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Science center brings astronomy down to earth

This article appeared in the October 2, 2011 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

Science center brings astronomy down to earth

By Lisa Justice
Special to the Enterprise

What color is a star?  If you go outside tonight after sunset and take a good look at the sky, you’ll probably observe many stars that look white.  But that’s only what you can see with your eyes.

If you were to look at a beam of sunlight with a diffraction grating, you’d see something quite different.  A diffraction grating is a lens that splits up all the different wavelengths or colors of light so we can see each one separately.  White light contains all the colors of the rainbow.

The sun and other stars give off light because they are made of burning gases.  When gases heat up they create light.  A light bulb works the same way.

The color of a star’s light is important for helping scientists figure out what gases make up that star.  So even though some stars are thousands of light years away, astronomers here on earth can learn more about them just by looking at their light.

The Orion nebula, for instance, is more than 1200 light years away, but scientists have learned that it is mostly made up of hydrogen with a little helium.  A nebula is a big cloud of gas and dust in space where stars are born.

You can try analyzing light from different gases yourself at Explorit Science Center this weekend in our astronomy corner.  Examine different gases such as neon, helium and xenon to observe the different colors of their light.  Then compare your findings to the light given off by a mystery gas and see if you can identify it.

Identifying the mystery gas is what astronomers do to learn what different stars are made of.  And it’s one of many activities you can try at Explorit’s Forces of Nature exhibit opening this Saturday 1:00-5:00pm at Mace Ranch Park at 3141 5th Street.

Forces of Nature explores the wonders in the world all around us, from figuring out what color a star is to mapping the ocean floor.  Many activities use household objects to demonstrate how science is a part of our everyday lives.

A bucket of rice, for example, helps demonstrate topography.  Visitors can pour a scoop of rice around their fist in a shallow bowl, marking the contours of the rice landscape on their hand with a washable marker.  Then add another scoop and make another mark.  When you’re finished, the marks on your hand simulate a topographical map.

So come join us the first weekend of every month beginning Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2 from 1:00-5:00pm at Mace Ranch Park at 3141 5th Street in Davis.  Admission is $3/person, and ages 3 and under are free.  As always, current Explorit members are free.

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Explorit’s coming events:

• Saturday and Sunday, October 1st and 2nd from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m: Explorit’s newest Exhibition, “Forces of Nature” opens.  This exhibition welcomes the public back to our 3141 5th Street Nature Center and will feature some of the best of Explorit’s past exhibits

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Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. and is open to the public every first Saturday and Sunday of the month.  For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org, or “like” us on Facebook.

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