At our meeting on November 30th, we took up several topics of recent interest: our introduction to Roy May and the star atlas he gave the club, our upcoming Christmas dinner on December 14th, and the flyby of 3200 Phaethon two days after that. I’ll get back to that topic in a moment.
The highlight of the meeting came as Mel Blake unpacked a kit received from NASA’s Night Sky Network. The toolkit, called Exploring the Solar System, is equipped with materials to help offer a sense of scale to our neighbor objects in space. The kit uses a proportionally-sized set of spheres to symbolize both the large gas giants and the tinier rocky inner planets, but the real treat is how they are correctly depicted when compared to a one-meter picture of the sun, printed on a large vinyl sheet. At the scale of this model, a person holding the tiny earth would need to walk nearly 100 meters away from the poster, to properly illustrate the sun/earth distance.
Another treat was the vinyl sheet’s reverse side, which includes a scale markup of each planet’s orbit. Using either wet-erase markers or a set of included stickers, planetary locations are marked for current positions in space. A ruler included in the kit can be used to mimic sunrise and sunset horizons, or to determine when a particular planet can be viewed, or to help explain why straight-line travel between planets is not a feasible solution! Another ruler is used to predict a planet’s future position, and a third demonstrates the distance light and radio waves must travel through space — and all of these well-designed tools are accurate enough to scale with real planetary position and movement.
Kits like these are distributed by NASA’s Night Sky Network, through partnership with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. They are designed to share with the public, and include information galaxies, asteroids, and the surface of the moon. Our club has several of these kits, but we’ve never established training for their use. I hope we can put them to a greater public use, and help illustrate the grandeur of our interplanetary neighborhood for our own neighbors here in the Shoals.
Three last thoughts: Please let me know as soon as possible if you can attend next Thursday’s Christmas dinner at Stefano’s Southland (we’ll meet at 6 p.m. at the restaurant). Also, the same date, December 14th, is the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. Wake up very early on the 14th to enjoy the finest meteors of the year, then come tell us about it that evening at Stefano’s. And then watch on the 16th as the parent object for the Geminids, 3200 Phaethon, flies by just after sunset. We hope you get to see it!