“Great Balls of Fire” kicks off Museum Month

“Great Balls of Fire” kicks off Museum Month

by Caitlin Johnson

The air is warm and damp. The land is teeming with countless unnamed plant and animal species, all surviving on a day-to-day basis. Life is thriving in this beautiful world, a virgin to human touch as it carries on in the most primal and instinctual ways. Suddenly, the sky grows blindingly bright and the air temperature increases rapidly. Creatures begin to flee as they sense impending danger. But their efforts are in vain, for the following impact of the massive cosmic body is only the beginning of one of the most remarkable events in Earth’s history.

This event, known by scientists as the K-T extinction, is only the tip of the cosmic iceberg in regards to collisions on Earth’s surface and in outer space. We have long been fascinated with the origins of our home planet, as well as the natural workings of our galaxy. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park aims to share the most recent discoveries in astronomy with its latest exhibit, appropriately dubbed, “Great Balls of Fire: Comets, Meteors, Asteroids.”

The exhibit made its West Coast debut last Saturday. This 3,000-square-foot interactive attraction coincides with a new digital presentation, “Cosmic Collisions,” in the Heikoff Dome Theater. Museum-goers are invited to test their knowledge of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial objects and learn the truth about the asteroids, meteors and comets orbiting the solar system.

I had the wonderful opportunity of attending a preview event of the exhibit and was pleasantly surprised by the scale of the attraction. Several directors and local astronomers were on-hand to answer questions and discuss details related to the science behind the presentation. I asked University of California, San Diego Associate Research Scientist for the Center of Astrophysics and Space Sciences Dr. David Harker what he hopes visitors will take away from
this experience.

“(I would like to see) more of an appreciation and understanding of comets and why they’re an important subject to study,” Harker said.

Professor at Grossmont College and coordinator for San Diego’s Project ASTRO Philip Blanco encouraged students to learn more through on-campus astronomy courses.

The science center’s main exhibit is divided up into four areas of exploration. The “Origins” section gives an introduction to the development of the solar system, as well as the formation of the Oort cloud and other known asteroid belts. The “Asteroids” portion delves into greater detail about the largest rocks in space. The “Comets” area relays the known information of these relatively unknown bodies. Visitors can learn about the possibilities of collision with interplanetary objects in the “Impacts and Risks” segment.

Each area features interactive multimedia ranging from static examples of space material to “Mission: Asteroid Encounter,” a virtual space travel simulation. The entire exhibition is crammed with official data and recent findings from NASA, national museum astrophysicists and scientists from around
the world.

“It is a great way to open your mind to the expanses of the universe,” Events and Outreach Coordinator for the Save Our Heritage Organisation Ashley Christensen said. “This was really just a tease. It made me want to come back and see the full thing.”

The preview was a particularly exciting experience for me, in part because I hadn’t visited the science center in years. Upon entering the exhibit, I could feel childlike excitement and wonder spring to the surface once more. There were so many things for my then-regressed mentality to take in and I found myself wandering back and forth trying to absorb it all. One thing that particularly stood out was the complementing show, “Cosmic Collisions.” I was aware of the expansive theater and its amazing shows, but seeing it in person was something
else entirely.

As soon as I walked into the auditorium, I was in awe of its sheer size and grandeur.  The massive screen towered overhead, dwarfing me and my fellow attendees as we filed into our seats. I could already tell the show was going to be amazing. The lights dimmed, the audience became quiet and the booming voice of narrator Robert Redford propelled us into outer space. Thinking about astronomy has always made me feel small and seeing a vast representation of the infinite expanse of the universe was merely a reminder of how miniscule and arguably insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. As I watched with quiet astonishment, I could almost feel myself drifting through space and time. On several occasions I had to mentally remind myself to not gawk like an idiot with my jaw hanging open.

The 25-minute presentation took us through the formation of our planet and the moon, potential risks that asteroids and other cosmic materials currently pose and into the future with the inevitable “colliding” of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Real images taken from NASA satellites were fused with scientifically accurate visualizations to create an informative and spectacular visual show.

The “Great Balls of Fire” exhibit will run through April 28. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is just one of 42 museums partaking in the 24th annual Museum Month, organized by the San Diego Museum Council. According to the council’s website, its effort is to “increase awareness of and attendance at the diverse museums in the region.” Throughout February, all participating museums will offer half-price admission.  In order to use the discount, adventurers must obtain a free pass at any Macy’s in the San Diego area. Passes are available starting Feb. 1. The pass, available while supplies last, is good for up to four people and is valid for the entire month of February. A list of all 42 museums can be found at sandiegomuseumcouncil.org.

There isn’t a better time to satiate your curiosity this year. If you’re looking for something exciting to do on the weekends, or you’re new to the area and want to experience all San Diego has to offer, take a day or two to explore the museums. If the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is any indicator, I promise it will be worth your while. Who knows? You might even learn something.