and MakerVan Coordinator GG Launchbaugh said. Launchbaugh also served as a guide for the event. 

The guides operated the equipment, sped up the time, let the sun set so that people could see the stars, and then began the explanation of the constellations.

Constellations are things that people have invented over time.“In the past, people would look up at the sky, they’d see different bright stars and sort of do an imaginary connect the dots between them to make them look like stick figures,” Launchbaugh said. “So for instance, they look over there and they say ‘Look, I connect those lines that kind of looks like a man or like a bear.’”

In ancient times, people created various constellations by connecting the bright stars in the sky, their shapes resembling patterns in the heavens. The naming and stories of these constellations are often associated with Greek and Roman mythology, such as Perseus, Unicorn, Dragon, Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor. These constellations serve not only as reference points in astronomy but also as the foundation of ancient calendars, influencing our modern way of life today.

“So people noticed thousands of years ago that the Sun would be next to the same constellation at the same time of year, and they use those constellations to make their calendar and name month, Launchbaugh said. “That’s why sometimes today people will tell you their birthday is related to a zodiac sign because it’s an ancient form of a calendar.”

Constellations do not stand still when looking at the stars. They rotate slowly over time, taking on different forms. In the northern hemisphere, one can observe that some constellations, such as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, rotate in a counterclockwise direction, while those in the Southern hemisphere such as the Southern Cross and Peacock rotate in a clockwise direction.

“We live here in the high up in the Northern Hemisphere. The Big Dipper and a Little Dipper are visible in the sky all night long. Every night of the year. They never go below the horizon,”  Launchbaugh said “The Earth rotates and all the other stars move across the sky, that’s the only one that’s holding still in the sky. So people in the Northern Hemisphere have used it as a guidance night for hundreds of years.”

Now dive deep into the planetary worlds of our solar system. The solar system is a big, old round table, with the sun in the middle and all the planets rolling around the table. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Saturn will all be in the western sky before the sun rises. From Mercury to Neptune, each planet has its own unique charm. Jupiter, in particular, is the brightest thing in the night sky.

“Jupiter will be the brightest thing in the sky, much brighter than any star in the sky. Next to Jupiter is Uranus, which we need a telescope to see, and which we cannot see with our eyes,”  Launchbaugh said. “Mercury is very close to Venus right now. You probably won’t be able to see it unless you’ve got some binoculars or a telescope. Saturn will be bright. It won’t be as bright as Venus.”

Launchbaugh took control of the joystick and flew to the moon. Explaining the features of the moon.

The moon orbits the Earth every 28 days and also rotates on its own axis. Its surface is covered with many craters.

“It took the astronauts three days to travel by rocket. The moon is characterized by many meteorites. On the Moon, there is no atmosphere, no wind, and no liquid water,”  Launchbaugh said. “These craters, while similar in appearance, vary in age, ranging from 50 million years old to as little as 50 years old, with newer craters lighter in color, and some thousands of miles in diameter formed when lava from impacts during the bombardment of the solar system cooled.”

The journey continued to Mars.

Mars is very small. It’s only 10 % the size of Earth. Mars is larger than the Moon and smaller than the Earth, and its functions are intermediate between the Earth and the Moon. It would take about five months to get to Mars by rocket. You’d have to wait about a year for the orbits of Mars and Earth to align, so a trip to Mars would take about two years to make a round trip.

Mars has features not found on the Moon – Mariner Valley System & volcano Olympus Mons.

“Mariner Valley System—It’s the biggest canyon in the solar system, about 2000 miles long, and up to a hundred miles wide, widest point,”  Launchbaugh said.  “Mount Olympus, the crater in the center bears about 50 miles across. The entire volcano is about the size of the state of Arizona, the highest mountain and the highest volcano in the whole solar system. But it is an extinct volcano, so none of the volcanoes on Mars have been active for several hundred thousand years, as much as we can tell.”

Mars is usually red, and the dark gray areas you see are areas of Martian bedrock. The surface of Mars is covered in a lot of dust, and because of the wind blowing around it, it can form huge dunes, and it can cover large dust storms.

“Sometimes the dust is red because it has the mineral iron oxide in the dust,” Launchbaugh said. “The common name for iron oxide is rust. Besides the red and the grayish, there are also some white areas on the surface of Mars, and those are ice. So there’s some ice cap on both the north and south Pole of Mars, similar to the ones on Earth.”  

A planet’s atmosphere is important for regulating surface temperature. The thicker a planet’s atmosphere, the more effectively it insulates the planet’s surface from the temperature of space. Mars’s atmosphere is so thin that it’s only 1% as thick as Earth’s. This means that the temperature isolation between the Martian surface and space is very weak, and the temperature changes on the planet’s surface will be more unstable.

“If you were to stand on the surface of Mars at noon on the hottest day of the Martian summer, it be about maybe 20 degrees. But as soon as the sun sets, it will get down to almost 200 degrees below zero. It’s cold enough at night on Mars, the carbon dioxide will freeze solid,”  Launchbaugh said.

Mars is not a very friendly place to live because of its radiation.

“Earth’s magnetic field deflects a lot of space radiation from hitting the surface of the planet. But Mars does not have a magnetic field, so you get lots of radiation,”  Launchbaugh said. “If anyone were to go to Mars, they would probably not spend very much time walking around in a space suit on the surface. They would probably have to spend most of their time buried underground to protect from radiation, so they would probably make some kind of an underground habitat.”