Sometimes when you’re lucky, you may be able to spot a star or two during the daytime, but most of the time, you have to wait until the sun goes down to see them in the illuminated night sky.
With the use of the portable planetarium at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, it is possible to see the night sky, albeit a replica, at any hour of the day.
“We have a portable planetarium and the top of it is a parabolic bowl shape so when we project the night sky, it mirrors the effect of looking up at the dome of the atmosphere of the Earth, so we can accurately place the constellations and move them around, and show you what the night sky looks like,” Science Center Supervisor Sherry McCarty said.
The planetarium is used for the weekly Star Lab which is held every Friday at 2 p.m. The hour-long presentation is $3 per person and makes the night sky a little more accessible.
“We offer this as an activity for field trips and, in fact, it’s a tour that anybody can take,” McCarty said. “You can just call here and get reservations. It’s a more in-depth presentation. We go over a whole lot more than I would for children. I can show them ten constellations and do back stories for so many constellations and asterisms. We discuss what the difference is between constellations and asterisms.
“Something that I really enjoy teaching people about is how to find the North Star,” she continued. “There are a lot of misconceptions about it, like you just go outside and the brightest star is the North Star. That’s not true. The brightest star is Sirius. It’s actually in Canis Major in the opposite side of the sky.”
During a special kid friendly Star Lab presentation last weekend, guests were given the opportunity to observe and study constellations, as well as create their own.
McCarty selected 10 constellations – Ursa Major, Cetus, Canis Major, Cassiopeia, Orion, Taurus, Bootes, Andromeda, Sagittarius and Ophiuchus – to focus on for the lab.
With nicknames like the big bear, sea monster, the hunter, Jacob’s coffin and the snake handler, the constellations were some of the best options to keep the children’s attention.
“I picked these top ten because I thought they would be appealing to kids,” McCarty said. “They’re fun. Everybody loves sea monsters and bears. They’re also probably the most obvious from here in Green Bank. So hopefully if we can just locate the Big Dipper and at least know how to get to the North Star from the Big Dipper and understand that means something – it’s a direction, it’s navigation – then hopefully we’ll help make the sky a little more familiar.”
After hearing the stories behind the constellations – like the Big Dipper is an asterism and is part of Ursa Major, or Andromeda contains the Andromeda galaxy which is our sister galaxy, or Sagittarius contains a black hole known as Sagittarius Star A which was discovered and mapped at Green Bank – participants got to get crafty and create some constellations.
Each visitor made a four-sided card – each side had a constellation made with glow-in-the-dark stickers for stars with lines drawn in to connect them. Three sides of the cards were dedicated to actual constellations while the fourth was open for the creator’s own design.
The crafters also made Star Clocks which make it possible to find the North Star simply by lining up the month and time of day.
For more information about the Star Lab, contact the NRAO at 304-456-2011.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org