January 31, 2004 at 15:21 pm | Leave a Comment
The Opportunity Rover has rolled onto the Mars surface at Meridiani Planum. Go here to check it out! I can’t wait to see what their first soil analysis shows, but even more I WANT to see more up close shots of those rocks!
January 30, 2004 at 15:15 pm | Leave a Comment
Okay, I admit it. I’m a Trekkie. Have been since the first time I watched James T. Kirk swashbuckle his way across the Alpha Quadrant in 1967. Star Trek has been part of my life that long, and while I am not as much into it as some of the folks who make their own costumes and learn Klingon, Trek has informed much of my interest in space. I’ve mentioned before that my dad is the one who got me interested in the stars, and I’d have to say that Star Trek is what got me turned on to space travel in a big way. They just made it look so darned believable and like space travel is right around the corner for humanity. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t, but that enduring believability is one of Trek’s most wonderful contributions.
Mark and I have used various Star Trek actors over the years as planetarium show narrators. The first was Patrick Stewart and he’ll always be my favorite. His delivery and professionalism have always been first-rate and when I finally got to meet him during a session a few years ago, he was delightful. As much as I hate to look like a rank FanGrrl, his is one of the few Trek pictures I have in my office. It’s there to remind me to be professional and never do less than my best.
A few years ago we were in Los Angeles for a meeting, and I contacted a colleague of mine who was a writer for the Star Trek shows. We had worked together when I was editor of SkyWatch Magazine, and I had a small request: could Mark and I get a tour of one of the Trek sets? As it turned out, our friend was able to get us onto the sets of both Voyager and Deep Space 9. And we had a wonderful time! At one point we were walking along in the corridors of the Defiant and found the transporter pad. Of course we had to stand on it and WISH we could be transported out…
By far one of the more interesting experiences of that afternoon was the chance to watch as the actors and crew blocked out a scene for an upcoming DS9 episode. We stood with Quark (Armin Shimerman) and Rom (Max Grodenchuk) and chatted for awhile as the staffers were doing something to the set. I was just drinking it all in, thinking how cool it was to be there, and our friend told Armin and Max that I was an editor at Sky Publishing. They both turned to me and said, “Cool!” and we talked about astronomy for a while. It was one of those really neat experiences that I obviously have never forgotten.
For a few years while we lived in Denver, I used to do science talks at the Star Trek conventions, hosted by our friends Steve and Kathy Walker. Usually I’d talk about HST science or something like that. It was really quite an experience to be showing slides of distant nebulae to a roomful of Klingons in full battle gear. One of the highlights (for me anyway) of those lectures was the chance to have breakfast with the Trek guest speakers at the Sunday morning brunch. I got to meet a lot of interesting folks that way and listen to the way they talk (since I’ve always got an ear out for good narrators).
So Trek is in my blood, so to speak. I recognize full well the impact it’s had on our popular culture, and I’ve tried to use that impact in my writing and editing projects. One year we were able to feature the Enterprise-D on the front cover of SkyWatch and ran an article inside about star names and the Star Trek universe. Another time I had a writer interview some prominent folks about their interest in amateur astronomy. One of the subjects was Tim Russ, who played Tuvok on Voyager. I had met him at conference some months earlier and we chatted at some length about his interest in skygazing. (He also happens to be a fine musician.)
Those are a few vignettes out of a lifetime of fascination with the phenomenon that is Star Trek. I hope Trek is with us for a long time. Lots of us science types got a kick out of the show and you would be amazed at how many of us grew up watching Captains Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Cisco, Archer, and their colleagues make their way among the stars we watch so eagerly from our earth-bound perches.
January 28, 2004 at 20:06 pm | Leave a Comment
Back when I first started doing planetarium shows, the industry was just waking up to the idea of actually buying a planetarium show from someone outside the individual facilities. For a long time (and to some extent today) planetarians devise their own programs and lectures. And that’s great. When I was a planetarium lecturer, I did the same thing. But I also realized — as do so many others — that I couldn’t produce everything myself. And writing shows for facilities all around the world has given me a great deal of insight into what planetarians want for their audiences. Mark and I sat down one time a few years back and figured out that we had distributed hundreds of shows to more than 500 facilities around the world. There are only about 2500 facilities in the world, but they’re not all open, some are very scantily equipped, and others are Starlabs that can’t run our shows. There are maybe a thousand potential clients for ours (or anybody’s) shows, and even then, many producers sell to a much smaller market than we do.
There’s not really any standardization in the business, unless you count the fact all planetariums have star machines. Some have slide projectors — lots of ‘em. Others don’t. Some have video; others don’t. A very few have fulldome digital systems requiring expensive animations for shows; but most don’t. Being a show producer for such a varied group of facilities is pretty complex. But, at the heart of all of these systems, you still have to have a story to tell. And that’s where I come in. I help tell the stories of the cosmos. Mark produces them (or now, I do, too). We mate music and the spoken word and imagery to bring the cosmos to the audience.
To paraphrase the old line, “There are a million stories in the Naked Cosmos.” And there are. Over the years I’ve written about trips to Mars, explorations of the outer planets, studies of the galaxies, starhopping and constellation outlines, Hubble Space Telescope discoveries, and the fun of stargazing. That’s always been my goal — to let people know that astronomy and space science are fun. Sure, they’re complex, but nobody who lets the stars touch them minds the complexity. In fact, that’s part of the fun and the challenge of astronomy. And if I can raise people’s consciousness through planetarium shows, then I don’t mind the complexity. And the hard work.
January 27, 2004 at 21:16 pm | Leave a Comment
I just finished work on a planetarium show about Hubble Space Telescope discoveries. I’ve written other shows about HST before, and this is sort of the “latest and greatest” one, and one where I really don’t know the ending. We’ve all been talking about the last HST servicing mission being cancelled, thus sentencing HST to its fate a few years earlier than everybody expected. Now it appears that Congress really does have the last say about this, and several folks have called for a re-investigation of the decision. So, the story’s not over yet. And, up there in orbit around Earth, HST continues on its merry way, sending back great images and science data (not mutually exclusive) for all of us to study and enjoy.
Well, rather than focus on the political aspects of HST’s “human side,” I spend all my time in this planetarium show talking about the great science it has done. It’s not an easy task. There’s a LOT to talk about, and a lot more to come. In fact, the most difficult thing about an HST planetarium show is choosing what NOT to show. There’s only so much time in the program, and in most planetaria, there are only so many slides one can cycle through in the course of a show. Sure we can throw in some video, for those who HAVE video projection capability, but for those who don’t, we’re kind of limited by the slides. I’ve chosen nearly 200 really great images and told a story of cosmic exploration using them as illustration. As I spend time looking at the sights that HST has seen for us, I’m impressed again with just how marvelous this machine has been. And what a wonderful time the astronomers who use it must be having when they open their data sets. Are they like kids opening presents? I like to think so. Or at least HOPE so.
One of the images I’ll be using in the show is a study of a planetary nebula that lies about 5,000 light-years away from Earth. It’s called “The Eskimo” Nebula because it looks like an intricate furry hood that an Eskimo might wear. The “parka” is really a disk of material surrounding a dying, Sun-like star. Inside the cloud is a ring of comet-shaped objects, with their tails streaming away from the central, dying star. The “face” consists of a bubble of material being blown into space by the central star’s intense “wind” of high-speed material. The story behind this apparition is fascinating. The star that formed this cloud began to lost much of its mass to space about 10,000 years ago. Before that time it had gone through what’s called the “red giant” phase, breathing out a ring of dense material that collected around the star. That ring is actually moving out from the star at about 115,000 kilometers per hour. Hot on its heels (so to speak) are high-velocity stellar winds, moving out from the star at 1.5 million kilometer per hour. They are shoving material above and below the star, creating elongated bubbles. Each bubble is about one light-year long and about half a light-year wide.
This is just one of a dozen or so planetary nebulae I’m presenting in my show, and while I can’t talk about them in excruciating detail, I can at least show people just what our Sun might look like in 5 or 6 billion years when it starts down the path toward planetary nebula-hood. Fun stuff!
January 25, 2004 at 14:37 pm | Leave a Comment
Back when I was a dyed-in-the-wool Mars Undergrounder, dreaming of future missions to Mars I never imagined that one night I’d be sitting here at my computer, doing my taxes and watching along on a live NASA feed along with the Mars Exploration Rover mission folks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and many millions of other folks) as the Mars Opportunity craft detached from its orbiter and began the descent to Meridiani Planum. But there I was… and now today I was greeted with the first images from Opportunity, taken on a sunny Mars afternoon not long after it bounced to a stop, deflated its airbags and opened its petals.
It’s quite a lot of fun to explore the surface of Mars in such great detail and apparently it’s caught the attention of some serious VR programmers, like this guy who has mapped a few Mars panoramas into Quicktime Virtual Reality maps you can explore on your own. Check ‘em out! Along with the ongoing stream of images on the NASA sites, these panoramas allow you to check out the rocks, dunes, sand piles, and outcrops that have greeted the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Enjoy the Mars mania while it lasts!
By the way, I’ve added a link to Dr. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy site over in the links bar on the left. It’s fun reading and if you’re interested in debating science, theories, and whatever else catches your fancy, he’s got a forum, too!
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Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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