100 Hours of Astronomy at the Manfred Olson Planetarium
Rarely is there a chance to celebrate astronomy for 4 days straight with hundreds of thousands around the world! Close to 400 people visited the planetarium for 100 Hours of Astronomy, which hosted a variety of events from April 2 – 5 along with science centers worldwide. 100 Hours of Astronomy, an official cornerstone project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, aimed to bring astronomy to new audiences and, in particular, increase the number of people who have looked through a telescope just as Galileo did 400 years ago. Several activities were interspersed throughout the weekend including stargazing, planetarium shows, live webcasts, and UWM faculty talks on cutting edge astronomy research.
Planetarium shows were wildly popular, with a range of topics that included Spring Constellations, Best of the Hubble Space Telescope, and Solar System Highlights. Each show, given by planetarium director Jean Creighton, featured discussion of the special topic along with a look at the current night sky under the glow of the stars projected on the theater dome. Our expectations were exceeded when Friday night’s Solar System Highlights sold out within 10 minutes! Due to the high demand we held a second showing, which itself sold out. Visitors left satisfied that they had brushed up on their knowledge of the Solar System. Spring Constellations and Best of the Hubble Space Telescope were also popular. Audience members eager for spring weather to finally arrive learned about the major constellations visible in springtime. All in all, 260 visitors attended 5 planetarium shows offered over the course of the weekend.
Unfortunately, spring doesn’t seem to have arrived just yet. Due to poor weather conditions stargazing was cancelled on 3 of the 4 nights it was scheduled. Though disappointed, our spirits were raised by the enthusiasm that greeted us from the 50 visitors who attended our stargazing session on Friday, April 3. Our 60 mm Meade telescope revealed a stunning view of the half quarter Moon, while our 10-inch Meade go-to telescope showed the Pleiades, a star cluster also called the Seven Sisters; Saturn and its moon Titan; and the Orion Nebula, a winter sky treat that is a star-forming region of gas and dust in the constellation of Orion.
In addition were two webcasts broadcast by the official 100 Hours of Astronomy website: Space Observation: Past, Present, and Future and Around the World in 80 Telescopes. Due to technical problems, Space Observation was ultimately unavailable. Not to be defeated, we instead used the time as an opportunity to turn off the lights and gaze at the night sky projected on the theater dome. Around the World in 80 Telescopes, a 24-hour trek around the globe visiting 80 different observatories, was more successful. We broadcast a 3 hour portion, visiting observatories as diverse in their location as they were in their astronomical research. Highlights included the Very Large Array in New Mexico; the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; the Laser-Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), a multi-location group with ties to UWM; and three solar research observatories located in space including SOHO, TRACE, and STEREO.
Finally, four UWM faculty members presented cutting-edge astronomical research in the lecture hall directly across from the planetarium. In total 50 visitors attended these talks, which covered topics like space time, gamma-ray bursts, and gravitational waves. Associate Professor Jolien Creighton emphasized the geometry of space time as he explained how time passes differently depending on how fast one is travelling. Alan Wiseman, also an Associate Professor involved with LIGO, told the story of how our understanding of gravity has changed over time from Newton to Einstein. He discussed gravitational waves, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein and being investigated by another UWM research group. Professor Xavier Siemens discussed this group, which involves high school and undergraduate students remotely controlling the world’s largest radio telescope, Arecibo, to collect data from distant pulsars in the hopes of detecting gravitational waves. Professor Patrick Brady, meanwhile, discussed what causes gamma-ray bursts, some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe.