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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Brad's Sky Stuff

 October Planetary Observing

After residing in the morning sky through late spring and summer, mighty Jupiter returns to the evening sky this month.  It currently occupies the same sky region as the bright winter constellations.  At October’s onset, Jupiter ascends in the east around 10:30 pm against the distinctive stars of Taurus the Bull.   You should have no trouble finding Jupiter, however; the stars of Taurus can’t compete with the brilliant planet king.   To Jupiter’s right lies the reddish star Aldebaran, part of the Hyades, a V-shaped cluster of stars. 
Directly above the Hyades you’ll find another star cluster known as the Pleiades.  Also called “the seven sisters” the Pleiades are a jewel of the night sky.  At a glance these bluish stars look like a fuzzy glob of light.  But a closer look reveals individual stars shaped like a small dipper.   Binoculars yield the best view of this famous cluster.  Tomorrow evening, the 4th, a waning gibbous moon forms a triangle with Jupiter and Aldebaran.  The Moon rides alongside Jupiter a second time on Halloween night.  A few days past full, our lunar neighbor provides some natural light for trick-or-treaters. 
            The Moon pays a visit to yet another planet this month - Mars.   We’ve recently been treated to stunning high-resolution photos of the surface of Mars beamed to us by Curiosity, NASA’s latest rover exploring our red neighbor.  But with a naked eye view from over 155 million miles, Mars looks like a dim red star hanging low in the southwest after sunset.  The thin crescent moon lies to the upper left of Mars on the evening of the 18th.   Lower left of Mars is Antares, a red giant star that resembles Mars in the sky.  In fact the very name Antares means “opposing” or “rivaling” Mars.  Antares and Mars may look similar in the sky, but that is all they have in common.   Antares is so huge that if it replaced our Sun it would extend well past the orbit of Mars!
            And finally, for early risers, be sure and take note of the brightest planet, Venus beaming brightly in the east before sunrise.  This week, Venus is very close to the bright bluish star Regulus.   They should be visible at the same time in a pair of binoculars.
You can still catch Jupiter before daybreak also.  By that time it will be high in the southwestern sky.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Brad's Sky Stuff - Transit of Venus Tuesday

On Tuesday, June 5 the Cosmosphere will be holding a public observation of the Transit of Venus.  Unless by some miracle you will still be alive in the year 2117, this is your last opportunity to observe this rare astronomical event.  Just like Earth and the other planets, Venus is held in a continual orbit around the Sun by its immense gravity. Because Venus is inside Earth’s orbit, the planet passes between Earth and the Sun as it zips ahead of us on the fast track.  From our point of view it usually passes a little below or a little above the Sun and this is due to the slight inclination of Venus’ orbit compared to ours. 
During most years, Venus would be invisible to Earthlings during the passage, because of the blinding Sun.  But on rare occasions, Venus, Earth and the Sun line up so that Venus actually crosses the Sun’s face.  With a solar-filtered telescope, Venus is visible as a black disc, taking about 6 hours to cross the Sun.    
Like clockwork, these transits of Venus occur in pairs 8 years apart separated by 121.5 years and 105.5 years.  The first was predicted and observed by Jeremiah Horrocks in the year 1639.  Horrocks used a telescope to safely project the first ever visual observation of a Venus transit.   Transits also occurred in the years 1761, 1769, 1874, and 1882.  The last one occurred in the year 2004, completing the transit pairing for this century. 
From 5:15 pm to around 7:30 pm (or whenever we lose the sun behind the western trees) Cosmosphere educators will be set up with solar-filtered telescopes in the parking lot across the street south of the building (old Hutch Floral lot) to provide a free public observation of this rare event.  Of course, any observation of the sky hinges on the ever-changing Kansas weather, so as always we hope for clear skies. 
And we hope you will join us!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brad’s Sky Stuff – Annular Eclipse on Sunday

Welcome to Brad’s Sky Stuff – a place where you can keep up with events that are up there in the sky.
If this month’s full moon seemed unusually large, that’s because it was.   On May 5, our closest celestial neighbor was just that – close. Known as a Supermoon, the May full moon was 221,000 miles from Earth (the average distance is 230,000 miles), making it about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than other full moons of the year. Its slightly elliptical orbit causes the variations in the moon’s distance. Astronomers call the closest distance perigee and the furthest one apogee. 
If you’re worried about a Supermoon slamming into Earth, don’t be.  There is absolutely no danger of such a cataclysmic event.
This month’s apogee of the moon occurs on Saturday, May 19 when it is 252,000 miles from Earth. The next day, on Sunday the 20th, the moon passes directly in front of the sun, creating one of nature’s most breathtaking spectacles, a solar eclipse. Because the moon is furthest away from Earth, it won’t entirely block out the sun. Instead it will leave an annulus (ring) of sunlight around the moon. Fittingly, such an eclipse is called an annular solar eclipse.   A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon is at perigee; the closer moon blocks out all of the sun’s light.   
Not all observers are lucky enough to witness this month’s eclipse as a ring of light.  That privilege is bestowed upon those living within the narrow band in which the annular eclipse passes (See diagram to the right - those living within the red lines get an annular eclipse).  Those living outside that band will experience a partial eclipse.  The further one is from the band, the more partial the eclipse.  Only about two hundred miles wide, the band stretches from Southeast Asia, across the Pacific, and angles Southeast across the Western U.S. ending up in Northwest Texas.
For Kansans the partial eclipse begins around 7:30 pm and is still in progress as the sun sets an hour later.  Viewing the eclipse requires a clear horizon and cloudless western sky. 
How does one observe a solar eclipse?  It can’t be overstated that you should never look directly at the sun with your eyes and especially not with binoculars or a telescope.  Doing so can cause permanent eye damage or blindness.  The safest way to observe a solar eclipse is indirectly, by projecting the sun’s image.  A pinhole projector can be made by using simple materials. For instructions on making such a device, visit exploratorium.edu/eclipse/how.html
It is also possible to safely view a solar eclipse with a #14 welding helmet.  Anything less than #14 does not provide adequate protection for your eyes.  Remember if you do plan to observe the eclipse, safety is paramount.  Unless you just like the idea of going blind, make sure you safeguard your eyes!  Happy Observing!
Questions?  Drop me a line at bradn@cosmo.org

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

Forgive me gentle readers for my extended absence.  April was wonderfully, exhaustingly busy at the Cosmosphere, with teeming swarms of school children, special overnight education programs, scouts, and our very own tribute to our founder, Patty Carey last Saturday night.  Talk about the place to be.. the Cosmosphere is it.

I know you have all been holding your breath for over a month now, impatiently awaiting the #5 artifact in our Top Ten List of Most Fascinating Artifacts in the Hall of Space Museum.  Therefore, without further ado I present a truly remarkable piece of space history, the Russian Vostok.  

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

The countdown of the Top Ten Most Fascinating Artifacts in the Hall of Space Museum continues with the artifact in the sixth position. But, first let us review where we have been so far. At #10 was the Luna sphere from the Soviet Union; #9 were the RD 107 rocket engines, also of Soviet design. Filling the #8 spot were the slides rules previously owned by the German von Braun and the Russian Korolev. At #7 was the SR-71 spy plane. Who knows? Maybe, an artifact from the American space program will finally make the list at #6.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

One of the most awesome displays in the Cosmosphere collection is the SR-71 Blackbird that graces our front lobby. Mysterious to this day, the Blackbird is a plane that looks very much like an alien spaceship. It is so beautifully integrated into the lobby that people often miss it completely as they pass underneath it. Coming in at #7 in our top ten countdown of most fascinating artifacts is the SR-71 Blackbird.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

The Hall of Space Museum tells how the rocket shaped the modern world. The "Space Race" is a huge component in that story. There is a stark contrast between the competing cultures both in their approach to solving problems and in the hardware of their spaceships. The differences are easy for visitors to see when they compare the vessels of the two programs side by side. The Soviets were secretive and simple, while the Americans were free wheeling, and complex. However, the two programs shared the common language and philosophy of mathematics. The small and humble twin artifacts that share the number eight spot in our countdown are an enduring symbol of the undeniable power of numbers.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger

Among the many positions I have held at the Cosmosphere is the role of Planetarium Director. Back then, I went outside at night and scoped out the positions of the stars and planets, so I could point them out during planetarium shows. Now, that I am Director of Education, I have let this activity all but slip away. It is my loss. If you haven’t taken a look at the night sky lately or ever, go out tonight after sunset and look east. That brilliant red star that doesn’t twinkle is Mars. Then, turn around and look west. The two bright lights close together are Venus and Jupiter. Venus is the brighter of the two. If you look at these planets for a little while, you may be struck with a small sense of how many people have come before you and seen this same thing and felt as you may feel about the wonder of it all. It only takes a few moments to make that connection, but the feeling can last a lifetime.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

Many years ago, when I was the front desk evening week-end manager, I trained tour guides. They were inevitably high school students who were naturally apprehensive about giving a tour through a museum that primarily dealt with things they had not directly experienced. My advice to them was to go downstairs, identify their favorite artifact, then learn all they could about that piece. This exercise would eventually lead them to a deeper understanding of the whole story our museum tells. The cosmosphere's Russian collection is a big part of why the Hall of Space is so incredible. So, at number nine, is my personal favorite, the RD 107 rocket engines from the Soviet Union.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

The countdown of the "Top Ten Most Fascinating Artifacts in the Hall of Space Museum" begins with the Lunasphere from the Soviet Union.

When I decided to do a top ten list, I thought it might be a good idea to seek input from my fellow Cosmosphere employees. So, I sent out a little email to twenty people asking for their top ten. When I dissected the responses, I had 45 different artifacts on the various lists. It was obvious to me that
this approach would not work. In the end, the list is mine and you are free to argue with it or agree wholeheartedly. I would prefer the latter of course.

Reluctantly yours.
Tom Holcomb
Director of Education

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger

Once in awhile a seemingly onerous task brings unexpected clarity. I constantly talk and write about our numerous summer camp programs. There are thirteen distinctly different camps residing under the banner of Kansas Adventures in Outer Space and I was assigned the task of explaining our educational philosophy in 150 words. Here they are.

The Cosmosphere’s mission is to preserve the past and inspire the future of space exploration. We approach teaching about space as fun with a purpose. We strive to make learning exciting and unavoidable. Our students tend to have a sharp eye to the future. Some have not enjoyed the usual avenues of acclaim and success found in conventional environments. We create obstacle filled, immersive, space based scenarios that encourage students to forge creative team based ways to overcome them. We believe in the power of cooperation and the motivational force of competition and creatively weave both into the fabric of our challenges. Our campers often encounter other serious minded people like themselves. More often than not, they flower. Our goal in all of our programs is for our students to discover the hidden pool of potential within themselves and for them to begin to wield that potential in positive ways.

Don't trouble yourself. It is exactly 150 words. I'm kind of funny that way. Sounds like a great place to send your kids this summer.

Reluctantly Yours,
Tom Holcomb
Director of Education (not reluctantly)

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

Once upon a time the most put upon man in the world was forced to write a weekly blog.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is pull some old thing off the shelf or out of a drawer, dust it off and run it by again. Sometimes, it’s the worst thing you can do. Back in 2009 I did a series of short videos called “History in 90 Seconds”. They were somewhat less than a hit, but I thought they were good, so here they are again. Episode One dealt with why the Cosmosphere is in Hutchinson. Meredith is doing that right now in our 50th anniversary year, so I will leave that to her. Please, judge me, but not too harshly.

Reluctantly Yours,

Tom Holcomb

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Cosmosphere at 50: In the Beginning

Why is there a space museum in Kansas? Why Hutchinson? These are two of the big questions we get asked here at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. People from all over the world come to visit our museum and are surprised to find such treasures in the Heartland of America. I don’t think I have ever been surprised myself about it, as growing up in Hutchinson it was ‘the norm.’ I will say I am impressed by the Cosmosphere. We have a supportive community of friends and museums who help us to maintain our stature as one of the premiere space museums in the world. Yet again you ask, why Hutchinson? It’s quite simple: someone had a dream.

Fifty years ago this year, Patricia “Patty” Brooks Carey started the Hutchinson Planetarium. The only planetarium in the state of Kansas at the time made its debut in the old chicken coop on the State Fairgrounds. Patty had a love for astronomy. This love of the stars is one of the reasons the Hutchinson Planetarium was created. In a single weekend, Patty gathered the finances from her community friends and neighbors to finance the purchase of a star ball. The first show, “Star of Bethlehem” opened December 2, 1962.

As the years went on, the Hutchinson Planetarium expanded and was relocated to the Cosmosphere’s current site at the Hutchinson Community College. In the 1980s, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center maintained the Planetarium and other learning oddities, such as an Egyptian mummy and a real live snake! With Patty Carey leading the way and placing the right people in position, the Cosmosphere began to collect more and more space artifacts. The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center now houses one of the most comprehensive space artifact collections in the world.

Recently, I had the pleasure to sit down with one of Patty’s family members and take a stroll down memory lane. We were looking at old photographs and albums of Patty, which encompassed a large amount of Cosmosphere history. Patty was a world traveler by the age of ten. Astronomy was not her only love; she had a passion for history, the world, and public service. I was amazed at everything Patty Carey did in her lifetime. Her title as “Executive Mom” for the Cosmosphere was one of her most cherished roles.

In this 50th anniversary year of the Cosmosphere’s beginning, I hope to share with you all not only the Cosmosphere’s story, but Patty Carey’s story. Even more, though, I hope you all share back with us your stories and remembrances of Patty Carey and experiences at the Cosmosphere over the years.

Stay tuned! In the weeks to come, you’ll learn just how an Egyptian mummy became part of our past!

By Meredith Miller, Collections Manager

The Reluctant Blogger

Once upon a time the most put upon man in the world was forced to write a weekly blog. He pointed out that he was an expert at nothing, that in fact; he despised experts in general and therefore was not at all qualified to write about anything. His arguments fell on deaf ears. So, it came to pass that I, the he referred to above, became The Reluctant Blogger.

Experts in my opinion, come in five distinct types.

The Real Expert

This expert knows their subject, their limitations and their place. They are as rare as hummingbirds in Antarctica.

The Blowhard

This expert knows a lot about one or several topics. More often then not they come to believe themselves experts on all topics, resulting in a stoppage of both listening and learning.

The Bore

This expert knows everything about a specific narrow topic, speaking only of their beloved.

The Phony

This expert is an expert in name only. They know almost nothing about their topic, but sputter and bluster as if they do.

The Reluctant

This is me. I work in a space museum. I can think of few fields of expertise filled with greater uncertainty than space and history, and I am immersed in both. My museum is called The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. It is in Hutchinson, KS, and is, in my opinion, the greatest space museum on earth, and one of the world’s great museums, period. Bold statements, but I intend to prove them true.

The good news is that this is my dilemma and not yours. I will share with you the wonders of the Cosmosphere’s Hall of Space Museum and encourage you to decide if my boasts are true.

Reluctantly Yours,

Tom Holcomb
Director of Education