Category Archives: Astronomy

Downtown Raleigh’s NRC

In my readings as of late I’ve seen “NRC” more times than I can count. Each time I see the acronym I struggle to remember what each letter stands for. “N” is for nature. No, wait, it’s for nuclear. Or was it national?

Well, lo and behold, the “N” represents all three of those words, and, you guessed it, I am writing another three-part blog to illustrate each NRC.

Let’s start with the NRC popping up in my local news reading. I’m following the construction of the new Nature Research Center in downtown Raleigh. This NRC extends the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences into a two-building, one-globe science haven!

The new Nature Research Center in downtown Raleigh.

Raleigh’s NRC will host interactive research labs, a 24/7 science news stream, and a glass walkway leading to a plethora of research laboratories filled with scientists and graduate students from several of North Carolina’s universities.

The eye-catching centerpiece of the NRC is a gigantic globe. Called the Daily Planet, the science globe will feature enough high definition multimedia to make your technology geek friends jealous.

Within this three-story sphere of science, breaking science news stories will be continually broadcast. Dare I ask: How many segments on your evening news programs focus on science? I’m going to bet my first-born that the answer is an outrageously disgraceful NONE.

Inside the multimedia globe, a Science Immersion Theater offers a 360-degree view of the planet. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will supply images of our planet from space. You, citizen scientist, can inspect NASA and NOAA images to find the devastating effects that population growth and climate change have had on our planet.

This next feature cracks me up. It’s called Meet the Scientist. Have you ever met a scientist? Well, I AM one, and I can tell you that we are not the super duper communicators that you may think we are.

So in this exhibit, scientists will work in their usual lab setting, save one exception: the laboratory walls are glass. Not tapered glass, nor fluted glass, but rather thin, see-through glass. NRC visitors will hang out in the lounge areas surrounding the glass labs, gaping at scientists as they work.

Here you see the concept...

I fully support this idea, and I’m all for science immersion, but my multi-part hypothesis for this experiment is as follows:

    (1) The visitors will peer curiously into the labs.
    (2) The visitors will bang on the glass, just like we all do at the zoo, even though we are not supposed to.
    (3) The scientists will, one day at a time, tape their experimental protocols and photos of their families onto the glass walls, thus protecting themselves from the outside world.
    (4) The visitors, via advanced yoga poses, will find ways to peer into the labs despite the wall coverings.
    (5) The scientists will increase their wall postings until 100 % coverage has been achieved.

Two complementary exhibits at the NRC are Investigate Labs and Citizen Science Center. In both settings, visitors can conduct research experiments. With Investigate Lab, the experiments are designed to be hypothesis-driven, short-term, hands-on kinds of analyses. An example might be to extract DNA from fruit. Oh yes, fruit has DNA.

At the Citizen Science Center, museum visitors participate in long-term research projects, collecting and analyzing data that they’ve gathered from nature. An example here would be tracking butterfly migration or observing tree defoliation. Research projects of this magnitude are much more successful when everyone in the community contributes data.

And, of course, there will be an aquarium. People love aquariums.

Mark your calendars, citizen scientists: the NRC is destined for a Spring 2012 opening!


Saturn’s moons

Saturn has 62 moons. Perhaps more, but as of March 2011 astronomers have confirmed the orbits of 62. I learned this fun fact while manning (or rather “womanning”) the Saturn booth at The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Astronomy Day.

Today the museum brimmed with expert and amateur astronomy buffs, ranging in age from six to eighty. I fall into none of these categories (not expert, amateur, six nor eighty). Thankfully I worked alongside an expert, who quickly briefed me on Saturn, its rings and its moons.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the day, before my briefing:

    Museum visitor [pointing at photo in front of me]: “What’s that?”
    Sarah [shifting nervously]: “Saturn? No, wait, that’s one of Saturn’s moons. The big one. What’s the big one called?”

Titan. The big one is Titan. With a diameter 50 % larger than that of Earth’s moon, Titan is Saturn’s largest. Some astronomers consider Titan a planet trapped in Saturn’s orbit, as it’s one of few celestial bodies with a surface atmosphere, mountains and lakes. Saturn, a gas giant with no solid surface, has none of these features. Seems to me like Saturn should be orbiting Titan.*

*Disclaimer: As I am not an astronomist perhaps this is crazy talk.

Titan’s northern polar region boasts the majority of the lakes, the largest of which trumps the size of Lake Superior. The key difference between Titan’s lakes and Earth’s lakes is this: Titan’s lakes are not filled with water; they are filled with liquid methane.

Methane is a gas here on Earth, because Earth’s atmosphere is relatively hot. Titan’s atmosphere, namely methane and nitrogen, is 95 Kelvin. 95 Kelvin translates to –178 ˚Celsius and –289 ˚Fahrenheit. That’s cold.

Titan: Saturn's largest moon.

Here’s an excerpt from the end of the day:

    Museum visitor [pointing at photo in front of me]: “What’s that?”
    Sarah [smiling proudly]: “That’s Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The atmosphere on Titan consists of methane and nitrogen and is almost 300 degrees below zero. Bring a parka and some mittens!”

Iapetus (pronounced YAH-peh-tus), the third largest of Saturn’s moons, has a topographic ridge that lies almost directly on top of its equator. It literally looks like someone made a Play-doh snake and plopped it down to define Iapetus’s equator.

Hyperion is my favorite moon because it looks like a sponge. A museum visitor likened it to a pumice stone, which is probably more accurate. Hyperion has very low density compared to the other moons, and as a result has weak gravity and is quite porous. It’s non-spherical and would be tough to pick out in a line-up of asteroids.

Hyperion: Saturn's coolest moon.

Dione (pronounced die-uh-nee) is another of Titan’s moons, one of the densest. The surface of Dione is chock full of craters. It looks very much like our moon.

Enceladus (which you pronounce like the Mexican food, but without the “h”) has active eruptions! This is quite rare in outer space. This moon is Saturn’s sixth largest and Cassini (see below) captured Enceladus at a distance of 15 miles, close enough to see crevices, fractures and grooves. For reference, this photo was taken at 2,000 miles.

The photos of Saturn’s moons are courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft. NASA launched Cassini in 1997 and, after seven long years, the unmanned spacecraft reached Saturn. Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since, and will continue to orbit Saturn, photographing the gas giant, its rings and its moons until 2017, when the mission ends.

I was told that once 2017 rolls around, Cassini will take close-up photographs of Saturn’s rings as the spacecraft “dies.” The specifics here are lost upon me.

Not lost upon me, though, is that we need high-definition photos of Saturn’s rings. Saturn has at least 10,000 rings and we need to define that mess of icy dust. By our best estimates, the ring system spans 1 kilometer thick by 280,000 kilometers wide. For the anti-metric system folks, that’s less than a mile thick by 174,000 miles wide.

You’d have to circle the Earth seven times to traverse Saturn’s ring system. That’s a lot of ring.