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Description Itinerary Walkthrough

Alien Earths is comprised of four interrelated clusters of interactive components and multi-media presentations: Our Place in Space, Star Birth, Planet Quest, and the Search for Life.

Our Place in Space
Visitors will see a representation of the area we are searching beyond our solar system, which is actually a very small part of the Milky Way galaxy when compared to its overall size.

Star Birth
In this area, visitors will learn that there are different types of stars and that each has a life cycle predominantly determined by its mass.
    Invention at Play: Whirligigs
    Alien Earths: Pressure Ball
    Copyright Space Science Institute
  • Pressure Ball
    Visitors work together with hand pumps to increase the pressure in a chamber. As the pressure builds, the temperature increases until the “star” ignites with sound effects and a bright flash.

  • Stellar Life Cycle
    Using a “SpinBrowser” interface dial on a wide-screen monitor, visitors view animated footage of stars going through their life cycles. The animations can be viewed in fast or slow motion, forward or reverse, or frame by frame. Side-by-side comparisons of different types of stars, including our own Sun, can also be made.

    Alien Earths : Seeing the Unseen
    Alien Earths: Seeing the Unseen
    Copyright Space Science Institute
  • Seeing the Unseen
    Both stars and planets sometimes form out of the same clouds of gas and dust. To penetrate those clouds and look into the heart of star-forming regions, scientists use the infrared spectrum. Visitors use an infrared camera to experience firsthand how objects appear in the infrared, as opposed to the visible, light spectrum. They also see how heating an object changes its appearance in the infrared spectrum.

  • View Space Theater
    Visitors watch a film of beautiful and inspiring Hubble images on a large flat screen monitor.

  • Planet Families
    Working together at a large, round touch screen, visitors experience the basics of orbital mechanics by moving planets of various masses into place around a star and then setting them in motion. Visitors see how all members of a planetary family affect each other and may also realize how difficult, and perhaps rare, it is to achieve a stable solar system like our own.

    Alien Earths: Our Solat System
    Alien Earths
    Copyright Space Science Institute
  • Our Solar System
    Visitors encounter a large, mechanical orrery of our solar system. Nearby graphics compare our solar system with several recently discovered solar systems.


  • Planet Density
    This component demonstrates the different densities of planets. Lucite containers holding “samples” of Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn are placed in water. Visitors lift corresponding containers to compare the density of planets and learn how a giant planet, such as Saturn, would actually float in water.

  • Planet Sizes
    Nine models of the planets in our solar system are arranged according to their distances from the Sun in front of a mural that compares Earth and its neighbors to what we know about extrasolar planets. The nine planets are scaled to the geodesic dome over the adjacent Planet Quest area, which represents the Sun. Visitors dramatically see that all of the extrasolar planets discovered so far are closer in size to our solar system’s giant planets than they are to Earth, and learn why limits in our technology prevent the discovery of small, rocky planets in distant solar systems.

Planet Quest
Until very recently, the only planets scientists had discovered were all within our solar system. Components in Planet Quest allow visitors to examine the ingenious methods that scientists have developed for searching for planets that we cannot see or reach by spacecraft.
  • Discovery Timeline and Night Sky Dome
    Inside the geodesic dome that rises over the Planet Quest area is a mural of the night sky. A timeline along the bottom edge shows the chronology of planetary discovery and its explosive increase in recent years. At the end of the line, a digital counter on a computer keeps up with recent planet discoveries, celebrating each new find.

  • 3-D Planet and Star Atlas
    In this a 3-D atlas, visitors can access the tiny portion of our galaxy where scientists have found extrasolar planets. Although these worlds are light years away, they are near neighbors in our Milky Way galaxy.

  • Planet Transit
    This component demonstrates one method that scientists use to find planets. Visitors place wooden balls representing planets of various sizes in orbit around a model star. As each planet passes between the star and a light sensor, changes appear in a graph that measures the light from the star. By observing similar changes in the light of a distant star, scientists can infer the presence of a planet in orbit around it.

  • Coronagraph
    This component demonstrates a second method that scientists use to find planets. Visitors manipulate an occulting disc to block the glare from a bright light that represents a star. When the light is blocked, other objects around the star become visible.

  • Planet Wobble
    This simple hands-on component demonstrates the third method of detecting planets around distant stars. A large, circular, felt-lined tray holds pairs of large and small wooden balls that can be connected with dowels. Visitors experiment by spinning the large balls, representing stars, with or without the smaller balls, representing planets, attached. The different masses of the objects affect the amount of “wobble” created as the planet orbits its sun. Most extrasolar planets have been detected by observing a star’s wobble.
Search for Life
What we know about life on Earth informs our search for life beyond Earth. When scientists search for evidence of intelligent life forms, what do they look and listen for? Visitors to this area will be surprised to learn that our planet’s most abundant life form is the microbe.
  • Microbial World
    A rogue’s gallery of microbes is presented on a large-format monitor. The video is controlled by a “SpinBrowser” interface dial that allows visitors to interact with the footage.

  • Microbes ‘R’ Us
    Visitors place their hands on a plate associated with a computer that “scans” the hand and produces charts revealing the countless life forms living on and within our bodies. All life forms are made from the same chemical building blocks. Without microbes, life on Earth as we know it would not exist.

  • Biomass
    In this component, a set of containers represents the relative weights of the biomass of different life forms on Earth. By lifting each container, visitors can feel the following relationships: animal life = 1, plant life = 10, and microbial life = 100.

  • Sensing Life
    A section of a Winogradsky column of complex microbial communities is cut out to reveal layers. Tubes extending from column to sniff bottles so visitors can smell simulated scents from the different layers. A living microbial mat with oxygen probes and readouts is accompanied by a computer-based tour through the mat.

    Alien Earths : Life's Chances: Understanding Numbers
    Alien Earths : Life's Chances: Understanding Numbers
    Copyright Space Science Institute
  • Life’s Chances: Understanding Numbers
    To represent the vast number of stars in space, this component includes a computerized version of the Drake equation and a room-sized construction of 22,000 salt canisters. A device counts the salt crystals in the canisters by weighing them. Even if only a small fraction of the 100 billion stars represented by the salt have planets that support life, there is still a reasonable chance we’ll discover that we are not alone.

  • Virtual Planet: Shining Light on Life
    Through this computer interactive, visitors learn how scientists may be able to analyze a few pixels of light to determine if they hold a bio-signature or evidence of life.

    Alien Earths: Listening for Life
    Alien Earths: Listening for Life
    Copyright Space Science Institute
  • Listening for Life
    Visitors listen to various audio samples. By examining a graphic map of the sounds, they try to determine which ones are naturally produced—such as sound originating from a pulsar—and which may be created by an intelligent life form. Flip panels reveal the answers.






 
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