About Carolyn S

Carolyn is VP of astronomy for the Museum; she develops Planetarium shows for the Museum that tour all over the world, developed the very first Challenger Learning Center and runs the Museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. In her spare time, she does research in the field of archaeoastronomy, which attempts to replicate the night sky at critical moments in history.

Learn about Earth-like worlds outside the Solar System with The X-Planets: Discovering Other Earths in our Planetarium

As of this instant, we’ve found more than 800 planets orbiting other stars. We’ve also identified life forms on Earth that might survive on these alien worlds. Our discovery of life in Earth’s extreme environments has broadened our definition of the habitable zone where life might exist on a planet orbiting a distant star.

Our new Planetarium show, The X-Planets: Discovering Other Earths introduces audiences to the most famous of the newly discovered “exoplanets” — planets outside the Solar System.

The show first zooms the exoplanet’s star out of the star field, then takes viewers in for a closer look at the alien world, followed by an artist’s conception of how the planet’s surface might look:

X-Planets: Now Playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium

This is perhaps the most cutting-edge science the Planetarium has ever introduced, with the latest discoveries in the search for planets around other stars and the search for extreme life forms on Earth.

The show features the following firsts in our quest for Earth-like worlds:

Date    X-Planet               Significance
1995    51Pegasus b         First exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star
2001    HD 28185 b           First exoplanet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star
2007    Gliese 581d           First Earth-sized exoplanet in the habitable zone
2009    CoRot 7b               First rocky exoplanet
2011    Gliese 370b           First rocky exoplanet in the habitable zone
2011    Kepter 16b             First exoplanet of a binary star
2012    Gliese 667Cc        First rocky exoplanet in the center of the habitable zone
    
The X-Planets: Discovering Other Earths is now playing at the Museum’s Burke Baker Planetarium.

It’s Baktunalia! Astronomy VP Carolyn Sumners on why Dec. 21 is cause for celebration, not wild imagination

December 21, 2012: It’s not the End of the World — it’s the Baktunalia! It’s time for a celebration, not an apocalypse.

Here are the facts: The Maya long count calendar will go from 12.19.19.17.19 to 13.0.0.0.0 as we go from December 20 to December 21, 2012. So December 20 is New Baktun Eve and December 21 is New Baktun Day.

(FYI for those who like numbers: The five digits of the Mayan long count are base 20, except for the second number from the right, which is base 18. Our numbers are base 10. We have ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The Maya long count has kins, winals, tuns, katuns, and baktuns. For the Maya, a day is called a “kin.” Twenty kins make a winal. Eighteen winals, or 360 kins, equal a tun, making the tun about a year long. Twenty tuns make a katun and 20 katuns equal a baktun. Thirteen baktuns is just over 5,125 years.)

The Roman Saturnalia festival also occurred at this time — a celebration featuring food, gifts, and celebrations around the Winter Solstice. Early Christians could celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, hiding their event within the Saturnalia festivities. Hence, I’m calling this year’s rare event a Baktunalia!

See 2012: Mayan Prophecies at the Burke Baker Planetarium

Did the Maya calendar-makers over 2,000 years ago plan for their long-count calendar to reach the 13th Baktun on December 21? This is possible, but it seems unlikely. However, December is the Winter Solstice, a day the Maya recognized as the shortest day and longest night of the year — the day when the sun rises furthest in the southeast, sets furthest in the southwest, and makes its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The Maya astronomers observed the sun on the winter solstice to document its southernmost rising and the promise that the sun would now start moving northward. There would be another spring and a new growing season.

Unlike the Internet doomsday prophets, science does not support an apocalypse in 2012. Solar activity maximum is happening in 2013. Thus far, all natural disasters in 2012 have been within the normal range of activity on a geologically active planet with dynamic weather patterns.

But there is one interesting astronomical alignment. On December 21, the sun will reach its lowest point in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere while it is in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way and directly between Earth and the Milky Way Galaxy’s center. This alignment has been in place for several years, but is often cited by the doomsday prophets. The black hole near the galactic center has the same effect on us today as it does on any day. This alignment makes no difference. Nor is it significant on December 21. After all, the sun is its strongest on this date south of the equator.

Lost in all the apocalyptic talk are the very significant achievements of the Maya regarding both time-keeping and astronomy. In the Burke Baker Planetarium, we have a show called Mayan Prophecies that visits four classic Maya cities (Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque), as they would have looked over a thousand years ago. At Uxmal, we see a Maya astronomer watching the sun’s rays entering the Temple of the Magician just two 20-day months before the sun would stand overhead and the rains would come. After this event, the astronomer could prepare farmers to plant their corn and the king to plan festivals.

At Chichen Itza, the feathered serpent god called Kukulcan would climb down his pyramid, El Castillo, on the first day of spring. Astronomers would then know when to have festivities with human sacrifices, trading human blood for the coming rains — all to appease Kukulcan and the rain god, Chaac. We actually show this sacrifice (tastefully) in the full dome and very up-close in the Mayan Prophecies planetarium show.

At Tikal (located in the lowlands of Guatemala), the astronomer would climb his pyramid, now called Temple 4, to watch the rising sun on December 21. When the sun rose over Temple 3, it marked the winter solstice. After this date, the astronomer knew that the sun would rise more to the north each day and that the rainy season would come again.

At Palenque, there are inscriptions inside major temples featuring trees for the seasons. The great King Pacal supposedly rose and journeyed to the heavens on December 21. Inscriptions at Palenque also explain the beginning of the long count cycle on a date we know now as August 13, 3114 BCE. Three temples at Palenque symbolize the three hearthstones of creation, with a central fire lit at the beginning of the current long count cycle. There are also three stars in our constellation Orion that represent these hearthstones.

For all their predictive power, the Maya astronomer could not foresee his own apocalypse, which happened over a thousand years ago. A combination of factors adding to decades of drought brought famine to the Classic Mayan cities. This great civilization, that had measured time and predicted the rains, collapsed and its people returned to the rainforest and mountains. The story of the Maya people is perhaps a greater predictor of the challenges we face in 2012 and beyond.

Fascinated? Discover how the Maya aligned their pyramids and temples to watch their sky gods and used interlocking calendars to record the past and predict the future in our Mayan Prophecies lecture. Dr. Carolyn Sumners will share how archaeological, historical and astronomical records were pieced together to learn more about the Maya. This lecture includes a viewing of film 2012: Mayan Prophecies. For lecture tickets, click here.

The stars at night are big and bright, deep in . . . New Zealand?

Editor’s note: This blog is one of a series of travelogues by HMNS VP of Astronomy Carolyn Sumners, sent from the two-week solar eclipse viewing trip she led to the South Pacific. Astrophotography by Gary Young.

The stars of the southern hemisphere are fantastic, with the brilliant Milky Way stretching from near the hunter, Orion, in the North to Crux, the Southern Cross, in the South.

This predawn image is a time exposure with a Canon Mark II camera and a fisheye lens, taken from our hotel lawn in Queenstown, New Zealand, looking out over Lake Wakatipu. Even with some glare from the hotel and from Queenstown to the East, the predawn sky is remarkably dark. This exposure approximates what we could see as we faced south.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersNew Zealand has a total population less than 5 million, which guarantees much less light pollution, even close to a city. Also, the southern Milky Way is much richer and more easily seen than the Milky Way near the North Star.  In New Zealand, we trade views of the Big and Little Bears for the Southern Cross and the nebulae around it. This image is a close-up of the southern Milky Way in the early evening as we started stargazing. Notice the dark areas in the Milky Way. The Inca saw animals in these dark dust clouds.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersWhile observing through two telescopes, we placed our third telescope, a Takahashi FS60Q, on a small portable Sky Patrol equatorial mount that would track the stars — adjusting for the Earth’s rotation. We were able to do time exposures of up to a minute without guidance and we captured incredible views of the Orion Nebula, the Omega Centauri globular cluster, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the Carina Nebula.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

Through a telescope we saw the shapes of these clouds and clusters, but not the rich colors and textures captured in these images. The Orion Nebula is a stellar birth cloud with new stars still forming from the gas and dust. The Carina region has young stars and the dying supergiant Eta Carinae.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Eta Carinae nebula

Omega Centauri is the brightest globular cluster in Earth skies with 5 million stars. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy. We can see the Orion Nebula easily from Houston. The other magnificent objects are best seen from below Earth’s equator.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Orion Nebula

It’s a wonderful sky down under.

Start a new holiday tradition throwing ornaments! All about boomerangs, with recent expert Carolyn Sumners

Editor’s note: This blog is one of a series of travelogues by HMNS VP of Astronomy Carolyn Sumners, sent from the two-week solar eclipse viewing trip she led to Australia.

Australian Boomerangs

When in Australia, it’s important to master throwing a boomerang, or at least give it an honest try. Everyone on our eclipse tour group attempted a boomerang throw with some success, depending on the amount of spin and the angle of release. Here I am trying to master the technique with an expert teacher:

Lesson from Australia: The proper boomerang formIn case you find yourself with access to a real boomerang, here’s the secret to a successful throw:

1. The Spin
Hold the boomerang with the painted side toward you. When you release the boomerang, give it as much spin as possible. Hook your index finger around the tip. Holding the boomerang firmly, let it tilt back against your wrist. When releasing the boomerang, give it a quick throw — keeping your hand closed so the boomerang rolls around your index finger and is aimed slightly upward.

2. The Angle of Release
Face about 45 degrees to the right of any oncoming breeze (left if you are throwing left-handed with a left-handed boomerang). Lean the boomerang over about 30 degrees and throw at this angle. (Do not release the boomerang horizontally. Such a throw can damage the boomerang.)

For a real wooden two-bladed boomerang, you need a large open area for throwing. You will improve by increasing the spin of the boomerang and getting the best angle relative to the wind. Catch a returning boomerang by bringing your open hands together on either side of the spinning boomerang.

Real boomerangs come in various shapes with two, three, or four blades. Boomerangs are often used to knock birds out of trees and will not usually come back after impacting with another object.

Lesson from Australia: The proper boomerang formSpace-Saving Boomerangs

If you want a boomerang that returns in a very small space and cannot hurt anyone, use the attached pattern for a 4-bladed boomerang. Draw the boomerang pattern on card stock and cut it out. Curve the blades inward, shaping the boomerang as a plate or shallow bowl.

Lesson from Australia: The proper boomerang formHold the boomerang vertically with the tip of one blade between your index finger and thumb. Tilt the boomerang back until it touches your wrist. The inward curve of the blades should face the center of your body. In my photo (taken in New Zealand, where we finally practiced our boomerang throwing), you can see the proper position for a left-handed thrower. The right-handed throw is the same, with the boomerang blades still curving inward.
Lesson from Australia: The proper boomerang formFlip the boomerang straightforward with as much vertical spin as you can. When thrown with enough spin, this boomerang will always turn from vertical to horizontal and come back to you. Usually this will happen within 10 feet of you.

This boomerang can also be decorated and hung on a tree for the holidays!

Boomerangs in Outer Space

Being the astronomers that we are, we wondered if this boomerang would come back in outer space. We discovered that our reliable 4-bladed lightweight boomerang did depend on gravity to turn it from vertical to horizontal. This boomerang did not return on the International Space Station. However, a 3-bladed boomerang made of heavier material with tilted blades did return in the ISS. Watch this video to see space boomerangs in action. (Note: you must scroll to the second page of the link to find the boomerang video.)

Make boomerangs for the whole family and start a new holiday tradition from down under.