October Astronomy Month 2008 - Update, September 11

posted: 3328 days ago, on Thursday, 2008 Sep 11 at 10:34
tags: astronomy, outreach, Astronomy Month 2008, SAASTA, Ed Foster.

In less than three weeks, Astronomy Month begins.

Many months ago, we (Ed and I) submitted a proposal for a "road show"; submission deadline was April 15. It's now almost five months later, and we still do not know if we are to go ahead with our activities. Our plan is to visit eight smaller centres (Saldanha, St Helena Bay, Moreesburg, Piketberg, Robertson, Bonnievale, Montague and Barrydale) and give them "the works" day-time activities and then an evening lecture and star-gazing.

Day-time events: An exhibition will consist of four parts: solar viewing, a series of posters, a number of activities, and a set of models. All four parts will be hands-on and interactive to stimulate question-asking ("show-and-tell"). Depending on the logistics of the venue, visuals and computer animations may also be presented in a "show-and-tell" format. Everyone attending will be invited to the evening's session, and posters advertising the star-gazing event will be prominently on display.

The posters will be used to illustrate the various concepts we will explain, and to guide the answering of questions. The contents of the large posters are (in no particular order):

  1. stellar evolution
  2. H-R diagram
  3. our Milky Way
  4. planet sizes
  5. star sizes
  6. star clusters
  7. galaxies
  8. nebulae
  9. a Cosmic Calendar
  10. size of the Universe
  11. Spitzer telescope's Hubble galaxy diagram
  12. solar and lunar eclipses
  13. seasons
  14. lunar phases
  15. axial tilt/south pole/coordinate systems, and
  16. the Sun.

Smaller posters will show:

  1. the Milky Way annotated
  2. planetary details
  3. seasonal constellation visibility and the Earth's orbit around the Sun
  4. topography of the Moon
  5. seasonal star charts and
  6. indigenous ethnoastronomy.

As dictated by the needs and desires of those attending, duplicates of the smaller posters will be given to particularly interested individuals.

Handouts will consist of

  1. seasonal star charts
  2. a planisphere, and
  3. a brochure.

In addition, there will be A4-sized versions of (4) major constellations with a transparency overlay, and (5) lunar phases.

The activities will include cover the following:

  1. How (and why) can the Sun be used to show the time? With provided paper, scissors and glue, assemble your own sundial.
  2. What star is that? How can I learn the constellations on my own? Using the printed pages, and with scissors and glue, assemble your own planisphere that shows the stars for any time of the year!
  3. Your own Moon Telescope! Using the provided lenses and cardboard tubes, assemble a basic refractor telescope that will provide 10-times magnification views of the Moon. How to use the telescope and NOT for looking at the Sun will be explained. Younger folk can decorate the cardboard tubes with astronomy images cut out from the magazines available.
  4. Why the Moon has phases will be shown using a Earth-Moon model kit.
  5. A fun "Constellation Space Race Game" will entertain the young and young-at-heart while teaching basic space science.
  6. To convey just how BIG things in space are, make a model of the solar system to scale, with small beads for the planets and huge balloons for the Sun.
  7. Use balloons to make models of various stars they are BIG!
  8. How are lunar craters formed? Take part in an experiment to make your own impact craters, and watch what happens when a space rock hits the Moon! Can you make a bigger/smaller crater? Describe what the crater you made looks like, and compare it to photos of the surface of the Moon, Mercury, etc.

The models:

  1. A motorized model of the solar system will be used to demonstrate the movement of the planets, and of the Moon around the Earth. Explain concepts like "month" and "year".
  2. Space craft are fun! Show two or three models of famous space craft the Space Shuttle, the Apollo moon rocket, the Hubble Space Telescope, etc., depending on what is locally available. Then, use the cardboard, scissors and glue provided to assemble models of other space craft (which you can take home!). Better still, make your own paper model of SALT, and of SumbandilaSat.
  3. Discuss South Africa's involvement and role in the space industry. Explain why we need space craft to study the Earth and Sun, and also the solar system. Explain the use of satellites for telecommunication. Why can't we send space craft to other stars?

Details of the evening sessions:

The posters that were set up during the day, will be on display again inside the evening venue. The activity table for assembling a planisphere will also be set up.

The evening session will begin at around 16:00 with a screening of the "Cosmic Africa" movie.

At 18:00, after a short break, the evening talk will begin. From 20:00 the event will move outside for hands-on star gazing. If the weather is bad and star gazing isn't possible, an extended version of the evening talk will be given.

Astronomy is by its very nature an exciting visual experience. The evening talk, which is a brief introduction to basic astronomy, will rely on the use of animations and video clips to illustrate this gripping facet.

These video clips include amongst others the following topics:

  1. The Earth rotating on its axis ("day")
  2. the Earth moving around the Sun ("year"; seasons)
  3. all the planets in the solar system orbiting the Sun
  4. the Sun (and sunspots) rotating on its own axis
  5. animations of the eruption of solar flares
  6. the Moon's orbit around the Earth, and
  7. the changing lunar phases.
  8. Animations of the /Xam hunting scene involving Orion, the Pleiades and Aldebaran
  9. the "giraffe stars" moving near the horizon
  10. the origin of the Milky Way as ash from a camp fire
  11. Rockets launching
  12. satellites in orbit
  13. Time-delay animations of SALT being constructed; and SALT moving.
  14. stars forming out of a nebula
  15. fly-through of the Orion nebula
  16. galaxies forming
  17. galaxies colliding
  18. a supernova exploding.

Members of the audience take part in a demonstration of the changing visibility of the constellations throughout the year. In a similar way, the changing lunar phases will be demonstrated.

Using planetarium software, the night sky will be explained. Why is the sky blue? What happens at dusk? Why can't we see the stars during the day? What is light pollution, why is it bad, and what can be done about it? Point out local examples of light pollution.

The history of astronomy in southern Africa will be illustrated, in two facets: as cultural astronomy with the emphasis on indigenous knowledge, and as scientific astronomy (culminating with SALT and space exploration). Astronomy-as-science is a natural introduction to technology-related topics.

During the talk, we will encourage the attendees to share any star lore they may be familiar with.

If the sky is clear, end the talk with a short preparation for what is to happen next. Explain briefly how to use a telescope, and why binoculars are a very good observing tool. For those who have made a planisphere, remind them how to use it. It will be dark by 20:00 move outside for a practical observing evening using binoculars and telescopes.

Throughout October 2008, the planets Venus and Jupiter are excellently positioned for observing. Venus is low in the west at nightfall, while Jupiter is high overhead.

Remind the audience of the difference between a star and a planet. Explain how to determine north/south/east/west. Then give a guided constellation tour, pointing out the interesting star patterns with an astronomical laser pointer. Demonstrate how to use their paper planispheres.

Show the star patterns as seen by indigenous south Africans (insert the second Star Wheel at this point). Introduce the bright stars by both their scientific and indigenous names. Point out the Southern Cross and Pointers (giraffes), the Kissing Star, Dawn's Heart Star, etc. etc.

After the naked-eye viewing, use binoculars and telescopes for more detailed views. Explain the basic physics of what is being looked at.

Venus will be in gibbous phase explain why this phase can't be seen in binoculars, but can be seen in a telescope. Discuss the significance of Venus' phase and for our understanding of the geometry of the solar system. Discuss the Venus Express space craft currently in orbit around Venus.

Jupiter and its four bright moons will probably be the showpiece of the evening's observing. Using binoculars, identify the four moons of Jupiter. Then look through a telescope and compare the views. Discuss the shape and colour of the planet, and its dark bands. Mention the space craft that have visited Jupiter.

Use the binoculars to view constellations, for example Crux, the Pointers, Scorpius, and so on. Explain why binoculars have a large field of view and are "better" than a telescope.

With reference to the posters, look at examples of each of the objects illustrated. Emphasize the beauty and the personal experience. Target objects include (but is not limited to): the Jewel Box, omega Centauri, M4, M7, Lagoon Nebula, and so on. Compare the view of these objects through a telescope and through binoculars. Show alpha Centauri and discuss double stars. Why can't you see alpha Centauri as being double with the naked eye, but as a double through a telescope? Point out that alpha Cen is a star very similar to our own Sun. Discuss Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun. Show alpha Crucis, another double star.

We will continue showing deep sky objects (of which there is an entire Universe full) until the last guest leaves. In our experience (which between the two of us totals 46 years) people stay very late!

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