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U-M planetarium aims to bring stars in full focus

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Every weekend, dozens of people head inside to observe the night sky.

The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History offers the program "Star Talk: The Sky Tonight" year-round on Saturdays and Sundays. Small groups attend each program, which runs about 45 minutes long and takes place in the museum's 36-seat planetarium, The Michigan Daily ( ) reported.

Though each presenter's content is different, audience members can expect to see constellations visible from Earth, view other planets in our solar system and leave the Milky Way to observe celestial bodies far outside our galaxy, even those on the edge of the universe. The planetarium enables simulated observation of the night sky based on actual astronomical data, without the impacts of light pollution or adverse weather conditions.

Audience members usually include the general public, K-12 students on field trips and University of Michigan students who may find themselves in the planetarium as part of an astronomy course.

Planetarium manager Matt Linke said many people come to a star talk during the summer to become familiarized with constellations so they're able to identify them on camping trips.

"We focus on those objects, those patterns, that are most dominant over the season," Linke said. "What we decide to do with content really is based on what do we think people want to see when they go outside."

Each star talk is delivered unscripted, and each presenter interacts with the audience in a different way. All presenters are University of Michigan students, most of whom study astronomy, physics or a closely related science.

"There is no one star talk," Linke said. "I give them the opportunity to design the star talk the way it makes sense for them to present it. If you go to three different shows, you'll get three different star talks."

For example, LSA senior Alyssa Keimach, one of the planetarium's operators, included close-up observation of the International Space Station and the Mars rover in her presentation, as well as further observation of several galaxy clusters. She outlined the criteria for classifying planets and discussed the discovery of cosmic background radiation, mentioning that the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in four billion years.

"I believe in probability," Keimach said. "There is probably some other form of life out there. It doesn't have to be intelligent."

Keimach also explained to audience members that light from distant stars can take billions of light years to reach Earth. Certain stars in distant galaxies could have imploded millions of years ago and ceased to exist, but scientists may never know.

"When we view deep space stuff, we're also actually looking back in time," she said.

During her star talks, Keimach sometimes encourages audience members to sign up for a NASA program that alerts participants whenever the International Space Station is observable from their city.

Star talks are offered Saturdays at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Additional seasonal programs include "Season of Light" and "Extrasolar Planets — Discovering New Worlds."

Admission to the museum is free, and planetarium programs charge $5 per person.


Information from: The Michigan Daily,

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