Nov 272013

Curiosity Mars Rover full scale model

Planetarium show, lecture, demonstrations, and more at Arizona State University Earth and Science Open House

Imagine flying through space, past stars and planets, galaxy after galaxy, >into the Milky Way until you see a small translucent orb, earth. The orb becomes larger and larger as you near it, until it looks like a beach ball in front of your nose. Now imagine going closer and closer still, piercing through the membranes of the ball and viewing the earth from the inside, underneath the surface. This was my experience as I sat, wearing 3-D glasses, in the Marston Exploration Theater at Arizona State University’s Earth and Science Open House.

The free open houses occur monthly throughout the academic year, on a Friday evening. Each open house features demonstrations and activities by experts, a public lecture, and telescope viewing. Each open house centres around a different theme.

The November 2013 Open House theme was comets, chosen because comet ISON is currently nearing its close approach with the sun and can be seen an hour or so before sunrise in the predawn sky. Comet ISON is a sungrazing comet, which means it passes very near the sun. Comet ISON reaches perihelion, its closest point to the sun, on November 28, 2013. There is always a risk that a sungrazing comet will evaporate when it passes the sun. Experts don’t know whether that will happen with ISON or not. If it survives its passage around the sun, it should be visible in the northern hemisphere in early December in the the west after sunset.

The 3-D planetarium show is different each open house. The one I attended included a look at comets, a tour through the galaxies, and a view from inside the earth at points of earthquake activity. Clusters of coloured dots pointed out activity under the earth, with huge masses of dots under Japan and Tonga. The show’s 3-D effects were well-done. At one point, the girl in the row ahead of me reached up to grab the stars that seemed to hover within arm’s reach.

The public lecture following the 3-D show was information and interesting. The Open House included other demonstrations and activities, including a session on making your own comet. Meteorite samples were on display on the second floor. Unfortunately, it was a rainy night and telescope viewing was not part of that particular evening.

Here are a few interesting facts I learned about comets:

    • The tail of a comet always points away from the sun.


    • A comet speeds up the closer it gets to the sun on its elliptical orbit and slows down as it passes away from the sun.


    • Edmond Halley, for whom Halley’s comet was named, because he was the first to identify recorded sightings of comets approximately 76 years apart as reappearances of the same comet, had a conversation with Isaac Newton about the shape of the orbit. Newton said it was an ellipse, having figured this out years prior. His calculations and proof were stored in a drawer. Halley urged Newton to publish his findings. The first volume came out in 1686. Halley funded the publication of the next two volumes, and Newton became the most famous scientist in Europe.


    • Pope Callixtus III is said to have excommunicated Halley’s Comet in 1456. Scholars have debunked this, finding nothing to substantiate it. In 1456, the Pope did order extra prayers for protection of the city of Belgrade upon invasion of the Ottoman Empire. No mention was made of comets.


Have you attended one of ASU’s Earth and Science Open Houses? What did you think? Have you seen ISON or had another comet experience?

The comet ISON did not survive its passage around the sun and broke up under the intense heat.

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