Cernan Earth and Space Center
Journey to the Stars
Grade Level: 5th grade and upLength: 30 minutes
Journey to the Stars is a two-part program. The first part is an introductory program entitled Saving the Night. Written and narrated by the acclaimed astronomy author and comet discoverer David Levy, this 10-minute minishow briefly discusses the issue of light pollution and the adverse effect that our growing civilization has on the science of astronomy and the beauty of the nighttime sky. Saving the Night not only describes the problem of our steadily brightening night sky, but it also mentions a few of the steps that some communities have take to reduce light pollution, improve nighttime safety and halt the further deterioration of the night.
The main part of the program is Journey to the Stars, a multimedia program that combines stars, video, panoramic scenes, planetarium special effects and numerous space images to describe what research astronomers now know about the birth and death of stars, how backyard stargazers can better understand the immense scale of the universe, and how humans have developed space probes and manned spacecraft to extend our reach into space.
Journey to the Stars begins with a description of how today's astronomers use large mountaintop observatories, radio telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope to probe the cosmos along the full length of the electromagnetic spectrum, from very long radio waves to visible light (what our eyes are limited to) to very short x-rays and gamma rays. Using these diverse and powerful research tools, astronomers can witness each stage of stellar evolution, from the birth of stars to their eventual demise. To observe how stars are born, astronomers study huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust from which new stars form. To study stars during their long lifetimes, scientists observe the variety of stars within our own Milky Way galaxy. To study how stars die, scientists observe some of the most interesting and unusual objects in the universe – supernovae, black holes and neutron stars. From these stellar observations, scientists can speculate how our own star, the sun, will eventually die billions of years from now.
The scale of the universe is next discussed. The program describes how backyard astronomers can appreciate this scale by understanding that, contrary to what our eyes tell us, all objects in the nighttime sky are not the same distance away. The program then introduces a variety of celestial objects in ever-increasing distances from our vantage point on the Earth's surface. These include the aurora borealis (northern lights), meteors, the moon, the planets of our solar system, the nearest star beyond our solar system (Alpha Centauri), the Orion Nebula, the center of the Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy and the most distant galaxies in the universe.
With the immense scale of the universe now established, the program next discusses our best estimate of the eventual fate of the universe. Based on the discovery by Edwin Hubble in 1929 that the universe is expanding, astronomers now believe that the universe, once packed into a point in space, exploded some 13 billion years ago in a titanic explosion that we call the Big Bang. Scientists today are researching whether this expansion will continue forever, or if it will stop, reverse and ultimately collapse into a "Big Crunch" in distant eons.
The human quest for cosmic knowledge has followed an amazing progression from the early days of the 20th century. In its final segment, Journey to the Stars traces the milestones of space exploration, including the early rockets of Robert Goddard, Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, the Mariner, Viking and Voyager unmanned missions, the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope and the recent Magellan probe to Venus and Pathfinder probe to Mars. The program speculates about space exploration in the future, which will hopefully include return trips to the Moon, astronauts on Mars and perhaps even the exploration of Jupiter's moon Europa, which may contain subsurface oceans. A brief question-and-answer period follows the presentation.
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