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Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum

February 25, 2019
Dying Young: Massive Dead Disk Galaxy Challenges the Picture of How Galaxies Evolve

Hubble Image about gravity, “dead” galaxies and MACS J2129-0741. Image Credit NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH team.

Last year I stumbled onto one of the coolest free events in Washington D.C. — the Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

In this case, “coolest” meant 1) related to space stuff and 2) occurring beyond regular Museum hours after all the Ben Stiller look-alikes have been shooed out of their bathroom stall hiding spots and booted onto the sidewalks of Independence Avenue. “Free” meant “sponsored by two private sector companies that build rockets and provide launch services.” Very D.C.

The theme of the Exploring Space Lecture Series changes every year. In 2018, the Series focused on all the amazing things the James Webb Space Telescope will be doing for astronomy and cosmology after its hoped-for launch in 2021. The massive new space-based telescope is a spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

'Pandora's Cluster' Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

‘Pandora’s Cluster’ Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The Exploring Space presenters do not disappoint (mid-lecture references to spacecraft or services provided by one or more of the sponsors notwithstanding). But to discover the awesomeness, I first had to get through a ridiculously long and slightly troubling queue to enter the Museum. The line switched back-and-forth within the entry vestibule, spilled out of the building, and trailed down the exterior stairs.

In those 45 minutes of line shuffling, I had plenty of time to size up the other attendees of this first lecture of the year. Most of those in line looked like academics or engineers who had just been freed from their computers and anti-gravity workspaces a few blocks away at NASA Headquarters.

One man was mumble-practicing the question he planned to ask the lecturer. It was a very long question, the type that seemed to exist in place of the summary section of a dissertation that was never written. Looking at that guy, be-suited as he was, I thought I had identified the lecture’s most likely Off-Kilter Questioner (OKQ). I made an effort to sit far from him when I got inside the IMAX theater.

That first lecture was called “The Earliest Galaxies: Exploring Cosmic Sunrise with Hubble, Spitzer, and JWST.” The presenter was Garth Illingworth, professor emeritus in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California Santa Cruz. I enjoyed everything about that presentation — the lecture, the slide, the jokes, the movie clips. However, I had not properly identified the most likely OKQ.

Audience question time arrived. Six seats away, which was far too close, in the calm sea of otherwise reasonable questions, the actual OKQ leaped to his feet. “What if someone already knows what dark matter is?” OKQ asked. He claimed to have arrived at this dark matter knowledge via spontaneous understanding.

Illingworth showed himself to be a seasoned presenter. His answer related to how peer review works. That was genius. OKQ scoffed. I learned so much that night, and it wasn’t all related to theories of the universe’s first galaxies.

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

The line to get into that first lecture put the fear of missing out in me, so I arrived in plenty of time for the early May Mars lecture, which was held in the Museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium.

That’s right — FOR FREE!

The lights went down. I prepared to be wowed. I was. Before long.

Hoppy Price, Chief Engineer of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, offered a slightly surreal Powerpoint presentation at planetarium horizon level. The presentation addressed how humanity is in the process of getting itself, robots, and satellites to Mars. Next, the Museum’s curator of planetary science Matt Shindell shared vintage Martian landscape paintings. It was all very interesting especially from the perspective of “that’s really cool considering the human species has been around for 200,000 years and only 61 years ago did we first launch something into space.”

The more traditional wow’ing began when the regular staff of the planetarium took over the lecture.

The National Air and Space Museum is in the process of retiring its out-dated-yet-beautifully-illuminated Zeiss Star Projecter, which was given to the Museum in 1976. The Projector is headed to the Udvar-Hazy Center. The planetarium is going digital with, as its exuberant ad proclaims, “An 8K Full Dome System [that] projects ultra-high-definition visuals that are 16 times the resolution of your HD TV. Get ready to be immersed in brightness, clarity, and color that is out of this world!”

Sometimes, advertising is right on target.

The Exploring Space attendees were treated to a preview of the new digital system’s capabilities.

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The image above doesn’t convey the amazing experience of sitting in a comfortable recliner beneath a 77-foot dome, visually swooping toward and away from planets in our solar system, and following the myriad paths of natural and unnatural satellites of those planets. But it’s the best I could do.

With the new digital system, the views changed constantly and could be approached from any angle. It was dizzying. It was amazing. It was like flying.

It was the visual equivalent of me as a kid listening to a Walkman’s headphones for the first time. Suddenly, the music was everywhere around me. I couldn’t even feel the headphones on my ears. The air of the world was simply filled with music.

The Albert Einstein Planetarium’s new digital display was like that. The views were everywhere. I was transported. I was wowed.

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests.

The last lecture I attended in 2018 was “The Historical Quest to See to the End of the Universe…Or Its Beginning.” Robert Smith from the University of Alberta was the funny, smart, engaging speaker with enlightenment to offer.

His task was to talk about the history of people trying to understand the universe’s size, its beginnings, and humanity’s place within it.

My favorite Smith quote of the evening was, “The most fascinating thing about the universe is that we think we can comprehend it to some degree.”

In a presentation that eventually wrapped back around to the James Webb Space Telescope, I learned so much.

There was Frances Burney, a patron of cosmology. Smith told a fascinating story about the contributions of this amazing woman who was born in 1752 and lived until 1840. My memory of that story was obliterated by this harrowing description of Burney’s mastectomy in 1810 that I found on Wikipedia. What a survivor that woman was! Smith also introduced me to James Hutton, who gave the world many things including the concept of deep time, the foundations of the modern study of geology, and Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point.

Smith’s presentation was filled with information, laughs, eyebrows-raised-in-concern, and plenty of fodder for subsequent internet searches.

The Moon's North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University

The Moon’s North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University.

The Exploring Space Lecture Series for 2019 is coming up. It’s bound to be at least as good as the 2018 version. The focus in 2019 will be on the Earth’s moon and includes:

  •  March 28, 2019 – “Apollo Legacy” with presenter Farouk El-Baz who “was a guiding force in the Apollo lunar landing site selection process.”
  • April 24, 2019 – “The New Moon: Recent Advances in Lunar Science” with presenter Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
  • May 22, 2019 – “Apollo Landing Sites Revisited: Modern Datasets at Familiar Locales” with presenter Noah Petro, a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist.
  • June 19, 2019 – “The Future of Lunar Exploration” with presenter Jim Green, NASA’s Chief Scientist.

More information about 2019 lectures, including links to sign up for them, can be found here. Tickets are free but must be acquired ahead of time and have been known to “sell” out.

One more neat thing about the Series: after each lecture concludes and as long as the weather cooperates, the Museum sets up a telescope on Independence Avenue. Anyone can have a peek through its lens for an extra-surreal, educational experience — getting a close-up view of the night sky while standing not only near a bright, busy street in the nation’s capital but also near all those Ben Stiller look-alikes.

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA.


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