Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Cernan Earth and Space Center

Classic Northern November today. Gray, rainy, mostly leafless, though some yellows and reds are hanging on. Not too chilly, at least, and there was other good news from out there, beyond the clouds: the asteroid 2005 YU55 didn't actually hit the Earth.

On Sunday I took Lilly to the Cernan Earth and Space Center, a planetarium in west suburban River Grove, Illinois, named for the last (most recent) man on the Moon, and part of Triton College. It's a little far to go regularly, and it had been a while since we last went -- four or five years, though Lilly said she'd also gone there on an elementary school field trip.

The show, "Journey to the Stars," promised to be "a multimedia program that combines stars, video, panoramic scenes, planetarium special effects and numerous space images to describe what research astronomers now know about the birth and death of stars, how backyard stargazers can better understand the immense scale of the universe, and how humans have developed space probes and manned spacecraft to extend our reach into space."

The show promised, in other words, to cover a lot of ground. Or rather, cover a lot of space. So it did, with some narrative cohesion. That's my complaint about most of the planetarium shows I've seen as a adult. Lights go down, stars come out, and there's tons of neat stuff in space! This, that, and the other thing! I'm not sure what kind of thinking goes into writing like that, but it might be that since the show's for youth, any damn thing in any order will do, as long as there's enough light, noise and motion. A lot of cartoons seem to be created on the same principle.

"Journey to the Stars" was mostly familiar territory for me, but not as much for Lilly, which of course was the point of bringing her. Later I asked her what she hadn't heard before, and she said the prediction that the Sun was going to expand to a red giant in some billions of years and fry (or completely engulf) the Earth. The show offered that information in the context of the life cycle of stars, including stellar endgames, from supernovas or plain novas or mere expansions to collapses into dwarf stars or neutron stars or that famed bizarro celestial object, the black hole.

Naturally there was also some discussion of the Hubble Space Telescope, but no mention, not even in passing, of the other orbiting Great Observatories, the lost Compton (gamma rays), Chandra (x-rays) and Spitzer (infrared). Too bad. Individually and as an ensemble, they're marvels of the age.

Before the main event, the planetarium also showed the equivalent of a newsreel -- namely, what's in the sky in early November -- and a cartoon -- namely, a mini laser show, "Mini Pepper." The laser images danced around to three songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, mostly colorful Spirographic-like images, but sometimes laser-drawn representations of the lads in their day-glo band uniforms, except not day-glo but neon in outline. Interesting effects, but 10 minutes was about enough. I'm not sure I could have sat through a longer laser show, but then again I wasn't in a chemically enhanced frame of mind.

The Cernan web site -- which doesn't address the issue of chemical enhancement -- says that its equipment is "a Voyager V-17OWC laser projection system [that is] is one of the most advanced domed theater visual projection display systems in the world. Manufactured and installed by Aura Technologies Inc. of Chicago, Ill., this system represents the latest in state-of-the-art entertainment and educational laser display technology. The laser itself is a Color Pro krypton-argon water-cooled laser, which is capable of producing more than 18 quintillion color combinations, stunning special optical effects and dazzling aerial beam effects."

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