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AstronoMay and more at PacSci

It’s been a month filled with astronomy at Pacific Science Center, and they’ll wrap it up big this weekend with their celebration of AstronoMay Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. According to Dave Cuomo, supervisor for science interpretation programs and the Willard Smith Planetarium at the center, there will be a lot going on.

“We will have expanded planetarium shows,” Cuomo said. “We will have lectures about astronomy featured on our Science on a Sphere exhibit. We will talk about astrobiology in some of those. We will have space scientists that visitors can speak with and talk about their study and research about astronomy. And, weather permitting, we will have some solar telescopes out so you can safely observe the Sun.”

Planetarium-palooza

Willard Smith PlanetariumThere’s a great variety of selections for shows in the planetarium. One that will run this weekend is called “The Search for Life.”

“It will be an exploration of the different ways that astrobiologists are looking for life, both in the solar system and outside of the solar system,” Cuomo said. That show is a great complement to the “Mission: Find Life!” exhibit about astrobiology that is presently in the center’s Portal to Current Research space. (See our post from last month for more about that.) Another show, titled “Let’s Explore Light,” is about the basic physics of light.

A third planetarium show called “The Skies of Ancient China,” created to complement the popular Terracotta Warriors exhibit at the center, looks at more than 4,000 years of Chinese astronomy. Cuomo noted that Chinese astronomers in the day had a pretty high-stakes job.

“They were hired by the emperor because the emperor ruled the Earth because he had the mandate from the heavens,” Cuomo explained, “so he needed to be able to know what was going to happen in the sky.”

The astronomers predicted planetary conjunctions and eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Conjunctions in particular were considered omens of pending regime change, and, say what you will about whether the heavens influence lives on Earth, a couple of empires actually did flip at around the time of a conjunction. More amazing is the accuracy of both the Chinese astronomical observations and their record keeping.

“Modern astronomers have associated at least nine supernova remnants with ‘guest stars’ that the Chinese observed and recorded the location of,” Cuomo marveled. “There is also almost two thousand years of history of a returning star every 76 years, which we now know was Halley’s Comet.”

Cuomo found it interesting that there wasn’t much mythology around the heavens with the Chinese astronomers as compared to that in many other cultures. He and three of the center’s planetarians created the show with research help from the British Library, the Hong Kong Space Museum, and many others across the country and the world.

The daily schedule for planetarium shows is on the PacSci website and also on our Seattle Astronomy calendar page. We saw “The Skies of Ancient China” last week and found it to be exceptionally well done.

Solar eclipse

The astronomy doesn’t stop once May ends. The Pacific Science Center is gearing up for the total solar eclipse that will happen on August 21. The entire month of August will be PacSci “Up in the Sky.”

“We will talk about solar astronomy, observational astronomy, weather; anything that you look up to see, we’ll want to talk about,” Cuomo said. They’ll also have eclipse glasses on hand for safe viewing of the Sun, and probably some solar projectors for watching the eclipse.

Although the eclipse will only be partial in Seattle, the center plans to open early, at 8:30, that morning.

“We will have solar telescopes available and educators talking about the eclipse and the science of the eclipse,” Cuomo said. First contact—when the Moon starts moving across the face of the Sun—will happen at 9:08 a.m. at PacSci, and it will be over by 11:30. But they’ll have live feeds from other eclipse events from all across the country so you can keep watching.

Cuomo will be in Madras, Oregon for the total eclipse, along with other educators from the Pacific Science Center in partnership with Lowell Observatory. They’re leading a four-day trip to view the total eclipse. Space is limited; if you’re interested in going along, you can find out more online.


Podcast of our interview with Dave Cuomo

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Hunting the geocached solar system on Bainbridge Island

Most of us have experienced a scale model solar system. A new one with a different spin will open up May 1 on Bainbridge Island. To find the Sun and planets in this solar system, you’ll have to conduct a successful geocache hunt.

“Everybody who does it can collect the entire set of planets and custom stamps in a passport book, but the trick is, they have to go to each planet to do it,” said Erica Saint Clair, proprietor of Rosie Research, which creates fun science learning adventures for kids and families. Saint Clair also leads the BP Astro Kids education program of the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA). It was through the latter that the idea for the geocache scaled solar system model came about.

Geocached solar system

Adventurers can explore a geocached solar system on Bainbridge Island beginning May 1. Find the treasure chest at each planet and get a stamp for your passport. Visit every planet to win cool prizes! Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

About a year ago the BP Astro Kids made solar systems on a string, but it was a challenge to create an exercise that represented both the proper sizes of planets relative to each other, as well as the scale of the distances between them at those sizes. The BPAA children’s librarian suggested just making an island-wide solar system using geocaching. Saint Clair originally laughed at the idea—thinking that’ll be easy!—then rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Now it’s about to go live. The Sun is about five feet in diameter in this solar system.

“It fits really well on the island, and it gives a really good perspective for people about the size of our solar system,” Saint Clair said.

“You can walk downtown Winslow and go through our terrestrial planets, and then Jupiter and Saturn and the other guys are a little further away,” she added. “You definitely need a car for Pluto because it’s the other end of the island.”

Geocache patch

Visit every planet on Bainbridge Island and get this cool patch. Photo: Rosie Research.

The key piece of documentation for the hunt is the solar system passport. The passport includes information about the project and interesting facts about the Sun and each planet. Most importantly, it gives the coordinates of each of these objects. Go to Bainbridge Island, plug the coordinates into a GPS device—the map app on your smart phone will do, but there are also special geocaching apps—and the search is on! At each spot geocachers with a good eye will find a hidden treasure chest with a special stamp for their passport—that’s how you’ll prove you’ve been there. Some local businesses will be handing out the passports, and some are offering prizes like ice cream or pizza for those who collect certain stamps.

“It’s not only a geocache hunt, it’s also a fun afternoon activity with treats,” Saint Clair said.

Geocachers who visit every planet can bring their passport to one of the monthly BP Astro Kids events and receive a colorful completer’s patch as the reward for their dedicated pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Saint Clair said that a goal helps motivate many kids to finish a project like this; her own daughters are the user testers for many of her projects, and it works on them! She’s hoping that the challenge of the hunt will inspire interest in the project.

Challenge of scale modeling

There are a lot of big numbers in astronomy, and Saint Clair said that’s a challenge for this sort of endeavor.

Erica Saint Clair

Erica Saint Clair presents BPAstro Kids programs for the Battle Point Astronomical Association.

“It’s really difficult to scale a model, because either the sizes are so unfathomable or the distances are so unfathomable, and to bring one into focus inherently blurs the other,” she said. She hopes that using informative passport books will help convey more information that might not work at the scale of the model.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will hold an Astronomy Day celebration at Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. this Saturday, April 29. Saint Clair said kids and families can pick up their passports and take a solar system tour that day in preparation for the solar system geocache hunt going live on Monday.

If you’d like to support the educational efforts of Rosie Research, visit their Patreon Page and become a patron of science.


Podcast of our interview with Erica Saint Clair:

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New Apollo exhibit opens at Museum of Flight next month

There’s a lot of excitement these days over at the Museum of Flight, where they’re working hard to complete their new Apollo exhibit by the time it opens for visitors on May 20, 2017. While the exhibit bears the name of the Moon-landing program, Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the museum, notes that it will cover lots of ground from the start of the space race after World War II through the post-Apollo 1970s.

Apollo“We’re trying to re-focus on the Apollo story, re-integrate Pete Conrad’s artifacts, and showcase these amazing artifacts that we received from NASA by way of Bezos Expeditions: actual, Apollo-flown, F-1 engines,” Nunn said.

We covered the event in November 2015 when Jeff Bezos formally presented the engines to the museum, restored after an amazing search, discovery, and recovery from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Nunn said the museum recently received a new artifact on loan: an intact F-1 engine that was originally set to launch Apollo 16, but was switched out after a fire. It took some fancy engineering to get an engine 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide and weighing nearly 20,000 pounds into the gallery. It will provide an interesting contrast to the engines Bezos recovered.

“Our F-1 engine survived a million and a half pounds of thrust and burning rocket fuel, it survived a strike by lightning, and then a plummet from the edge of space down to smash into the ocean, and then 40-plus years on the bottom of the ocean,” Nunn noted. “That is an artifact!”

See a bit of the first airplane

The engines are just one of several of what Nunn calls “crown jewels” in the Apollo exhibit, which also includes Deke Slayton’s astronaut pin and a fabulous new addition.

“We are receiving on loan from Neil Armstrong’s family a couple of pieces of the original Wright Flyer that were carried to the Moon by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11,” Nunn said. “They’re just little, tiny bits, but the first airplane made it to the Moon and we’re going to have a couple of those on display, so there’s going to be quite a few one-of-a-kind, amazing artifacts in this exhibit.”

Astronaut humor

Geoff Nunn

Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, at an event when the Apollo F-1 engines were formally presented to the museum in late 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The exhibit will also bring back many items from astronaut Pete Conrad that were part of the past Rendezvous in Space exhibit that was displaced at the museum by the construction of its Alaska Airlines Aerospace Education Center. Among the inventory is a cap Conrad wore on the Apollo 12 mission. It’s a standard type of navy cap, but Conrad had a propeller added.

“That cap is really indicative of Pete’s personality,” Nunn laughed.

The cuff checklist Conrad used on the Moon also will be on display. These lists spelled out the various steps for different tasks the astronauts would do on the Moon. For Apollo 12, the ground crew also slipped in some cartoons and Playboy playmate photos. Nunn said it was quite a challenge to tell that story while keeping the exhibit G-rated.

“When it comes to amazing and notable and hilarious things, Apollo 12 is really a gold mine as far as Apollo missions go,” he said.

More cool stuff to come

Many of us of a certain age remember exactly where we were and what was going on when we watched the Moon landings on television in the midst of the tumultuous 1960s.

“One of the things that we’re really trying to capture is just how much the space program interplayed with the context of what was going on at the time,” Nunn said of the exhibit. He noted that the opening of the Apollo exhibit is just the first chapter in the museum’s storytelling about the program. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is doing some remodeling, and has created a traveling exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities. It will be at the Museum of Flight from March 16 through September 2 in 2019.

“On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing—July 20, 2019—you can see Neil Armstrong’s space suit and the Apollo 11 command module here at the Museum of Flight,” Nunn beamed. “It’s going to be awesome.”


The museum’s annual Space Fest will coincide with the opening of the exhibit May 20 and 21. The schedule for a variety of events is still being finalized.

Podcast of our interview with Geoff Nunn:

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The search for ET at Pacific Science Center

They’re thinking a lot about extraterrestrial life these days over at the Pacific Science Center, where two new exhibits explore how scientists are working to identify far-away planets that may harbor life, and how we’re going to feed ourselves while we’re on our way to pay a visit.

Mission: Find Life!The exhibit Mission: Find Life! opened up last month in the science center’s Portal to Current Research space. Erika Harnett, a University of Washington professor of Earth and Space Sciences who serves as the education and outreach lead for the UW’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), was one of the key players in developing the content for the exhibit.

“We really wanted to connect the research being done by the Virtual Planetary Laboratory and some of the more cutting-edge science,” Harnett said.

It’s all in the biosignature

They decided to focus on examining the biosignatures of exoplanets. Harnett noted that we actually have the technology to take images of planets orbiting other stars, even though the images only amount to a pixel or two.

“From that single pixel you can actually glean quite a bit of information,” Harnett noted. “Scientists are trying to figure out if, from that, you can actually start to see if there are signatures of life on a planet, and really the initial work that they’re doing now is defining what are the signatures of life on Earth.”

The color of the light might tell you if you’re looking at ocean or continents. You might even identify the chemical components of a planet’s atmosphere or the types of molecules that are there.

Promotional material for the exhibit notes that, for finding life, “the color purple may be the key.” Harnett explained that that’s because red dwarf stars are plentiful in the universe, and they last a long time—long enough to give life plenty of time to develop. Whatever life appears would be faced with much redder light than we have here on Earth.

“Life will want to make use of it as much as possible, so it’s going to be either purple or black vegetation, instead of green, to be able to absorb as much electromagnetic radiation in the visible as possible,” Harnett said. She noted that, for the exhibit, they wanted to convey the speed of discovery—scientists verify new exoplanet discoveries practically every day. She also wanted to set expectations about what sorts of life might be found. Spoiler alert: it won’t likely be little green men like the ones on the socks Harnett wore when we spoke.

“It’s more likely that it’s going to be something like microbes or bacteria, because that’s actually what most of the life on Earth is. It’s not the most visible, but it’s the most plentiful,” she said.

Watch an exoplanet transit

One of the cool, hands-on features of the exhibit gives visitors a look at how scientists using the Kepler Space Telescope actually find exoplanets. A lighted globe represents a star, and you can spin a couple of planets around it.

“Then they have a sensor off to the side,” Harnett said—it’s actually inside a model of Kepler. “On a screen you can see the light from the star, and then as the planet transits you can see the dip” in the amount of light that arrives at the sensor.

“You get to actually play with that and explore what the change in signal associated with a planetary transit looks like,” she added.

Another interactive feature of the exhibit is a large touch screen that uses the NASA Eyes on Exoplanets program to let visitors explore planets.

Communicating science

The Mission: Find Life! exhibit is part of the VPL’s work funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which requires that a portion of funds be reserved for education and public outreach. VPL has created several science-on-a-sphere shows and trained numerous graduate students to be science communication fellows.

“The Portal to Current Research project is the culminating part of our work,” Harnett said. She has been involved with the Pacific Science Center’s communication fellows program for about a decade and said she feels effective communication about science is important.

“If scientists do a better job of communicating their science there would not be quite as much mistrust of science,” she said. “Everybody needs to get out more into the community and be doing more communication and writing for the general public, as opposed to just writing the peer-reviewed articles that will go into a journal and ten people will see.”

Harnett said they’re working to line up astrobiologists to offer talks during the exhibit’s run, especially during Astrono-May at the science center. Mission: Find Life! runs through September 4, 2017 at the Pacific Science Center.

What’s for lunch?

Feeding Future AstronautsAnother new exhibit called Feeding Future Astronauts is just across the gallery from the Portal to Current Research space. Growing food in space will take a lot less energy than carrying a bunch of it along, and the exhibit highlights some of the things NASA is trying. In the test garden of the exhibit they’re growing “outredgeous” lettuce, “Tokyo bekana” cabbage, and “Red Robin” cherry tomatoes. The latter will be a challenge because tomatoes require pollination, and as far as we know there are no bees in space. ISS astronauts are experimenting with hand pollination and how it will work in microgravity. The Red Robin might be a good variety of tomato to try in your Seattle garden; the ones in the exhibit were doing great for early April with only artificial light.


Podcast of our interview with Erika Harnett:

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Total solar eclipse 2017 in Music City

You can’t blame people in Nashville for being excited about the total solar eclipse that will darken the city on August 21, 2017.

“The last time the path of totality crossed through town Nashville wasn’t even a thing!” laughed Derrick Rohl, manager of the Sudekum Planetarium at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. Indeed, the last total solar eclipse there happened on July 29, 1478.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Rohl said.

Music City Solar EclipseRohl’s big role in the planetarium’s preparation for the eclipse has been the creation of an exciting new show about eclipses. Titled Eclipse: The Sun Revealed, it has been in the works for more than a year. It starts off with a look at the ways people have responded to total solar eclipses over time.

“It gives people a great look at different cultural histories, ways that different cultures have interpreted eclipses and just how they would react,” Rohl said. Eclipse lore is filled with serpents and dragons and other scary creatures eating the Sun. The show also explores the geometry of eclipses so viewers will better understand what’s happening, and takes a look back at the interesting science that has been accomplished during total solar eclipses.

Of course, it also has the obligatory lessons about how to safely view the eclipse, and Rohl says they stress that during totality, it’s OK to look up without eye protection.

“It’s one of the greatest views that nature has for us and we would hate to have anyone miss that,” Rohl said.

Eclipse: The Sun RevealedThe show closes out with a story about someone seeing a recent eclipse, “so that people can get an idea of just what a profound, impactful experience it will be,” Rohl said.

Eclipse: The Sun Revealed will premiere next weekend, January 21, exactly seven months before the total solar eclipse will hit town. Rohl said they’ve also sold it to planetariums in four other states and others are expressing interest.

Speaking of eye safety, that’s been a big investment for the Adventure Science Center, which ordered some 300,000 pairs of eclipse glasses.

“We have pallets and pallets of eclipse glasses sitting out on a loading dock now,” Rohl laughed. The glasses are earmarked for the city’s school kids, science center visitors, hotels, the convention and visitors bureau, and others. Center staff are helping teachers with lesson plans about eclipses, and are helping everyone from city officials to park rangers and bus drivers learn about the eclipse. That’s for good reason; Rohl says they’ve heard estimates that as many as two million visitors may hit Nashville for the eclipse.

Bracing for visitors

“We’re trying to prepare as many people around town as we can to be experts,” he said. “We’re trying to connect as many people as we can just to make sure that this a smooth experience for the huge amount of people that will be here to share it with us.”

In addition to the planetarium show, they’re planning an eclipse festival for the weekend before August 21. While many of the events remain tentative at this date, the festival will likely include lots of information about the eclipse, and Rohl expects it will also touch on virtual reality, robotics, and other cool topics.

“We’re not just limiting it to astronomy; we’re really expanding it to all the different science that we’d like to have people exploring and understanding and appreciating,” he said.

Other attractions of Nashville

One of the reasons that visitor estimates are so high in Nashville is that Music City is already a great tourist draw.

“Nashville is such a tourist friendly city even without an eclipse happening,” Rohl said. “While there are many other cities within the path, Nashville is a very very enticing place for people to choose.”

He expects folks from as far away as Chicago might rise in the wee hours and make the trip to Nashville for the eclipse, noting that practically everyone in the U.S. is within a day’s drive of the path of totality. While it’s a tourist town, Rohl says many Music City hotels have been booked for a long time. He’s got a spare room in his house, but it’s still up in the air who gets it.

“I think a lot of people who live in Nashville might be having long-lost relatives coming out of the woodwork,” Rohl laughed.

There are a couple of other space and astronomy attractions in the region besides the eclipse and the Adventure Science Center. Rohl suggested a visit to the Dyer Observatory, operated by Vanderbilt University in Brentwood, Tennessee, just a bit south of Nashville; and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which is just a couple of hours drive to the south.

Total eclipse mania

Rohl noted that the buzz is certainly building about the eclipse. He fields several calls each day already, and expects it will only increase. Social media is helping to spread the word, something we didn’t have the last time a total solar eclipse crossed our entire country, back in 1918.

“The hype around this one really makes it so that everyone is expecting it to be the biggest astronomical event ever to happen in the United States,” Rohl said. “It’s something really exciting to look forward to, and of course Nashville is a mighty convenient place to live with that coming.”

Podcast of our interview with Derrick Rohl:

Trailer for the planetarium show Eclipse: The Sun Revealed:

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Preserving the stories of Viking

Rachel Tillman has a scrapbook that is out of this world. What started out as a young girl’s effort to save a cool piece of space history has morphed into a project to preserve the artifacts of the iconic Viking program and the stories of the people who made it happen.

VMMEPPTillman is the founder, executive director, and chief curator of the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project, a Portland-based nonprofit that has a huge collection of photos, documents and artifacts from the Viking missions and aims to collect oral histories of some 10,000 people who had a hand in the project—the “Vikings,” as Tillman calls them.

Little kid heaven

Her interest in the mission started early.

“My father worked on the Viking mission,” she said. He is James E. Tillman, a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington who was a member of the Viking meteorology team.

“He is an explorer; scientists often are explorers,” Tillman said of her father. “He was so engrossed in his work that lived and breathed it. He brought it home at night.”

What he often brought home was the latest problem or design or a new photo from the lander, and he would ask the kids what they thought about it. Rachel ate it up.

Viking on Mars

One of the more famous photos in planetary exploration history: the first sent from Viking 1 shortly after it landed on Mars July 20, 1976. The original is part of the VMMEPP collection. Photo: NASA/JPL.

“I was interested from the get-go,” she said. Often she would go to her father’s office after school and soak up all of the conversations he and other scientists were having about technical matters. She’d go look it up and figure out the language, and would often make drawings about what she was learning. She made a few trips with her father to the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, and then got to go to Florida for the launches of the Viking spacecraft in 1975.

“We were down there at Cape Canaveral for the launch with Carl Sagan and Gerry Soffen and my dad and the guys from KSC,” she said. “I saw the rocket fly off.”

That’s quite a crowd for a little kid to hang out with. Rachel recalls Sagan as intense and funny, but said Soffen, the chief scientist on the Viking mission, was her hero.

“He was thoughtful, funny, very smart, absolutely wanted to know whatever it was out there to know,” she said. “He was also a magician. I’m a kid, that’s really cool!”

“The makeup of the people of the mission was amazing,” she added: Hard working, dedicated, sacrificing, funny, intelligent, grumpy, passionate—all of those things that a kid really picks up on.”

“I couldn’t have dreamed a better life than I live,” Rachel said.

They were going to melt it down

Viking was in Rachel’s DNA, but her work as a preservationist started almost as an accident.

NASA built three flight-ready Viking landers, but the first two worked and so the third—VL3—was not needed. Several groups and companies fiddled with plans to turn it into a rover, but ultimately nobody had any funding to do anything, so the lander was set aside. Then around 1979 James Tillman was looking for some used filing cabinets and found some interesting items on the NASA surplus list: his own Viking meteorology instrument, and VL3.

VL3 at MOF

They didn’t scrap Viking Lander 3! The lander, owned by Rachel Tillman, is on exhibit at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“They were scrapping it,” Rachel said. “They were going to melt it down.”

She immediately said that they had to get it and save it. Her father thought it was a ridiculous idea, but she convinced him to do it anyway because she had a ready purpose for the lander.

“We’re going to put it in my school,” she told him, “and we’re going to teach kids about robotics and about Mars and about science and engineering.”

Rachel now owns the Viking lander VL3, and it actually was at her school for a while. It also was on display for some time in the electrical engineering department at the UW. For the last ten years it has been on loan to the Museum of Flight, where it is a part of the permanent exhibit Space: Exploring the New Frontier.

“That’s how my preserving began, was with the Viking Lander,” Rachel said. Though it started with a great piece of historic hardware, Rachel is now drawn to the human side.

It’s about the people

“My role as a kid who grew up with the mission is to honor the people who did it,” she said. “Everybody. Not just the rock stars.”

Greg and Viking stuff

The author in front of information boards the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project uses at outreach events. The box my arm is resting on contains James Tillman’s Mars meteorology instrument. Photo: Rachel Tillman.

“Every Viking represents a child today that may want to do something like what they did,” Rachel added. “They don’t have to be the mission director, they don’t have to be the principal investigator of a science instrument, they don’t even have to be the lead engineer.”

So many other people had important functions from keeping travel schedules to crunching numbers to designing small but important components of the landers.

“All of these people are so critically important to the mission, and 95 percent of them were forgotten,” Rachel said. “That’s my job: preserve the history and the individuals; not just the timeline events, but the people who did them. That’s what this is all about.”

The Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project was founded in 2008, but only really started doing any outreach in the last year. It’s been mostly underground work as Rachel met and interviewed as many of the Vikings as possible. She thought it was important to do some public events this year, the 40th anniversary of the Vikings’ landings on Mars. They held an open event in Denver—the landers were built there by Martin Marietta, which is now Lockheed Martin. NASA also held some events at Langley and at JPL, and the project held three “Science Pub” talks last month through the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

The future of VMMEPP

To date the project has run mostly through donations from James and Rachel Tillman, some of the Vikings, and a few others, but in the next year or so they will be doing some more serious fundraising.

“Our plan is to create a trust fund around all of the artifacts of Viking so they can’t be given away or sold,” Rachel said. “As we get new donations they will stay in this trust.”

She said the fund will help with management of the artifacts as well as preservation. Then in the next year or two they plan to issue a request for proposals from institutions and organizations that would like to host the Viking artifacts.

“They’ll have to meet the requirements that we set for care of the artifacts and for creating access to the artifacts for the public, because that’s critically important,” Rachel said.

In the meantime, the project has established an online museum, where you can go page through raw documents from the Viking missions. The project website is a treasure trove of photos and facts and stories about the Viking missions.

Rachel plans an outreach event at the Hillsdale Library in Portland for December 20, but then will probably be mostly invisible for a little while.

“Doing the oral history interviews, creating access, and protecting the artifacts, those our our three really big pushes.”

It’s a fascinating and worthy cause. If you would like to help with the preservation effort, you can donate to the project online through Facebook (through December 13) or Amazon Smile, or simply send a check to:

Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project
5331 SW Macadam #258-504
Portland, OR 97239

Podcast of our interview with Rachel Tillman:

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Reaching kids with “The Big Eclipse”

Those who are convinced that the stars do not affect our lives might wish to consider the story of Elaine Cuyler. Up until recently, Cuyler was minding her own business and working as marketing manager for Eola Hills Wine Cellars just west of Salem, Oregon.

“I never dreamed I’d be working on a kids’ book, let along one on eclipses,” Cuyler said. But that’s exactly what happened. When she learned that the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 will cross right over the vineyard, she decided an eclipse-viewing event would be a great way to attract visitors to the winery. As she researched the eclipse, it occurred to Cuyler that kids would really enjoy viewing a total solar eclipse.

“There was really no-one else talking to kids about the eclipse at the time,” she said. Out of that realization Orbit Oregon was born, and Cuyler became its chief eclipse officer. She teamed up with Nancy Coffelt, a well-known author and illustrator from Oregon, to create the book The Big Eclipse (Orbit Oregon, 2016).

“Although I had this concept in mind, it’s really Nancy’s drawings that brought it to life,” Cuyler noted. They also created a kids’ activity book; you can read our review of both, posted last month. Cuyler said there are a couple of purposes behind The Big Eclipse.

“First, I thought it was a great opportunity for kids to learn about astronomy and science and see something really cool,” she said. Secondly, she noted that adults often don’t know what’s going on, either. Her mother was a teacher in Portland during the 1979 total solar eclipse; they were told not to look up, and broadcasters ran public service announcements warning of the dangers of looking at the Sun. While it’s true that proper eye protection is needed to look at the partial phase of a solar eclipse, the warnings amounted to a missed opportunity.

“The concept of a solar eclipse is something that a lot of people aren’t familiar with,” Cuyler said. “That’s why there’s a lot of information [in the book] for parents, too, because they need to learn about it just as much as the kids.”

Providing inspiration

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the kids.

“We felt that as soon as you can get kids interested in science the better,” Cuyler explained. “Maybe they’re not going to want to sit and listen to a lecture, but they do like crafts, they all know about the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. To get kids thinking about the world around them and how it functions, that’s really the start of getting them to think about why the world works the way it does, and you use science to explain that.”

As Cuyler and Coffelt worked on The Big Eclipse their research included talks with astronomers and folks from NASA who looked at their material. They also spoke with many people who had seen total solar eclipses, including one couple who had viewed 15 of them.

Greg and Elaine

Seattle Astronomy writer Greg Scheiderer, Orbit Oregon’s Elaine Cuyler, and The Big Eclipse. We thought it was fun to get a selfie in front of a sign that reads “Choose your own adventure.”

“Their feedback was so great because they shared photos with us and video footage, they told us about the different things that happen,” Cuyler said. “Talking with people who’d actually been through these was invaluable.”

They’ve already test-driven the book in school classrooms, and the kids seem to enjoy it, especially the part where they get to create and make a drawing of their own eclipse myths, just as ancient civilizations tried to explain this celestial phenomenon. Cuyler said the kids are creative and funny with their stories. Her own eclipse myth is a little more figurative.

“It would probably be the book completely eclipsing everything else in my life!” she laughed.

It’s a lot of work getting a book out there. The Big Eclipse is available on the Orbit Oregon website (which also features eclipse glasses and viewers) and Amazon.com, and it is being carried by a growing number of retailers. Cuyler is busy trying to get it into libraries, museums, schools, and summer reading programs, too.

What’s next?

As for the future of Orbit Oregon, Cuyler said The Big Eclipse is really all about the 2017 total solar eclipse, so the book sort of expires after next August 21. But she and Coffelt are considering other books, including volumes about solar eclipses in general, astronomy, and other science topics.

“We had so much fun doing this and we met so many great people that we may extend that,” Cuyler said. “Right now, we’re just focused on the eclipse.”

And on the kids. Cuyler hopes The Big Eclipse gets kids, especially girls, interested in science. When you mix in art and literature, you can grab their interest early.

“If you’re looking at science from an art perspective and crafts activities you can really start young,” Cuyler said. “It appeals to kids, and they’re learning while they’re enjoying the little story that they’re reading.”

Out of that story, and out of seeing a total solar eclipse, can come inspiration. They’ve heard many tales of science teachers who started on their career path when they saw an eclipse as a child.

“That’s what we’re going after, those young kids that might be inspired,” Cuyler said. “That’s really our mission, is to get kids to understand what they’re seeing, learn from it, and then be awed by this amazing spectacle.”

“Hopefully a new generation of science teachers will come out of it.”

Resources:

Podcast of our interview with Elaine Cuyler:


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