The cutting-edge returns to the Burke Baker Planetarium, where astronauts once trained

Think back to the technology of the late 1980s: corded phones, boom boxes, cathode color TVs. In this era, it’s tough to imagine how anyone achieved the remarkable feat of traveling to space and orbiting the Earth without WiFi or contemporary computers. But Americans did it, and we made history!

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard was the second person and first American to travel into space. He reached a height of 116 statute miles in 1961.

Now imagine what it must have been like being in space, orbiting the Earth fast enough to circle all of humanity in 90 minutes. It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s strange. You’re already disoriented in this zero-gravity, off-world environment. Not much room for error in your flimsy aluminum ship, and not much of a view.

nasa3

When you look out the window, you never know whether you’ll see something familiar or some other constellation only visible to Australia. Even easily-recognizable constellations like Ursa Major can be tough to identify when they’re upside-down and you can only see through a tiny porthole. And what if your navigation equipment went dark? How would you find your way?

Navigating and orienting the space shuttle back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was no easy feat, but with the help of HMNS VP of Astronomy and Physical Sciences Dr. Carolyn Sumners and the Burke Baker Planetarium, astronauts could practice finding their way under strange skies. As a partner with NASA, Sumners’s three-hour stellar orienteering course was required learning for every candidate astronaut aspiring to touch space.

NASA2

“The big problem was we had to limit their view to small regions, and they had to be able to find stars in areas you cannot see in Houston,” Sumners said. “We would show them a patch of sky and ask, ‘What do you recognize?’”

The original training program began with Sumners using a Spitz projector, a bulky analog contraption set on cross-braced arms that required the exchange of “star balls” for different views of the sky. The Challenger crew trained using this equipment in ’86, Sumners said. When the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1 digital projector was installed in ’88, lessons were much easier. (Incidentally, Evans & Sutherland also developed NASA flight simulators used by astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.)

NASA1

Sumners worked closely with every crew that went into space in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working on their orienteering skills. Her class was so popular and effective, crews would occasionally drop by to brush up or re-test, or just to stop in and say hello (and made an impression when they did).

“The Apollo crew would pop in,” Sumners said. “Many of them were ex-military, so they had the buzz-cut look to them. A lot of gawking went on by the staff.”

With the advent of more reliable digital technology, crews don’t train with Sumners anymore, but partnership with NASA continues, as does her business ties to Evans & Sutherland. The newly-renovated planetarium will feature the world’s first True 8K digital projection system, the Digistar 5, and it was developed by E&S! It’s the clearest, brightest picture of space anywhere on Earth, with software that will allow audiences to see the stars not only in unfamiliar orientations near to our home planet, but from anywhere in the known universe.

ISS aurora

Coupling this projection technology with images from NASA, Sumners expects to bring audiences experiences like the view of the Aurora Borealis from a fish-eye camera mounted on hull of the International Space Station, fed directly through the Cloud.

“They should work beautifully together,” Sumners said.

Astronauts may no longer need orienteering courses, but it’s likely the clarity of this cutting-edge technology will blow even those who have been to space out of this world.

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Dispatches from the Gulf: Film examines the effects of Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster may no longer be a buzzword in the media, but the effects of history’s largest oil spill on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico are still on the minds of marine scientists around the world. Gulf seafood seems to be recovering, but biologists are keeping a close eye to the seafloor, where much of the oil has settled into the sand. Take a closer look at the lingering effects of the spill Tuesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a special screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf.

This April 20 will mark the sixth year after the massive failure and subsequent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, also known as the Macondo Prospect, an offshore drilling platform 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blast claimed the lives of 11 workers and from a depth of 5,000 feet, pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas into the Gulf over a period of 87 days. A month after the disaster, BP, the operator of the prospect, announced it would commit $500 million over 10 years to the study of the effects of the spill.

GULF OF MEXICO - APRIL 21:  In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.  An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

GULF OF MEXICO – APRIL 21: In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

In addition to the tragic loss of life, many environmentalists expected a total collapse of the ecosystem leading to further economic effects in the fishing and seafood industry, yet as early as five years later, CNN reported fish landings had returned as well as the oyster population.

“According to the Food and Drug Administration, tests on edible seafood show no excess hydrocarbons in the region’s food supply,” Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine of CNN.com reported. “The spill’s effects on other species are less clear. … But perhaps the greatest unknown is what, if anything, millions of gallons of oil on the deep seafloor are doing to the overall environment of the Gulf itself.”

Our own Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway is one of the scientists keeping watch. She flew over the disaster while the oil was still free-flowing, visibly bubbling above the surface of the water from the break at depth. To her, the Texas coastline is the least of her concerns.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

“The oil can wash up in globs, which is bad for folks walking or playing on the beach,” Petway said, “but the real problem is that the oil stays in the environment even though they have removed a huge quantity of it. A lot of it has sunk.”

On the bottom of the Gulf, the oil has created a mat of tar, leaving the sand impenetrable to oxygen and light, Petway explained, eliminating everything beneath the mat from the habitat. Chemicals from the oil are leaching into sandy and muddy seafloors, making hydrocarbons difficult, if not impossible to dissolve or wash away.

“Just because you don’t see anything on shore anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Petway said. “Ongoing research is being done as to the effects, and it is constantly being updated.”

Watch the screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The film will recap the unprecedented response effort following the disaster and delve into the research of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Tickets $18, members $12. For one night only!

You can learn more about the delicate Texas coastal ecosystem at the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 2/8-2/14

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Jim (age 12 7/8).

block party 10

Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Endless Love Campaign 
Ends Friday, Feb. 19
Want to show your Valentine that your love will last forever?
Say it with a cockroach.
Before you go all “Eeuuuwwww,”… think about it.
These tough little beasts have been living, loving and roaming the earth for 350 million years. It’s even been said they’d survive a nuclear blast. Who knows? They might even outlive Keith Richards!
Here’s the good news. You don’t have to capture and gift wrap a cockroach yourself. For just $5, you can actually name one at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. You’ll receive a digital commemorative certificate, like this one, for your Valentine. How’s that for a lasting declaration of love?
You have to admit, it’s the most unforgettable gift ever—and it’s a great way to support conservation and education at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Class – Growing Fruit Trees in a Small Space
Tuesday, Feb. 9
6:00 p.m.
Homeowners with the smallest urban lots can grow fruitful gardens of increased variety and beauty. Instructor Angela Chandler will teach the techniques known as high density orchard, which enables the urban gardener to quadruple the variety of fruit they can grow without buying a single square foot of land. Maintenance is made easier by employing simple changes in the way home orchard management is approached. Practical and decorative techniques are will also be included. Fruits covered include stone and pome fruits, as well as tropical fruits, small bush fruits and berries.

Film Screening – Dispatches from the Gulf: Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Tuesday, Feb. 9
6:30 p.m.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred 1,500 meters deep in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing approximately 3.19 million barrels of oil. The event initiated an unprecedented response effort and mobilized the largest, coordinated scientific research endeavor around an ocean-related event in history-orchestrated through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI).
The GoMRI scientists and their research to improve society³ ability to understand, respond to, and mitigate the impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors of the marine and coastal ecosystems is documented in Dispatches from the Gulf by Screenscope Films. It premiered as an episode of the award-winning Journey to Planet Earth series.
Join GoMRI scientists Dr. Edward Buskey of University of Texas Marine Science Institute and Dr. Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M University’s Department of Civil Engineering for the giant-screen premiere of Dispatches from the Gulf. This is a one-night only screening.
This event is sponsored by Screenscope Films.

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Educator How-To: Making the Moon out of Cheese (and Crackers!)

After months of renovation, the Burke Baker Planetarium at the Houston Museum of Natural Science will re-open March 11 with the best picture of the universe in the world! The Evans and Sutherland Digistar 5 digital projection system boasts the first True 8K image on the planet, with twice the resolution as an IMAX theater. The powerful digital software can zoom audiences to distant stars to see the universe from infinite perspectives, not just from the surface of the Earth. And with a tilted, seamless dome overhead and updated, comfortable seating below, the planetarium will be a must-see for Houston residents and visitors from literally anywhere.

But while it’s closed, life goes on, and without the incredible demonstration available at the planetarium to show the phases of the moon, explaining the orbit of our only satellite to kids (and keeping their attentions) can be a difficult task. So for hungry minds and bellies, we’ve got something to tide you over until the doors to the planetarium open once again.

Teach your students about the phases of the moon with this awesome Solar System snacking activity! I created this lesson plan as an alternative to the Oreo™ phases of the moon activity that we think is so clever. This science snack is a healthier alternative and will satisfy hungry students without the sugar rush. Educator How-To: Making the Moon out of Cheese (and Crackers!)

Moon worksheet

Materials:

  • Ritz™ Crackers
  • American cheese slices
  • 1.5 inch round “cookie” cutter
  • Phases of the moon chart
  • Phases of the Moon worksheet
  • Markers
  • Waxed paper
  • Plastic knives

Educator How-To: Making the Moon out of Cheese (and Crackers!)

Moon phases

Procedure:

  1. Give each child a copy of the phases of the moon chart.  Go over the different phases, and consider using our Educator How-To: We’ll See You on the Dark (and Light and Far) Side of the Moon to demonstrate the phases in an active, hands-on fashion.
  2. Distribute one slice of American cheese to each student.
  3. Instruct students to carefully use the circular cutter to cut four circles from the cheese. With careful placement, one slice of cheese will be sufficient.
  4. Using a plastic knife, students will then cut one circle of cheese in half.
  5. The second circle will be cut using the circular “cookie” cutter.  Place the cutter carefully on the circle of cheese so that a crescent-shaped piece of cheese is cut from one side.
  6. The same procedure should be used to cut an additional crescent-shaped piece from the third circle of cheese.
  7. The fourth circle will remain whole.
  8. Now you are ready to go! Distribute the Phases of the Moon worksheets and have students place a Ritz™ cracker on each “moon.”
  9. Students will now arrange the cheese on the crackers to reflect each phase of the moon.
  10. When finished, students may eat the tasty moon snack!
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