Category Archives: astronomy

Seeing the invisible and finding aliens using polarimetry

The topic line for last week’s gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle was What the Hell is Polarimetry?, and it seemed that a significant portion of the audience at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard shared the question.

UW postdocs Jamie Lomax and Kim Bott explained that when light starts from its source the oscillation of its wave—its “wiggle”—goes in all directions until an interaction with something makes it polarized.

“That just means that it’s wiggling in one direction,” Lomax noted. “There’s a preferred plane for that wiggle to happen in, and in polarimetry what we’re doing is measuring that preferred plane and we’re looking for light that has been polarized.”

“It can help you figure out the shape of things without having to resolve the object,” Bott added.

Polarimetry and massive stars

Lomax studies massive stars and has found use for polarimetry in her work. She gave a talk titled, “Seeing Invisible Circumstellar Structures.”

Jamie Lomax

Jamie Lomax

“The holy grail for us in massive star research is to be able to take a massive star at the beginning of its lifetime, figure out how massive it is,” Lomax said, “and map out what its life is going to look like and figure out what supernova it’s going to end its life as.”

“It turns out that is really hard, and it’s complicated by the fact that most massive stars are probably in binary systems,” she added. Since about two-thirds of massive stars are part of a binary system, one might expect that two-thirds of core-collapse supernovae would be from such systems.

“There’s a problem, and that is we’ve only seen maybe two or three core-collapse supernovae where we have evidence that suggests that it’s come from a binary star,” Lomax said.

Part of the problem, she said, is that we don’t yet know enough about the evolution of binary star systems.

“We can try to hammer out the details of how that mass is transferring between the two stars and when the system is losing material to try to figure out how that effects its future evolution,” Lomax said. “Once we start answering questions like that we can start to tease out why we aren’t seeing all of these binary supernovae we think we should be seeing.”

Lomax talked about the star Beta Lyrae, a binary system. The primary star in the system is losing mass that gets gobbled up by the secondary. This transfer of mass also forms a thick accretion disk of gas around the secondary—so thick light from the actual star can’t get through. There’s also evidence that there are jets shooting out of the system, but we don’t know where they are.

“These are all features that we can’t see very well,” Lomax said. “We can’t see the mass transfer stream between the two stars, we can’t see the jets.”

Here’s where polarimetry comes in. If a star is surrounded by a cloud of gas or dust that is circularly symmetrical, when the starlight interacts with that material the light becomes polarized, and the wiggles line up tangentially with the edge of the disk. If the cloud is elongated in some way, the wiggles form in a “preferred” direction.

“That preferred wiggle direction is 90 degrees from the direction of the elongation of the disk, so you can back out geometric information pretty quickly,” Lomax said. “Just by looking at how the light is wiggling I can tell you how the disc is oriented on the sky.”

Lomax figures that if you don’t do polarimetry you’re throwing out free information.

“You can see invisible things—to you—and that gives you extra information about what’s going on in different systems.”

Exoplanets and aliens

Bott’s talk was titled “The Polarizing Topics of Aliens and Habitable Planets.” She studies exoplanets and said polarimetry comes in handy.

“Stars don’t produce polarized light, which is really great if you’re trying to look at something dim like a planet,” she noted. The polarimeter will simply block out the starlight. There are then a number of things that might be spotted on the planet:

  • Glint from an ocean
  • Rayleigh scattering
  • Clouds and hazes
  • Rainbows
  • Biosignatures of gases in an atmosphere
  • Chiromolecules
Kim Bott

Kim Bott

These can help astronomers characterize a planet, judge its potential habitability, and even determine if life might already be flourishing there.

Bott said that polarimeters that are sensitive enough to study planets are a recent advance, and they’re studying big, bright planets to get the hang of it. Looking for rainbows can be revealing about liquids in the atmosphere of a planet.

“The light will bend in the droplets at a slightly different angle depending what the droplet is made out of,” Bott said, so they can tell whether its water, methane, or sulfuric acid.

“We’re trying to create these really robust models that will take into consideration polarized light from Rayleigh scattering in the atmosphere as well as from rainbows,” Bott said, “and if you have a planet where you can see the surface you’d be able to see the signature from glint as well.”

Since different substances bend light at different angles, we can also learn a lot by watching closely as planets move through their phases as they orbit their host stars.

“On Earth we have light going from air and bouncing off of H2O water,” Bott said. “That’s going to produce a maximum in polarized light at a different angle than on, say, Titan, where you have light going from a methane atmosphere and then bouncing off of a hydrocarbon ocean.”

“We can actually, in theory, tell what the ocean and atmosphere are made out of by looking at where, exactly, in the orbit we see this glint,” Bott explained.

As for aliens, life requires more complex molecules, chiromolecules, that are “wound” in a certain direction, like our own DNA. Such molecules would produce circularly polarized light, which if detected could be a sign that such molecules exist on the planet.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. It’s next gathering is scheduled for October 30 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

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Treknology looks at Star Trek gizmos

Star Trek first hit the airwaves over a half century ago, and Dr. Ethan Siegel finds it amazing how many of the gizmos, gadgets, and technologies imagined by the various Trek television series have become reality. Siegel, theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, is author of the new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017). Treknology is scheduled for release on October 15 and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Siegel, a Trek fan since discovering The Next Generation (TNG) as a kid, figures he was just the guy to dig into Star Trek’s technology.

“That intersection of an interest in Star Trek and Sci-fi, of an interest in what it means for humanity, and a knowledge of physics, all of those have come together to make this book possible,” Siegel said.

Treknology devotes a separate chapter to 28 different technologies that were used in the various series.

“These technologies that were so futuristic that they were imagined centuries in the future, some of them don’t appear to be that far off,” Siegel noted. “Some of them are already here and in widespread use. Others that we thought just a few years ago were going to be far-future technologies look like they’re coming to fruition.”

We’ve got that Treknology already

Siegel noted that it was The Original Series (TOS) that came up with the automatic sliding door, now a staple in every airport and supermarket. Your tablet is also cooler than anything Trek came up with.

“What you’ve got in your smart phone is much more impressive that anything that were on those touch-screen pads that Star Trek envisioned,” Siegel said. “Here we are with something that’s smaller, that’s more compact.”

That goes for pretty much all of the computers, he noted.

“We’ve gone way beyond what Star Trek would have envisioned much more quickly than anything that came about in the original series,” Siegel said. At the time of TOS in real life we had room-sized computers that had less computing oomph than today’s pocket calculators. When TNG came around, they figured they had to jazz up the computing and came up with something new and fancy—digital storage.

“Your flash drive is more powerful than a Star Trek isolinear chip,” Sigel noted. “As far as computation goes—ships computer, pads, isolinear chips—we’ve blown away what Star Trek would have envisioned.”

Medical technology

Siegel

Dr. Ethan Siegel, author of Treknology, during a lecture in Portland last year. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As an astronomy and physics guy, Siegel said he was especially interested in learning about the medical technologies and biological situations that Star Trek dreamed up. He noted that we may soon be able to use synthehol, a substance with the positive effects of booze without the negative impacts.

“Synthehol is on track pharmacologically to become real,” Siegel said.

We may also be close to helping sightless people see, ala Geordi La Forge—the TNG character played by LeVar Burton—who wore a special visor that allowed him to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

“If we can make an implant somewhere in your brain’s visual cortex, and we can wirelessly feed an external signal to that implant,” Siegel said, “this is a potential way to restore sight to the blind,” even if they have no eyes or optic nerves at all. NASA actually tinkered with sight-improving technology in the late 1990s, and called its project JORDY: Joint Optical Reflective DisplaY.

Not there yet

There are other Treknologies that aren’t so close yet. Warp drive is at the top of that list. He says it’s mathematically possible, but it will be tough to make it work in our universe.

“It depends on if you can either have negative gravitational mass or negative energy,” Siegel explained. “If you can, then great, we can build warp drive. If that’s a physical impossibility—and we haven’t discovered anything like that yet—then I don’t know how warp drive can be possible.”

“This is probalbly one of the most difficult technologies to acheive, but I still don’t want to rule it out and say it’s impossible,” he added. “I want to look at what it would take to make it possible.”

A few other technologies such as subspace communication and transporters would require “extensions” to our current physics to become reality, Siegel said, and we’re a ways from life-like androids and holodecks, too.

Sigel has written widely. His first book was Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing Co., 2015). He writes the Starts With a Bang blog on Forbes, and produces a podcast of the same name. Siegel can be found under that handle on Twitter and Facebook. He expects to be touring conventions and bookstores around the country in support of Treknology. We look forward to the book’s release next month.

Podcast of our interview with Ethan Siegel:

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Calendar: TJO wraps open houses for the season

A handful of astronomy club meetings and the final open house of the year at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory are the highlights of this week’s astronomy calendar.

TJO

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThe University of Washington hosts open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the first and third Wednesdays of each month from April through September. The open house at 8 p.m. this Wednesday, September 20, will be the last for 2017.

UW students give talks at the open houses. We haven’t been plugging these much this year because the free talks have been filled well in advance; the talks are free, but reservations are needed, as the classroom can accommodate just 45 people. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society staff the dome and its vintage telescope. There are also typically telescopes on hand outside for those who don’t get a chance to get inside.

Astronomy clubs

A quick rundown of the regional astronomy club meetings this week:

Mark your calendars

One of our favorite monthly events is coming up next week: Astronomy on Tap Seattle will meet at 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 27 at Peddler Brewing in Ballard. The topic will be “What the Heck is Polarimetry?”, and the speakers will be Dr. Jamie Lomax, who will talk about her research on detecting the almost-invisible material around stars, and Dr. Kim Bott, who uses polarimetry to hunt for signs of habitable worlds.

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Planning for the 2024 total solar eclipse

Last month’s total solar eclipse was the first one I had ever seen. Like many newly minted and experienced umbraphiles alike, I’m already thinking about the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States, which will happen on April 8, 2024. It seems like a long time off, but you don’t want to be like those folks who were frantically looking for eclipse glasses the day before the event!

As I ponder the last two years of planning for 2017, I realize that the advice received in the course of the enterprise was somewhat contradictory. In summary, when preparing for a total solar eclipse, one should plan carefully and well in advance, always have a plan B, and be ready to chuck it all and just wing it in the case of bad weather or other opportunities and circumstances.

Plan ahead

Fred Espenak

Fred Espenak. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Our first tutorial in eclipse planning came from Mr. Eclipse himself, Fred Espenak, who spoke at the Seattle Astronomical Society banquet in January 2016. (Here’s our recap of that talk.) Espenak and his weather guru partner, Jay Anderson of Eclipsophile, scouted the entire path of totality for viewing and weather conditions. It was Espenak’s declaration of Madras, Oregon as having the best clear-sky prospects for eclipse day that drove thousands of people to central Oregon. My favorite remark from Espenak from that talk: “On eclipse day you don’t get climate, you get weather.” Oregon had the best odds, many of us rolled the dice on that and came out winners.

Have a plan B

For many eclipse chasers plan B amounts to watching the weather forecast in the days and weeks leading up to the eclipse and, if things look dicey, going somewhere else. Many choose their preferred viewing site based on the ability to get away. That’s one reason that Espenak viewed last month’s eclipse from Casper, Wyoming: the weather prospects there were good, and major highways running east and west along the path of totality meant a good chance to run to find a break in any clouds that might move in. The Astronomical League held its annual convention there, too.

O'Meara

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer with Stephen O’Meara at the Seattle Astronomical Society meeting Aug. 16, 2017.

The week before the eclipse Steven O’Meara, a columnist for Astronomy magazine and an avid eclipse chaser, gave a talk to the Seattle Astronomical Society. He recounted how, as a young child, his mother showed him little eclipses reflected through the holes in their home’s window blinds.

“Partial eclipses have been dear to me ever since I was a child,” O’Meara said. He noted that a thought struck him after a recent similar presentation.

“I realized how wonderful partial eclipses are and how much more fun I have at partial eclipses, because there’s no pressure,” O’Meara said. We think he actually thrives on the pressure though, and he told a number of entertaining stories about last-ditch efforts to beat the clouds and catch at least a glimpse of an elusive eclipse. Some of the more interesting ones involved Pop Tarts and essentially hijacking a boat in Indonesia when it appeared there would be no eclipse viewing on land. He may well be the king of plan B.

My own plan

Writing the Seattle Astronomy blog and producing our podcast was my research and planning for last month’s eclipse. I’ve done 27 posts (including this one) and did 15 podcasts about the eclipse, with the subject of many being the question of why one would choose Stapleton, Nebraska or Nashville for eclipse watching over the other places in the path of totality. I learned a lot about the activities each community had planned, and what else there was to do there once an eclipse was over. With all of that information, I ended up picking Salem, Oregon. I had three reasons: proximity, population, and weather.

cloud chart

Data by NASA/GSFC. Graph courtesy Jay Anderson, Eclipsophile.com

Proximity. I reasoned that, if I lived in the Salem area, I probably would not have gone anywhere else. I’d have gone to a local park, or sat in my own back yard, to watch the eclipse. One short move may have been to get a little closer to the center line. With Salem just a four-hour drive from Seattle, this seemed a sensible option.

Population. At some point in my deliberations, I decided that I preferred a more urban setting to a rural one. It seemed that accommodations, the ability to get around, and access to stuff like food and a porta-potty might be more likely in a setting with more infrastructure.

Weather. Yes, many people would and did laugh about this. Walk up to anyone and tell them that you plan to watch a solar eclipse in western Oregon, and about 80 percent of them will immediately laugh and declare that, “It will rain.”

Looking at Anderson’s chart above of weather along the path of totality revealed a different story, however. While, statistically, the weather in Salem on August 21 of any year isn’t as good as that in Madras, it’s still pretty close, and a far sight better than just about any place east of Missouri. Salem seemed a good bet. When the date arrived and climate turned into weather, it helped that we were in the middle of the driest, clearest summer anyone can remember.

Chuck it

As I asked people along the path if accommodations were available in their town or city, most of them noted that hotels don’t even book for more than a year in advance. In fact, I heard several funny stories about innkeepers befuddled by someone wanting to book a room five years ahead of time! Naturally, when I went online to look for reservations in Salem 13 months prior to the eclipse, everything was completely sold out. Some time later I stumbled across an available motel room in Lebanon, Oregon and snapped up the reservation. I got tickets to OMSI’s eclipse event at the fairgrounds in Salem, and I was ready to go.

Back in December I published a post and podcast interviewing Elaine Cuyler of Orbit Oregon, publisher of the kids’ book The Big Eclipse. Cuyler, a former marketing director for Eola Hills Winery near Salem, was putting together the Wine Country Eclipse festival at the Polk County Fairgrounds. She invited me to speak at the festival, complete with gratis lodging in a residence hall at nearby Western Oregon University in Monmouth. It seemed like a no-brainer, and I jumped at the chance. I cancelled my motel reservation and gladly stayed in the dorms at WOU (pronounced “woo”, according to the staff.)

So, after about 20 months of planning, I ended up doing something that was only finalized about two or three weeks ahead of the eclipse. As noted in my post about eclipse weekend, it couldn’t have worked out better.

Total solar eclipse, 2024

Eclipse map 2024

Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

If this year’s was “The Great American Eclipse,” then some are already dubbing the 2024 event “The Great North American Eclipse.” As you can see from the map at left, this one will first hit land in Mexico, swoop up through Texas, cross the path of the 2017 eclipse in Carbondale, Illinois, and zip northeast until it crosses Maine and the maritime provinces of Canada. Thanks to Micheal Zeiler of GreatAmericanEclipse.com for the map; Zeiler was one of our interview subjects, too! Check out our post and podcast.

So, where will you be in April 2024? I’ve been looking at Jay Anderson’s weather maps already, and it seems the best weather prospects will be in Mexico, but I’m leaning toward Texas right now. I’d try to make hotel reservations, but nobody books more than a year in advance. And some cool opportunity might turn up at the last minute.

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Cool app: Cosmic Watch

Often astronomers speak of an appreciation of the clockwork of the solar system, whether it’s the movement of the planets around the Sun or of moons and other objects in their trajectories through our neighborhood. An app called Cosmic Watch is a gorgeous representation of that clockwork for your smart phone or other iOS device.

Cosmic Watch, created by Celestial Dynamics LTD out of Switzerland—where else would you have your watch made?—is billed by the company as “the world’s first 3D interactive astronomical clock.” But they flip the concept upside down; while most astronomy apps have a point of view of looking up from the planet at the sky, Cosmic Watch gives you the view of Earth from out in space, and allows you to see the movement of everything around it.

Cosmic Watch screenshotI took the screenshot at left just as I was starting to write this article (click it to see it bigger). In this basic view, the face of the clock runs around the ecliptic, and the Moon, Sun, and planets are shown in the spots where they’re directly overhead. You can spin this view to look at the lineup from any angle. Change the settings and you can show the outlines of the constellations, or switch between views of the celestial sphere representation or a more open sky.

There are three other main views.

The astronomy view depicts the locations of the planets and constellations and allows you to decide if you’d like to view equatorial coordinates and various rings such as the ecliptic, the celestial equator, or Earth’s equator and tropics.

The astrology view takes a look at how solar system objects are moving through the zodiac.

solar system view lets you track the orbits of the planets around the Sun. These features are not limited to your current time or place. You can set Cosmic Watch to any time and date and any location on Earth, and you can set it spinning at a quicker pace to enjoy the motions of the cosmos.

Oh, and you can tell time with it, too! In fact, it’s essentially a graphical representation of what “time” is for us: the pace of Earth’s rotation with respect to the Sun.

It’s quite a versatile tool. The Cosmic Watch website points out that you can use it as “a realtime worldclock, time travel machine, an astrolabe, an antikythera mechanism, an orrery, an armillary sphere, or an astral-chart generator.” It has made the “best app” lists of Wired and The New York Times, among others.

My device is an iPhone 6. I imagine that the app would be even more enjoyable on devices with larger screens.

There’s a trailer about Cosmic Watch below. It’s available on Google Play and the iTunes Store. We recommend it!

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Learning about exoplanets with AoT Seattle

Often when an exoplanet is discovered the first question asked by the mainstream media is whether the new planet is “Earth-like.” In truth we know little about these far-away planets other than their mass or size, and whether they orbit within the habitable zone of their host star. Scientists are using PCA and SAMURAI to learn more about exoplanets, and LUVOIR may ultimately help us get a much better look at these distant worlds.

Tovar

Lupita Tovar spoke about mapping exoplanets at Astronomy on Tap Seattle August 23, 2017. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Lupita Tovar is a first-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington, where she works at the Virtual Planetary Laboratory. She gave a talk titled “Mapping New Worlds” at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle event at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Tovar is helping develop the parameters for LUVOIR, which stands for Large UltraViolet/Optical/InfraRed Surveyor. It is one of four projects being considered by NASA as part of the 2020 decadal survey, which will help pick the agency’s next big project.

Big is the operative word for LUVOIR. Astronomers love aperture for their telescopes, and LUVOIR would dwarf any space telescope to date. The Hubble Space Telescope has a 2.4-meter mirror, and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch next year, will be 6.5 meters. LUVOIR would nearly double that; Tovar said it is proposed right now to have a 12-meter mirror. It would also be equipped with a coronagraph which would block the light of a host star. Much as Venus and Mars were visible in the daytime during last month’s total solar eclipse, blocking starlight would allow us to see much dimmer objects nearby.

LUVOIR

Sketch of LUVOIR by NASA/Goddard

“The coronagraph will allow us to see those close-in planets, like Venus, and allow us to study those planets,” Tovar said. LUVOIR would be a powerful instrument. It could see Venus, Earth, and Jupiter from a distance of ten parsecs, or about 33 light years.

Fortunately, astronomers don’t have to wait for LUVOIR to make progress on mapping exoplanets. Tovar said that today they’re using PCA—Principal Component Analysis—to get a better idea about an exoplanet’s surface.

“We use PCA to extract how many components are there,” Tovar explained. “Is it just one, solid icy body? Are there two different types of surfaces sitting on that planet? Are there three? Are there more? PCA allows us to extract that information.”

Call in the SAMURAI

Once they know how many surface types there are, astronomers can then use SAMURAI—Surface Albedo Mapping Using RotAtional Inversion—to figure out just what those surfaces are. Tovar said it’s like looking at a beach ball as it is batted around. As the ball spins, different colors face the observer. SAMURAI uses algorithms to determine the composition of each surface type. For example, land reflects more light than ocean does, but an ocean’s reflection will spike when it’s near the edge of the exoplanet, from our view, because of the glint of light from the host star.

LUVOIR is just a glint in the eyes of astronomers now, but it along with PCA and SAMURAI could give us a much better idea about the makeup of exoplanets.

“Combined together, all of these three components will help you create a map,” Tovar said.

Is Tatooine out there?

Star Wars fans often speculate about the existence of planets like Luke Skywalker’s home world Tatooine, which has two suns. So far we know of a dozen exoplanets in orbit around binary star systems. Diana Windemuth, also a Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at UW, studies these sorts of systems and gave a talk titled, “By the Light of Two Suns” at Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Windemuth

Diana Windemuth discussed exoplanets orbiting binary star systems at AoT Seattle. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“Our Sun is a bit of a weirdo in that it does not have a companion,” Windemuth said, explaining that about half of stars like the Sun have one. The more massive a primary star is, the more likely it is to have a companion, she said. Further, there are two types of stable orbits a planet in a binary star system can have. In an S-type orbit the planet will go around just one of the stars; it will be either a circumprimary or circumsecondary orbit. In the P-type, the exoplanet orbits both stars.

“A circumbinary planet goes around in a wider orbit around an inner, closer-in binary,” Windemuth explained. She said it is harder to find these sorts of systems using Kepler’s transit method because throwing in a third body complicates things. Kepler measures the overall light from a system, and the amount of light we see changes not only when the planet transits, but when the stars eclipse each other.

“These are called eclipsing binaries because they go around one another,” Windemuth said. Exoplanets are confirmed when dips in the light during transits happen at regular intervals. Usually a computer picks that out of the data, but it doesn’t work so well on binary systems.

It’s a trick!

“It turns out its difficult to train a computer to do that because of what we call the geometric effect,” Windemuth said. Because the stars move with respect to each other in binary systems, the period of transits can appear to vary because of differing distances the light travels to reach us. Gravitational interactions in the system can also create wobble and change the perceived period of transits.

“Even though the period of your planet might be the same, the transits will occur at different times,” Windemuth noted.

It’s probably because of these challenges that we’ve only discovered a handful of circumbinary planets so far, Windemuth said, and none of them are candidates to be the real-life Tatooine.

“No terrestrial circumbinary planets have been found yet,” she said. That could be because they’re too hard to find, or maybe planets with short periods are destroyed when they orbit too close to the binary stars.

“It’s probably because our detection algorithms are not good enough yet,” Windemuth concluded.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. The next gathering is scheduled for September 27 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard, and the topic will be polarimetry. We don’t know what that is, either, but are looking forward to finding out!

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Dreamy musical astronomy show Starball plays Seattle

A dreamy, musical astronomy show will return to its birth town of Seattle next week after more than a decade away. Starball, created by John Kauffman and Dan Dennis, will play at West of Lenin in Fremont from September 7–11.

According to the show’s Facebook page, “Audience members play villagers in a dystopian future in which the global government, or World Regime, has ended the relationship between humanity and the stars. But two Astronomasons, the Conductor (Kaufmann) and the Proxy (Dennis), have rebelled, calling the villagers to a secret clearing for a creative ritual.”

It sounds a little dark, but director Rachel Katz Carey and producer A.J. Epstein call it “giddy fun.”

Carey said Kauffman and Dennis were the perfect people to create this show.

“They’ve got charm and charisma for days and they’ve got improv experience and they’ve got huge, open hearts, so people just want to jump in and work with them,” Carey said. “They also have the hard science. They’re not just theater guys who thought they found a gimmick; they really, truly know their astronomy.”

Both were working at the Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center when they created and first performed Starball in 2002. In 2004 they brought in Carey and Epstein to help take the show to new places.

“What they needed was scaffolding to give some form and structure,” Carey said. “It’s been my experience that improv thrives the best when there is a scaffolding and structure to support it.”

In the intervening years Starball has been performed in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and even Spain. For its return to Seattle it will be performed in an inflatable planetarium on the West of Lenin stage.

Epstein explained that as audience members enter they will be asked to anonymously jot down notes about a recent dream. During the performance dreams will be drawn at random, and the actors and audience will look for parts of the dream in the stars projected on the planetarium dome. The audience and actors together will create stories based on the dreams identified in the sky.

Greg, AJ, and Rachel

L-R: Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, Starball producer AJ Epstein and director Rachel Katz Carey in front of the inflatable planetarium in which Starball will be performed Sept. 7-11 at West of Lenin. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“By the end of the night we have an entirely new sky mythology, not just individual constellations but a mythology unique to that group of people,” Epstein said. “And then they write a song.”

“An original song for every show based on what’s shown up in the sky,” Carey added.

“A Jungian devotee would have a field day with this show,” Epstein laughed.

He laments that, as a culture, we’ve lost our connection to the night sky.

“Most of us now live in cities where we can maybe see a couple of stars,” he said, “so the show really is very loudly but very elegantly getting people to actually look up at the sky and make a connection.”

At Seattle Astronomy we like to explore the intersections of art and science. Some would set up a divide there, but neither Carey nor Epstein see it.

“That’s sort of a Mac/PC religion question!” Epstein laughed.

“The stars were art before they were science,” Carey said. “We’ve been telling stories about stars long before we had telescopes.”

“The best scientists and the best writers about science that I know absolutely have the connection to art and imagination,” Carey added. “How do you get the big discoveries if you can’t imagine ahead of your data and then do the work to see if it’s there?”

Both admit to bias because of their involvement, but insist that Starball is way different than any planetarium show you’ve ever seen.

“You just have to be there, and when you leave you’re different because you’ve figured some stuff out,” Carey said.

“This one really grabs an audience by the heart and brings them to a place where they get it,” Epstein added.

Starball runs at West of Lenin for seven performances September 7-11. Tickets are $20 and are available online. Early purchase is recommended because the planetarium will only seat around 40 people.

Learn more! Listen to the podcast of our interview with Carey and Epstein:

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