Midtown Raleigh News

Exhibit at Raleigh museum brings space close to home

Fiona Johnson, 5, watches as volunteers help her create a rocket out of a recycled plastic bottle. The exhibit continues today.
Fiona Johnson, 5, watches as volunteers help her create a rocket out of a recycled plastic bottle. The exhibit continues today. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Triangle residents don’t have to travel to California or Florida to talk with astronauts and NASA scientists.

During Astronomy Days, a two-day space exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, visitors can talk to experts from NASA, the Raleigh Astronomy Club, professors and museum staff about galaxies far, far away.

“The best thing is it gets people directly connected to scientists, especially kids and students to explore astronomy,” said Bonnie Eamick, the museum’s educational events curator. “It’s in-depth … they can learn about professions or telescopes.”

The museum has been hosting the event, which encompasses all seven floors in both the Nature Exploration Center and the Nature Research Center, for 24 years. This year, the museum is hoping to beat its 10,000-visitor average for the weekend, Eamick said.

A slew of space-themed films released over the past few years, including “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” has inspired new interest and questions for many.

Some might be answered starting this summer – John Spencer with the Southwest Research Institute talked about the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Launched in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to encounter Pluto in July.

Alicia Bozart, 9, of Cary worked on crafting a space rover, complete with solar panels, from aluminum and cardboard. She would like to visit space.

“I like that the stars are so far away, and no one’s been there,” she said.

One family talked with Raleigh resident and Raleigh Astronomy Club member Michael Mantini about his hobby as an “imager.” Imagers, or astro-photographers, take photos of the stars through telescopes. There are 15 to 20 photographers in the club, and many of them use the club’s inventory of telescopes.

He pointed on his iPad to a photo that took special arrangement to get the star in focus.

“You have to be careful that your camera mount is set up on the correct calibration,” he said, referring to the camera mount’s movement with the Earth’s rotation. “Or else you’ll get a (blurry) star trail. And you don’t want that.”

Astronomy Club volunteers also offered visitors a chance to safely peer at the sun, a workshop on “Modeling the Cosmos” and lessons on experiencing astronomy with binoculars.

NASA astronaut and mission specialist Andrew Feustel, who participated in missions in 2009 and 2011, talked about his travels, answered questions from the audience and signed autographs.

His first mission, he said, was the final space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, and he served as the lead space walker on his second mission with Endeavour’s final mission to the International Space Station.

Feustel has orbited the Earth 445 times, logging more than 28 days in space and more than 42 hours space walking, or extravehicular activity.

Feustel described the experience of landing back on Earth, in the California desert. He was still in the shuttle when the door opened, and although he could not see outside, he smelled the desert, the dirt, the moisture, the earth – and he vividly pictured it in his mind.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” he said. “It made me remember the importance of the Earth as our home and how we take care of it. This is all we have. Space is lonely.”