Thursday, December 8, 2011

New AMNH Exhibit Asks, "Are We Going Where No Man Has Gone Before?"

"For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon, and to the planets beyond." - John F. Kennedy, 1962 

The latest exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History ("AMNH"), "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration," is, quite literally, a stellar experience. After attending "Cinema and Space," a presentation by the exhibit's curator, astrophysicist, Dr. Michael Shara, I was extremely eager to visit "Beyond Planet Earth," to explore what might be "humanity's next steps in space."

I had the opportunity to journey through the exhibit this past weekend, and it was awesome ride.

  • Did you know that between 1969 and 1972, there were 6 successful manned missions to the moon (all American...), but that no human has landed on the moon since 1972? 
  • How about that, in just the first four months it was operational, the Kepler telescope located more than 1,000 stars in our Solar System that appear to have at least one planet in orbit, some of which may be capable of sustaining life? (Don't miss the beaming "exoplanet" hologram at the end of the exhibit...) 
  • Or that the Hubble telescope has captured images of galaxies as far as 13.1 billion light years away, nearly as old as the Universe itself, and which may provide vital information about the Universe's origin?

"Beyond Planet Earth" takes these and similar inquiries and makes them accessible and interesting for museum-goers of all ages. After briefly examining the recent history of space exploration, including models of "Sputnik," the first satellite ever launched into space (by the former Soviet Union in 1957), and a robotic Mars "rover"(launched by the U.S. in 2004), the exhibit hones in on a not-so-distant future where we may once again send a manned mission to the moon, and may even travel to Mars, to Europa (an icy moon of Jupiter thought to have a salty ocean flowing just beneath its surface), or to a near-Earth asteroid (which, if rich in precious metals or other resources, may provide abundant mining opportunities).

Model of rover, "Curiosity," that will leave Earth in late 2011 and is expected to reach Mars in 2012.
Its primary mission is to search for signs of life.
I was most excited by one of the simplest premises presented during the exhibit: water = life. On Earth, it is beyond a doubt that wherever there is water, there is life. Does the same hold true beyond our planet? If so, then must moons like Europa, or even the areas around the polar ice caps of Earth's own moon, be viable breeding grounds for life in some form? Was there once flowing water on Mars and, if so, was there life there as well? As you move along the exhibit, you will learn how, as we wait for humanity to develop the technology that will guide future manned missions in search of this knowledge, robots have already explored every planet in our Solar System. At least one robot was even sent into space carrying messages in 55 languages, just in case it ever made contact with any intelligent life forms.

You will also learn why establishing a base on Earth's moon, where scientists can work and live, may be crucial to expanding human space exploration, as a lunar base could essentially serve as a launch-pad for exploring outer space. A fantastic, detailed mock up of what a lunar base might look like is all part of your tour as you continue your journey Beyond Planet Earth. Pause here and, as the display suggests,  just imagine the magnificent, unobstructed views of the Universe one might see standing on the moon.

Mock Up of a Lunar Base at "Shackelton Center," a Crater Near the Moon's South Pole.
(Earth is visible in the distance)
If traveling to the moon isn't enough for you, make sure to stop and evaluate whether you "have what it takes" to spend 6-9 months living on a ship bound for Mars, as scientists estimate that just a one-way trip from Earth would take the better part of a year. Through inventive dioramas coupled with a "Mars Personality Test," you can discover how well you might survive (or not survive) such a journey.

In fact, as is typical of special exhibitions at AMNH, the "Beyond Planet Earth" exhibit is full of interactive media. You can smell the moon (or at least get whiff of moon rock), hear historic sentiments by John F. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong, terraform a barren planet (which is a way to make a planet more "Earth-like," essentially by creating a viable ecosystem), deflect an asteroid from a collision course with Earth, and explore Mars. Make sure to look up, down and all around as the exhibit's curators have really created another world within this contained space, complete with a lunar elevator, a Martian surface, asteroids and other celestial objects and modes of exploration.

Getting the Feel for a Not-So-Futuristic Space Suit on "Mars"
"Beyond Planet Earth" challenges us to consider whether we are really alone in the Universe, and where the future of humanity may be headed. Could we colonize any of the "exoplanets" identified by Kepler? And if we could, should we? Visit this special exhibition and find the answers for yourself. 

Timed-entry tickets are available here. Allow approximately 2 hours to explore the exhibit, which runs through August 19, 2012. If you have an iPhone or iPad, download this special app before you go. 

Further reading: Just two days after I visited the exhibit, and obviously too late to be included, NASA publicly announced that Kepler had located a potentially Earth-like planet "in the habitable zone of a sun-like star," meaning that the planet might actually contain water. A "mere" 600 light years away, "Kepler-22b" is 2.4 times the size of Earth (apparently the smallest planet yet found orbiting any "habitable zone") and takes approximately 290 days to make a full orbit around its star. The planet may also have Earth-like temperatures. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at AMNH, explains during an interview with why this may be the "Holy Grail" of discoveries. 

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