Cernan Earth and Space Center
Destination: The Planets
Grade Level: 3rd grade and upLength: 42 minutes
Destination: The Planets (formerly known as Destination Pluto) is a multi-media planetarium show that combines slides, panoramic views, computer-generated animation, and video segments with planetarium stars and visual effects to provide an updated tour of the solar system and its major components, including the eight planets, their major satellites, the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt and more. The program was written and produced after the August, 2006 reclassification of Pluto as a "dwarf planet" by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which drew reactions from around the world.
The information contained in Destination: The Planets is presented by way of an imaginary trip through the solar system aboard the "Solar System Cruiser," commanded by Captain Edward J. Smith. As the captain explains, the spaceship will first position itself close to the sun and will then use the sun's light to propel the ship toward the outer solar system at a speed of 100 million miles per minute. [This speed – which is actually 8.95 times the speed of light – was chosen to allow the spaceship to reach the outer solar system by the end of the show].
After a countdown, the "Solar System Cruiser" is launched. Once launched, the captain explains that at their present speed, the spaceship will pass through the inner planets in very short order. [This quick passage underscores the fact that the inner planets of the solar system are very much closer to the Sun than the outer planets]. The captain introduces First Officer Jenkins, whose specialty is the inner planets. Jenkins describes the characteristics of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt. He describes each planet's size, surface conditions, and the moons of Earth and Mars.
Captain Smith next introduces Jovian Officer Peterson, who reports on Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet. Peterson describes Jupiter's atmosphere and high winds, its four largest moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto), and its thin ring. Still on the subject of planetary rings, the Captain and Peterson next describe Saturn, the planet best known for its beautiful ring system. Saturn's atmosphere is discussed, along with its own collection of moons. Most noteworthy of Saturn’s moons is Titan, which was recently visited by the Cassini/Huygens probe. The Huygens probe showed Titan's strange landscape, which changes over times like that of Earth's.
The solar system tour then takes a step back to describe the system as a whole. Planet expert Wilson describes the early days of the solar system and how scientists believe the planets formed through the accretion of rock and ice pieces. She explains that the early days of the solar system were likely violent, with collisions occurring much more frequently than they occur today. The extinction of the dinosaurs is an example of what can happen when a large object strikes our own planet.
A solar astronomer named Carlson is next introduced to the audience. She goes on to describe the sun as an average star that, like all stars, derives its heat from the process of nuclear fusion. Carlson briefly describes this process, then goes on to describe sunspots, the sunspot cycle, and the "northern lights" that are triggered by solar wind particles.
Another crew member named Carter describes the planet Uranus. Carter first tells the story of how astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet in 1781, then goes on to describe Uranus' appearance, its strange "sideways" orientation, and its ring system. Carter next describes the Voyager space probes, one of which flew by Uranus and Neptune in the late 1980s and revolutionized our understanding of these distant gas giant planets and their family of moons. In the program's imaginary voyage, a probe is launched to explore the surface of Miranda, one of Uranus' moons. A computer rendered video clip shows that peculiar moon's tortured surface.
Next, Carter described how two scientists –- one from England and the other from France –- made mathematical calculations that led to the discovery of Neptune. Carter goes on to describe the many discoveries made at Neptune by Voyager 2, including the Great Dark Spot, a ring system encircling the planet, and plumes of gas rising from its largest moon, Triton.
The Captain reviews the planets so far visited as falling into two categories -– small, rocky planets and large gas giants. He then describes the planets as they appear in our own night sky -– bright, star-like objects that generally do not twinkle like the stars.
The Captain then describes the early 20th Century search for additional planets –- a search that led to the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Pluto and its large moon Charon are then described in some detail. The similarity between Pluto's icy composition and that of comets is next described by Professor Armstrong. Armstrong describes comets as "dirty snowballs" and goes on to describe Edmund Halley, Halley’s Comet, and that famous comet's next return in 2061.
Also beyond the orbit of Neptune is a belt of icy asteroid-like objects that astronomers call the Kuiper Belt. Several objects approaching the size of Pluto had been discovered in that region, and astronomers began suggesting that Pluto was more like these objects than the other eight planets. Pluto's small size and abnormally non-circular orbit strengthen this argument. The Captain then goes on to explain that the discovery of a Kuiper Belt object larger than Pluto led to the 2006 decision to reorganize how solar system objects are classified and the subsequent "demotion" of Pluto from "major planet" status.
Although no spacecraft has yet visited Pluto, the Captain shows the audience an artist's rendition of what its surface may look like. The New Horizons spacecraft is now on its way to Pluto, but it won't arrive until mid-2015.
As their own "Solar System Cruiser" approaches Pluto, loud crashing sounds are heard. Crew members report that the spaceship has probably struck a small comet, causing damage to the ship and halting its mission to Pluto. Just like real-life astronomers, the crew of the "Solar System Cruiser" will have to wait a while longer to see Pluto up close.
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