When ancient astronomers saw dark spots on the moon, they thought they were seas. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin discovered something different when they landed in a dark spot named the Sea of Tranquility in 1969. Instead of a sea, the pair uncovered a large lava plane, evidence of an asteroid striking the moon, punching through its center and causing magma to flow up to fill the deep crevice.
Today you don’t have to be an astronaut to discover the universe’s secrets. A backyard telescope or pair of binoculars will do, said Shawn Cruzen, executive director of Columbus State University’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center Cruzen and his crew hosted a Mobile Astronomy Night on post Thursday.
Starry Nights, an evening of star-gazing with an introduction to the galaxy, was organized by the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation’s Outdoor Recreation Office, and drew nearly a hundred people.
It was a hit among kids, who outnumbered adults at the event.
Following a humorous presentation on the solar system — “Where’s Earth? Look down, it’s right here.” — kids were invited to pick the brain of CSU’s department chair of earth and space sciences.
“Who were the first humans to walk on the moon?” Cruzen asked the kids.
As they shouted out answers, he hinted, “Neil Armstrong and Buzz Lightyear!”
Boys and girls giggled and parents shook their heads.
“No, not Buzz Lightyear. Buzz Aldrin! That’s right!” he said.
Cruzen’s approach kept things light and entertaining for the crowd while also being an informative look at our place in the universe and what that means.
Though the sky was overcast and prevented stargazing, Cruzen’s crew set up six Dobbsonian telescopes to view random objects so kids could get an idea of how telescopes work.
On a typical night, the telescopes would be set up to view the moon, planets and stars.
The best thing to view in the sky right now, Cruzen said, is the birthing of stars in the Orion nebula.
The nebula is located in the southwestern part of the sky this time of year, just below the Belt of Orion — a series of three equidistant stars of the same brightness easily recognizable in the sky, he said.
“It’s a giant stellar nursery with baby stars being born in the middle of this giant cloud,” he said. Another thing to watch for is the rising of Saturn.
“It’s rising in the east so for the next several months it will be easier and easier to see. You can see it with the naked eye, it’s very bright,” he said.
The science center hosts 30 to 35 mobile astronomy nights each year, with half at their downtown location and half out in the community. Fort Benning has hosted several mobile astronomy nights since 2008, with nights scheduled in conjunction with King’s Pond campouts and the annual Independence Day celebrations.
“It’s always a better bonding experience when it’s a learning activity for the whole family,” said Jackie Teixeira, a recreation assistant for Outdoor Recreation, who thought up the idea for Thursday’s planetary tour because of her son’s interest in the subject.
The science center also hosts astronomy nights, also known as observatory open houses, at the Mead Observatory. The observatory provides an array of special programs including public observing sessions and coverage of major astronomical events such as eclipses, comets and meteor showers.
How is a star born? Cruzen skips around the obvious Barbara Streisand punch line – much too dated for this post-1980s crowd — and explains the events that must take place to create a star.
“Throughout the galaxy, hydrogen clouds sit dark and quiet. If something like a supernova occurs — where a star blows up and dies — the explosion from the dying star may hit a nearby hydrogen cloud and cause the cloud to begin collapsing in on itself. As it collapses, its own gravity starts to pull it in and the compressed gas heats up, causing particles to move faster and giving it a glow. If the cloud collapses further, dense pockets of gas within it may become stars if the temperatures get high enough to cause fusion — where the hydrogen starts turning into helium. And that’s how a star is born.”
Planet versus star? If stargazing with the naked eye, how can you tell the difference between a star and a planet? “Stars twinkle and planets don’t as much,” Cruzen said. “Even the closest star — with the exception of the sun — is so far away from us that it looks to us like a single point of light. As that pinpoint of light travels through our atmosphere, the air moves around it causing chromatic scintillation — in other words, the atmosphere causes the starlight to bounce around. Since it’s just coming from one point, that bouncing makes the star look like it twinkles or shimmers. Planets, on the other hand, are little discs sitting in the sky. Because they are close enough, that same air motion can’t make the planet twinkle out all the way as opposed to a star with a single point of light.”
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