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“There is no Plan(et) B”: An Astronomer’s Ode to Earth

Featured image: our beautiful Earth taken from the edge of space by our very own Far Horizons team & Adler Teens!

As an astronomer who researches planets around other stars as well as the planets in our Solar System, I often get asked: “What’s your favorite planet?” I think many people expect that I’ll name some far-flung exoplanet system discovered by the Kepler Mission, or that I’ll say Mars. But I have to answer honestly: my favorite planet is Earth!

The spinning Earth in the “Our Solar System” exhibit at Adler. Come learn about your planet!

The science I do is driven by the search for life beyond Earth—I’m curious about whether life is out there, what it might be like, and of course the big question: can we find it? If so, how? This curiosity has led me to think deeply about all the places on Earth that we find life, especially how different or similar those places might be to where we look for life elsewhere in the universe.

Some life on Earth looks rather alien, like this tube worm (credit: Circa24 on Wikimedia Commons).

For example, we often talk about the planets we discover around other stars in terms of whether they’re in the so-called “habitable zone”, the orbit where a planet gets just enough warmth from its parent star that it could have liquid water on its surface (for this reason, the habitable zone is also sometimes called the “Goldilocks zone”: not too hot, not too cold!). If you were an alien astronomer looking at our planetary system from afar, you’d see that Earth is in the habitable zone. You’d also see that our cousins, Mars and Venus, were nearby—and you might guess that they’re a little too cold, and a bit too hot, respectively.

There are some places on Earth that SEEM otherworldly, like the grand prismatic spring in Yellowstone National Park. The bright rainbow colors around this hot spring are caused by different species of heat-loving bacteria. Bacteria like these can help inform the search for extraterrestrial life on seemingly inhospitable planets! (Credit: facts from Yellowstone, image from Brocken Inaglory on Wikimedia Commons.)

However, the alien astronomer might never guess just from looking at Earth, Venus, and Mars, that only Earth teems with life! Life on Earth lives in all kinds of places—from the driest deserts in Chile, to boiling, acidic pools of mud in Yellowstone National Park, to the bottom of the ocean, to the Chernobyl nuclear site—places that would even be deadly to humans. That alien astronomer might also not guess that Venus isn’t just a little warmer than Earth, it’s some 800 degrees! Venus’ thick atmosphere creates what we call a “runaway greenhouse” effect, where the atmosphere traps heat and makes it a very unpleasant place. Similarly, the alien astronomer might also not know that Mars is chilly because of its thin, cold atmosphere, which doesn’t provide much insulation at all these days (though in the past, Mars likely had a thicker atmosphere, and was a lot more hospitable). Both Venus and Mars are places within our own solar system that could also have been home to life, but lost their habitability at some point in the past.

The Sully Vent in the Main Endeavour Vent Field, NE Pacific. Those white and red tendrils are actually tube worms living around the vent. (Credit: NOAA)

The beautiful diversity of life on Earth and the many places life can exist and thrive gives me a lot of hope that we’ll find life out beyond our planet someday. At the same time, my research also gives me a very deep appreciation of our own Planet Earth and all it can teach us. The fact that our planet provides such a supportive environment for life is part of why we have astronomy—life that builds technology not just to survive, but to wonder. Even if humans one day live on other worlds like Mars, they will still likely rely on Earth to provide supplies, and Earth will always be the planet that made space exploration possible to begin with. For not only the good of humanity, but for all the species of life that flourish here with us, let’s take this Earth Day to remember: there is no Plan(et) B. 

AstroFan: A Planetary System Not So Far Away

Header Image Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It is only a few short weeks until my favorite holiday, May the 4th! A time for Star Wars fans to embrace the lore and celebrate the rich world created by George Lucas. In honor of this joyous occasion, I thought that it would be apropos for this AstroFan to explore a planetary system that is far (but not TOO far) away from us, TRAPPIST-1! Read on!

There are a plethora of reasons why I’m absolutely in love with the world that George Lucas created. The diverse range of alien species, the beautiful score written by John Williams, the deeply prolific lore—I could go on and on.

One of my favorite aspects of the Star Wars films are all of the amazing planets that the characters find themselves on. From the bustling city-planet of Coruscant to the roaming hills of Naboo to the desolate deserts of Tatooine, there is no shortage of make-believe worlds for a Star Wars fan to get lost in.

Which brings us to today’s topic, TRAPPIST-1! Just like Star Wars, this planetary system is filled with an awesome range of diverse planets, whose features could be described as being “stranger than fiction”.

Let’s dive in!

The TRAPPIST-1 system was recently discovered back in 2016 by the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (a.k.a TRAPPIST). The system consists of seven EARTH-SIZED planets that all orbit a red dwarf star.

For those who don’t know, a red dwarf star is a small and relatively cool star that can be up to half the size of our Sun. The really cool thing about red dwarf stars is that not only are they the most common type of stars in our Universe but they also have the longest lifespan. We’re talking trillions of years! For comparison, the current age of our Universe is just 13.8 billion years. That’s right. In the entire history of the Universe, no red dwarf star has EVER died!

Since red dwarf stars are much cooler than our Sun, the Goldilocks zone for planets orbiting red dwarfs is closer to the star. The Goldilocks zone refers to the area around a star, where the temperature is just right to allow liquid water to form there! It is currently believed that there are at least 3 potentially habitable planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system of planets: TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c, and TRAPPIST-1e.

Artist's concept of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system
Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With the case of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, the distance between each of the seven planets is very small. The farthest orbiting planet in TRAPPIST-1, planet TRAPPIST-1h, has a year that only lasts 18 days. That’s right, it only takes a mere 18 days for the farthest reaching planet in the system to orbit the red dwarf.

For context, all seven of the planets in TRAPPIST-1 are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our Sun. This means that these planets orbit one another so closely that if you were to find yourself on one of them you would be able to see planetary surface features of the OTHER planets! How strange is that to imagine?!

What’s more—it’s only 40 light years away from us!

Now, before you get too excited, let’s not forget that it would currently take us 20,000 human years just to travel ONE light year.

Heartbreaking, I know.

But the good news is that TRAPPIST-1’s close proximity to us (cosmically speaking) means that observing the system with a telescope is an achievable task!

Speaking of observations, how does one study a planetary system that is 40 light years away?!

Great question! This is where the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) comes in! Set to launch in 2021, the JWST is going to be a complete game changer. For one, it’s HUGE! With a 6.5 meter primary mirror, it will be the largest telescope ever launched in space!

Artist’s Rendition of the JWST in action! Photo Credit: NASA

Another important feature of the JWST is that it will look at the Universe through infrared light, this means that we’ll be able to look past the cocoons of nebulae dust that sometimes obstruct images taken with only visible light!

The JWST will be able to investigate planetary atmospheres, determine molecular compositions, discover smaller exoplanets, and SO MUCH MORE!

I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty freaking awesome to know that 40 light years away from us lies such a cool planetary system, just waiting to be further explored!

Who knows, maybe somewhere on a planet in TRAPPIST-1 there’s a Luke Skywalker gazing up longingly at his red dwarf star, wondering if there are other planetary systems like the one he calls home!

Stay tuned for more awesome space facts on the next AstroFan.

Thank you for reading!

—Bianca, a.k.a. AstroFan

Adler Staff Star: Meet Becky!

Becky Rother
Product Designer

You work on a unique team here at the Adler. Could you give a quick summary about what Zooniverse is?

Zooniverse is a people-powered research platform, based here at the Adler and at the University of Minnesota and Oxford University. Essentially we help research groups with large amounts of image-based data to crowdsource their research, like the Galaxy Zoo astronomy team classifying millions of images of galaxies, or researchers from the Boston Public Library transcribing handwritten correspondence between anti-slavery activists in the 19th century in the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project.

We’ve been around since 2007 and have grown exponentially every year. We’re now up to about 90 official projects, with topics ranging from astronomy to zoology. Anyone can participate regardless of age or background, and the scientists and research teams are always happy to chime in or answer questions on our message boards.

As Lead Designer for Zooniverse, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your role?

I have the coolest job! It’s so rewarding to know that the work my team and I are doing is contributing to real scientific research and leading to actual discoveries, like the recent exoplanet candidates that were discovered thanks to volunteers in the Planet Hunters TESS project.

In addition to the user experience design and visual design I get to do on a daily basis, part of my job also involves organizing and attending outreach events at the Adler and beyond. I love getting to share Zooniverse with guests—it’s so rewarding to see the spark when a guest realizes that they’re doing real science just by answering a few short questions.

What is one of your favorite memories from your time at the Adler?

How can you choose! Every day here is exciting.

Maybe not a specific moment, but every day I’m thankful for the strong women I can count as mentors and role models here at the Adler. Coming from a male-dominated industry, it’s been life-changing to see women in leadership positions supporting other women. I feel like I’ve grown a lot both professionally and personally since starting here two years ago.  

One day that stands out is the first Members’ Night I helped with. It was a few months after I had started so I was feeling a little trepidation at talking with Adler guests, but the rest of the Zooniverse team were so supportive and passionate that the feeling was infectious and I ended up having a great time.

What are some of your favorite things to do outside the Adler?

I love to travel and explore new places. Chicago is an amazing place to live! It’s so vibrant and dynamic that even though I’ve lived here for almost a decade there are still new things to see, restaurants to discover, and museums to visit.

My favorite places in the city are some of the smaller concert venues like Lincoln Hall and Metro. I’ve always been a fan of live music and Chicago gets some of the best shows anywhere.

Share one interesting fact about yourself!
In another life I was a concert photographer and have photographed Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, and St. Vincent, to name a few. Here’s my flickr.

It’s Citizen Science Day! How Are You Participating?

Ah, Citizen Science Day—what a day to be alive! How amazing is it that ordinary citizens all over the world are helping to contribute to real scientific research RIGHT NOW, possibly on the verge of making some exciting new discoveries?!

“Wait… how is that possible?” you ask.

Simply put, citizen science is a way for anybody to engage in science. From astronomy enthusiasts helping to measure and classifying uncategorized stars to bird watchers observing bird species interactions to underwater lovers tracking the worldwide distribution of kelp, citizen scientists are helping to make impactful contributions in a wide range of scientific fields all around the world.

At the Adler, we’re proud to be a home for Zooniverse—the world’s largest and most successful platform for people-powered research. Zooniverse enables everyday citizens to connect with scientists and researchers by making large data sets like images of faraway galaxies, historical records and diaries, or videos of animals in their natural habitats easily available for identification. All you need to get involved is an internet connection!

Zooniverse offers projects across a wide spectrum of disciplines and interests, including astronomy, history, language, and arts. New projects are being launched all the time, just like these:

So what are you waiting for?! Join the global community of citizen scientists today and start classifying. IT’S SO EASY! (Seriously, you can do it from your couch or your favorite cafe nook on our easy-to-use iOS or Android app.) Who knows what you might discover!

Scientists release first close-up photo of a black hole

Black Holes are incredible beasts… Nothing can escape from them and yet they power quasars—the brightest beacons in the Universe. They warp space, bending light, and slow time to a stopping point. In their hearts lurks a singularity where the laws of physics break down. But they are shrouded in mystery. We have lots of evidence that they must exist, from Einstein’s equations of Gravity to the swirling dance of stars around them. But no one had ever seen a black hole. Until now…

We’re excited to share that today, Wednesday, April 10, scientists released the first close-up picture of the region around a black hole, an incredibly significant scientific result!

The photo came from a project called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). It is an international collaboration aiming to capture the first image of the region around a black hole by creating a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Radio telescopes used in this project are located in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and the South Pole.

The science team imaged the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy known as M87. M87 is an elliptical, or round-shaped, galaxy located about 55 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Virgo. It is a monster galaxy, weighing in at over 10x our own Milky Way (no slacker itself!). M87 sits in the center of the Virgo cluster of galaxies so we think it got so large by swallowing up other galaxies.

Just like its host galaxy, the M87 black hole is also a monster… it contains as much mass as about 6.5 billion of our Suns. It is one of the largest black holes we know about. The two facts are probably related. The rich environment of M87 provided lots of gas, dust, and stars for the black hole to feed on!

Discovered in 1781, Galaxy M87 (Messier 87) is a member of the neighboring Virgo cluster of galaxies, as well as the home of several trillion stars and the black hole imaged by EHT.
Discovered in 1781, Galaxy M87 (Messier 87) is a member of the neighboring Virgo cluster of galaxies, as well as the home of several trillion stars and the black hole imaged by EHT. Photo Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: P. Cote (Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics) and E. Baltz (Stanford University)

Wow! How Did they do it?

In short, radio waves!

No one sees light directly from the black hole… it is, after all, a place from which nothing, not even light, can escape! What the team imaged are radio waves (light) coming from gas in orbit around the black hole.

The process of combining light from multiple radio telescopes spread over thousands of miles (known as interferometry) made it possible to see finer details than possible with a single telescope. The farther the telescopes are spread the finer the details we can see. That’s why having radio telescopes from all over the world—including the South Pole!—was so important. Someday we might even have radio telescopes in space to make even sharper images.

So, what exactly am I looking at in this image?

First Image of a Black Hole - Event Horizon Team
Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. Photo credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

The image shows the “shadow” of the black hole, the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself. The black hole’s boundary—the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name—is around 3x smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 25 billion miles across. The team calculated that the original estimate of the mass of the black hole, 6.5 billion times the mass of our Sun, appears to be correct. They also determined that the black hole is rotating clockwise.

We can use this image to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Scientists ask, “Do we see what we were expecting to see?” For example, according to general relativity, black holes are expected to be spherical. The EHT team says that, to within 10 percent, the black hole appears to be spherical.

The ring of light in the image is related to the bending of light near a black hole. Light emitted by the gas swirling into a black hole can stream directly to our telescopes, but it can also wrap around the black hole, its path bent by the tremendous force of gravity. This bending, or “lensing,” of light produces a ring around the black hole at a distance where the photons can orbit just balanced between being captured by the gravity of the black hole and flying out to infinity. At the same time, the black hole’s fierce gravity piles the material orbiting the black hole up into a last stable orbit before it plunges quickly into the black hole. That can also create ring structures… so it’s a bit complicated!

Space is freaking awesome! Where can I learn more?

From April 10-14, 2019, visit us here at the Adler Planetarium and interact with our facilitators as they present fun activities about how we study the Universe using a type of light that our eyes cannot see: ultraviolet light. Or view our small temporary addition (starting 4/12) on black holes in our Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass exhibition!

Then check out our Space Visualization Lab to interact with Adler astronomers, cutting-edge images, and visualizations about the black holes at the centers of our Milky Way Galaxy and M87!

You can also take part in a citizen science project to help scientists study images taken using infrared light and gamma rays:

Muon Hunters 2.0
The Milky Way Project

Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM Series: Meet Lisa

“Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM” is a series on The Adler ’Scope that highlights the awesome women of Chicago who are doing amazing things in science, technology, engineering, art, and math fields here in our own community. Meet women of varying ages, backgrounds, and interests and learn their unique stories.

Lisa Beasley
Creative Director at The Nova Collective | Writer | Actor

Lisa Beasley
Photo Credit: Bradford Rogne Photography

What first sparked your interest in improv/comedy?

I started my theater career in Chicago at the Creative Arts Foundation in 2011 and then went on to work with several theaters in the city. After one of my shows at Black Ensemble Theater, a representative from the Actor’s Equity office reached out to me and told me that I should consider going into comedy, namely, working with The Second City.

I went to The Second City to inquire about a job and they pointed me in the direction of their training center. I declined because at that point I had already trained in L.A., was already a working actor, and was looking for my next show. I needed to make money. Not pay money to learn how to make people laugh, something I was already doing 6-8 times a week. So I paused on that journey because I booked a role as Camae in a show called The Mountaintop at Court Theater. When I was done with that show, Second City had launched a new program called The Bob Curry Fellowship that became my launching pad into understanding how the building worked. Through that, I met some of my best friends that I still work with today.

You’re the founder of The Nova Collective, a consulting firm that helps companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion training. What inspired you to start this company?

Though respected throughout the nation, the Chicago improv community is a pretty homogeneous group. At one point, it seemed like everywhere I turned there was a white guy in plaid mad at me about something. I was having a lot of trouble existing in those institutions without headaches and that’s when I noticed that it wasn’t a “comedy in Chicago” problem but a “what it’s like to work in corporate America as a black woman” issue that a lot of my friends were also going through at the time.  

It aligned well that my now business partners and I had begun to develop a working relationship and it seemed like I was another link that could be an asset for The Nova Collective as Creative Director. And money. I wanted to make a lot of money. I found myself consulting with companies unknowingly and not getting paid. It clicked. I should be getting paid to make institutions better. It’s proven that an investment in diversity and inclusion affects the bottom line and I’ve made a conscientious effort to no longer grow someone else’s bottom line for free.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a producer for Wakandacon (a convention that highlights diversity in “nerd culture”)?

I get to nerd out about producing! Since my college days, I’ve always enjoyed putting together purpose-driven events and bringing niche groups together to celebrate what they love. The most rewarding part was seeing everyone embrace the concept and programming so fully.

You’ve done work with Comedy Central in the past (SO AWESOME). What was it like first finding out that you were going to work with them? What was your favorite part about working with them?

Creating with recognized networks takes way longer than people think. So, to be honest, by the time our digital project dropped, so did some of the excitement because you can only talk to the people that you are working on the project with about it. So it was exciting amongst the teams and surreal in the beginning and then it’s about buckling down, taking care of business, and making sure that I don’t get so caught up in the hype that I’m not delivering quality work. Working with them was my first big “Ok, you’re here, now what?” moment. It’s been an awesome ongoing relationship that I hope grows. My favorite part about working with them so far is shooting an episode of their upcoming show, South Side. The location was a few blocks away from my Hyde Park house, everybody on set was so fun, the shoot was efficient and I can’t wait to see it. I also enjoy their ability to trust my goofy ass and comedic choices.

You wear many hats: actor, writer, comedian, business owner, etc. What is your advice on how to successfully juggle many different roles?

Mentorship + Self Care. I’m at the point where I noticed my growth would be limited without mentorship and aggressively taking care of myself. After the birth of my daughter, that propelled me to attack my goals because my work is DIRECTLY tied to my income and earning potential. This is not the story of those who have access to generational wealth. With this revelation and a new addition to my family that I’m responsible for, that made me re-evaluate a lot of my priorities. I own that I don’t know everything and can learn from people who have done what I am trying to do. And NAPS. I love taking naps and going to bed. Hustle culture makes us believe we’ll sleep when we’re dead but hustling myself into the ground only makes me a mad mother, unproductive creative, and a stressed-out unhealthy human being prone to breakouts.

And don’t overcommit—there was a time when I was saying yes to everything because I thought I could do it. That would lead to uncomfortable moments later because I would under-deliver on the things that I promised. That wasn’t cool of me. I noticed that I was dropping the ball on simple tasks simply because I was doing the most. Now, I prioritize my time, projects, and talents in a way that I am comfortable and for now it feels sustainable.

In the United States, women and people of color have fewer work opportunities and make lower salaries both on and Off-Broadway. How have you made sense of this inequality? Have you encountered obstacles that have challenged you from pursuing a career as an actor? How have you overcome them?

As a darker skinned black women working in the film and television industry, I have obstacles all the time. I’ve been creatively stifled while having that same creativity stolen. I’ve had my opinions aggressively questioned as people took notes on what I said to implement and make their companies/theater/shows better.

The inequality of paying me less than a man to do the same work will never make sense but there are things that I do to challenge the status quo.

1. I don’t audition for stereotypical, one dimensional roles. I just don’t.

2. I say no to things people dress up as “opportunities” (i.e. people of color showcase programs that want months of your time unpaid to “teach” you how to do something you already know)

3. I write my own stuff and drive my own conversations.

4. I don’t *code-switch anymore. I just don’t have the energy, so what you see is what you get and I think that points me in the direction of more authentic relationships and opportunities.

5. I wear clothes that literally say “Pay Me” a lot.

*Code-Switching: When a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties in the context of a single conversation.

Doane Observatory: A Road to Recovery

The Adler Planetarium’s Doane Observatory is special in a lot of ways.

It was built in 1977 to honor the memories of Ralph and Lillian Doane, thanks to the efforts of the Doane family who wanted to give something back to the cultural community of Chicago. It is also home to the largest-diameter telescope available to the public in the Chicagoland area, and is used in both the daytime (to safely view the Sun) and the evening to give Adler guests a chance to look through a telescope. (For many people, it is the first time they have ever done so!)

Last summer, despite our best efforts, the health of both the 41-year-old Doane Observatory and the 31-year-old telescope inside took unexpected turns for the worse. In Spring 2018, the chain for the roof shutters motor snapped—that’s the motor that opens and closes the opening in the roof of the observatory for the telescope to peek out. No open roof = no telescope viewing.

Then, once the chain was fixed, we started hearing a grinding sound whenever the telescope was repositioned for viewing. (For anyone who’s ever owned a car, you know a grinding sound is never a good sign.)

So, it was time to call in some experts. Michelle Nichols, Adler’s Director of Public Observing, reached out to the company that originally built the telescope to have them diagnose the problem.

The diagnosis? One of two motors that moves the telescope had gone bad. This particular motor was original to the telescope—31 years old!—and it was clear that it was time to get it replaced. (We certainly got our money’s worth out of that motor!)

On top of all this, the telescope’s mirrors needed a lot of TLC. Michelle had noticed back in fall 2017 that the view through the telescope wasn’t as good as it had been in the past. The telescope’s mirrors would need to be removed and tested to figure out the best course of action.

Michelle (left) and crew in the process of removing the mirrors from the telescope, September 2018.
Michelle (left) and crew in the process of removing the mirrors from the telescope, September 2018.

The telescope’s mirrors were taken out in late September 2018. Once removed, Michelle drove the mirrors to Lockwood Custom Optics in Philo, Illinois, where Mike Lockwood would diagnose the problem.

Test stand for mirrors after arriving at Lockwood Custom Optics.
Test stand for mirrors after arriving at Lockwood Custom Optics.

During the testing, Mike noted that the shape of the main mirror was off. The shape, to put it in everyday terms, resembled a Pringles chip. We needed it to be shaped more like a bowl. In the end, it was decided that the main mirror would need some refiguring. The company we chose to do the work was Star Instruments, Inc. Paul Jones, the owner of the company, met Michelle halfway between Chicago and his lab in northern Georgia as she personally drove the mirrors 400 miles to Lexington, Kentucky, for the handoff to Paul. Coincidentally, Paul Jones was the original creator of these same telescope mirrors—meaning he got the incredibly unique chance to get his hands on a mirror he made and had last seen more than 30 years ago!

Over the course of the next month, Paul stripped the reflective coating off the main mirror using an acid bath and used a special machine to polish the mirror back into shape. He then drove the mirrors to Spectrum Coatings in Deltona, Florida, to get a new reflective coating put on to get them back into tip-top shape for stargazing.

One of Star Instruments’ hardworking “lab technicians” inspects the mirrors upon their arrival.
One of Star Instruments’ hardworking “lab technicians” inspects the mirrors upon their arrival.
The main mirror on the polishing machine at Star Instruments.
The main mirror on the polishing machine at Star Instruments.

In December 2018, Michelle made the return trip to Lexington to pick up the mirrors from Paul, which would be re-installed in the Observatory after the new year. This delicate process would take a full cold day in January 2019 (sans heating—ouch!).

Mirror re-installation process begins in the late morning on January 15, 2019. Seen here is the smaller secondary telescope mirror after it was placed back into its holder & frame.
Mirror re-installation process begins in the late morning on January 15, 2019. Seen here is the smaller secondary telescope mirror after it was placed back into its holder & frame.
The secondary mirror is centered precisely in its holder using special flat gauges.
The secondary mirror is centered precisely in its holder using special flat gauges.
While we’re at it, why not do some additional cleaning? A Chicago Astronomical Society volunteer gives the 6” finderscope lens some cleaning love.
While we’re at it, why not do some additional cleaning? A Chicago Astronomical Society volunteer gives the 6” finderscope lens some cleaning love.
This set of motors (the black box on the back and the wires/pipe cleaners/tiny motors on the sides) was made especially for our telescope by a member of the Fox Valley Astronomical Society to allow us to adjust the alignment of the small mirror much more easily than before.
This set of motors (the black box on the back and the wires/pipe cleaners/tiny motors on the sides) was made especially for our telescope by a member of the Fox Valley Astronomical Society to allow us to adjust the alignment of the small mirror much more easily than before.
A volunteer from the Fox Valley Astronomical Society uses a micrometer to measure how level the edges of the telescope are.
A volunteer from the Fox Valley Astronomical Society uses a micrometer to measure how level the edges of the telescope are.
At 10:46 pm, the Doane is back in business!
At 10:46 pm, the Doane is back in business!

After months and months of work, the mirrors were finally installed again. The last and final step, aligning the mirrors, would take place on two cold evenings in February and March 2019, just in time for the first Doane Observatory tours of the year to take place at Adler After Dark on March 21.

Chicago's own John Cusack enjoys a first look through the newly re-assembled telescope during Adler After Dark on March 21.
Chicago’s own John Cusack enjoys a first look through the newly re-assembled telescope during Adler After Dark on March 21.

Throughout many rounds of work on the telescope mirrors—uninstallation, installation, and aligning—Michelle got a huge amount of much-needed help from members of the Fox Valley Astronomical Society and the Chicago Astronomical Society, who put hours and hours into the entire process. The results we have today would not have been possible without their dedication and support. For that, we say a huge thank you to both organizations!

Caring for the Doane Observatory is a labor of love. The telescope has spent over three decades observing the sky and requires dedication and patience to keep it in working order. We are so proud of our Observatory and we look forward to sharing it with our community again this spring and summer! Catch us at Doane at Dusk where we’ll be looking up each month at a variety of celestial objects in the night sky or consider stopping by during our solar viewing hours, beginning in late Spring 2019.

And shhhhh…stay tuned in the coming months for a big announcement about the Doane Observatory! We have some exciting news to share!

Adler Skywatch: April 2019

Though Spring has begun in the Northern Hemisphere, some of the night sky’s brightest stars—usually associated with wintertime—can still be seen this month, April 2019.

Look to the southwest during evening twilight, to see a rhombus-shaped pattern of bright stars—like a long, thin, horizontally-stretched-out square in the sky. The top point of the rhombus is the star Betelgeuse, and the bottom point is the star Rigel. Both are part of the constellation Orion. Between these two stars is a short line of three stars, which mark the famous Belt of Orion. On the left point of the rhombus is the night sky’s brightest star, Sirius, of the constellation Canis Major; and the right point is Aldebaran, of the constellation Taurus. The nights of the 8th and 9th, a thin waxing crescent Moon appears near Aldebaran. The first half of the month, look several degrees to the right of Aldebaran to see the planet Mars, which is only as bright as the brightest of the stars in Orion’s Belt. By 10:30 pm CDT, the giant rhombus of stars sets in the west.

During morning darkness this month, the planet Jupiter is low and bright in the southeast sky by about 2:00 am Central time. The morning of the 23rd it appears very close to a waning gibbous Moon. By about 3:30 am, the planet Saturn has cleared the southeastern horizon. The morning of the 25th, Saturn appears near the waning gibbous Moon.

Those who are sky-watching just before dawn should look for the brilliant planet Venus, rising in the east-southeast only about a half-hour before sunrise. The mornings of the 1st and the 2nd, it appears close to a waning crescent Moon. On clear mornings, Venus is truly bright and fairly easy to spot even as dawn starts to brighten the sky.

This month, if you have a clear view of the eastern horizon and your timing before sunrise is right, you might see the planet Mercury, appearing slightly below and to the left of Venus. Your best chance to spot Mercury is around mid-month when the planet is at its highest point above the horizon but before the rising Sun’s glare blocks the planet from view. As a reminder: NEVER look directly at the Sun, even if it’s just slightly above the horizon, or permanent eye damage could result.

The annual Lyrids meteor shower peaks this year the night of the 22nd and in the morning darkness of the 23rd. At its peak, the shower can generate 10 to 20 meteors per hour under moonless clear skies far from city lights. Unfortunately, this year the waning gibbous Moon will wash out many faint meteors. Your best chance to spot Lyrids is in a place far away from artificial lighting. If you are in a city or suburban location with a lot of light pollution, you may only see one or two Lyrid meteors per houror, possibly, none at all.

New Moon: April 5th
First Quarter Moon: April 12th
Full Moon: April 19th
Last Quarter Moon: April 26th

Please note: these descriptions are for the Chicago area, using Central time.

The Universe that unites us

Header Image: Grace Wolf-Chase giving a lecture at McCormick Theological Seminary, February 2019. Photo Credit: Tricia Koning Photography

It’s a Thursday night in February and I am seated in a classroom at McCormick Theological Seminary in Hyde Park, waiting for a science lecture to begin.

At this moment in history, when so much of our cultural discourse is a loud argument about who belongs where, it feels a little subversive to be here. If you ask the internet—or the people with the largest megaphones—science and religion are supposed to be mortal enemies. Scientists are supposed to hate religion, and religious people are supposed to fear and distrust science. But no one in this crowd is here for a fight.

A woman named Anna Case-Winters, a professor of theology who helped organize McCormick’s Science for Seminaries lecture series, steps up to the podium to introduce tonight’s speaker. At the other end of the room, there’s a translator sitting behind a screen, echoing the professor (who is speaking English) in Spanish. It is essential, they both say, for theological education to reckon with a scientific understanding of our Universe. That’s where tonight’s speaker, Grace Wolf-Chase, comes in.

Grace Wolf-Chase MTS Science Lecture | Photo Credit: Tricia Koning Photography
Grace Wolf-Chase speaking in front of a crowd at McCormick Theological Seminary.

Grace has been an astronomer at the Adler for more than 20 years. When she arrived at the museum back in the late 90’s, she became a member of (as far as we know) the first/only all-female astronomy research department in any cultural institution. For Grace, a lifelong Lutheran, there’s no contradiction in being a religious scientist—just like there was no contradiction in being one of only two women in her physics program at Cornell or the only girl on her competitive figure skating team who was into Star Trek. It’s another idea that bears repeating in our cultural moment: People can be a lot of things all at once.

Being native to both scientific and religious communities gives Grace an ability to speak to each in its own language. But what strikes me, an outsider at this lecture, is how little translation is necessary. If not for a few slides about the contributions of religious thinkers to science, the ways science has helped shape religious conceptions of a higher power, and a history-of-the-Universe timeline that includes a notable event in the history of Christianity, you’d hardly guess the lecture was prepared for seminarians and not, say, first-year astronomy students. It’s a crash course in what we know about our Universe so far, how we know it, and how amazing it all is.

When Grace mentions that there are more stars in our Universe than grains of sand here on Earth, a man behind me lets out an audible “Wooooow.”

Grace’s outreach to religious communities is personal for her—she wants religious people to feel welcome in scientific circles—but the benefits are for everyone. As Grace pointed out in her lecture, some of the of the biggest breakthroughs in our scientific understanding of the Universe (the Big Bang theory, to name just one) came from people who were also deeply religious.

If we can learn to look past whatever we think makes us different from each other, we may discover that the Universe itself is our common ground.

Meet Maude Bennot: The Woman Behind the Adler

The story of Maude Bennot—at least, the part of it that concerns the Adler Planetarium—doesn’t have a great ending. This is just a heads-up: You won’t like what happens. But if you love science and community and the place the Adler is today, you will like Maude Bennot. You’ll like her so much that you’ll find her story worth reading until the very last word.

Maude was the director of the Adler Planetarium from 1937 to 1945. She was the second director of the Adler and the first woman in the world to run a planetarium (or, as far as we know, any science museum).

Even though being the first woman to do something few men were qualified to do was a massive accomplishment, it feels limiting to focus on her gender like that. In fact, based on everything I’ve read about her, my guess is that she’d hate it. While it does end up being deeply relevant to the story of how she got to the Adler, her life here, and the circumstances under which she left, the fact that Maude was a woman is one of the least interesting things about her. She graduated valedictorian of her high school at age 16, took pilot lessons, and played the violin.

Maude Bennot with holiday decorations near Dedicatory Plaque. December 22, 1937. You’ll see the same Dedicatory Plaque (in the left of this photo) greeting you as you walk into the Adler today.

But we do have to talk about gender because, for Maude, there was no escaping it. Everywhere she went, she ran into descriptions of herself like this one from the (male) journalist Sydney J. Harris in the Chicago Daily News:

“As the only woman director of a planetarium in the country—and possibly in the world—Miss Bennot has had a grim struggle to attain, and to keep, her unique position. Park District officials, who operate the museum, were skeptical of this slim, fragile woman. Masculine astronomers shook their heads dolefully, said she was more in place in a tearoom than in an observatory. Today, they have chewed those words into very tiny bits.”

I found that story in a scrapbook of press clippings about Maude in the Adler’s collection. The newsprint is a yellowish brown and the thick, brittle, three-hole-punched scrapbook pages are no longer bound together. It’s more scrap than book, and it’s an incredible window into her life.

One of the newspaper clippings in Maude’s scrapbook.

The clips tell the story of an undergraduate at Northwestern University who happened to get a part-time job doing administrative work for the director of the Dearborn Observatory—a man named Philip Fox—only to discover that she was fascinated by the cosmos. She would return to the observatory years later, as a graduate student in astronomy, to teach new stargazers what she had learned.

When local businessman Max Adler asked Philip Fox to be the first director of his new planetarium in 1929, Philip said yes on one condition: that Maude could be his (paid) research assistant. At the time, there was no way anyone in the astronomy community would have hired Maude for such a plum position without an advocate like Philip. It was a different (and vastly more sexist) time—just nine years after American women had won the right to vote.

It’s all in there, in bits and pieces, in the scrapbook. When Philip leaves the Adler in 1937, World War II is in full swing, men are scarce, and even if there were more of them around, the vast majority of them wouldn’t know what to do with a planetarium—the Adler was one of just a handful planetariums in the United States at this point, so almost no one had the resume for it. No one except Maude Bennot. So Philip passes the torch to her. And here, the tone of the story shifts.

Maude Bennot with holiday decorations at Adler Planetarium. December 22, 1937.

Long, feature-y newspaper profiles describe a quiet woman with a steely backbone, someone so accomplished and so well suited to her work that she doesn’t even seem to care that she isn’t married. An incredibly awkward photo shows her standing behind a flowery potted plant, holding a sundial, with a look on her face that says, “Flowers? Really?” A columnist drops a foreboding hint that the Chicago Park District—which has the final say in museum staffing decisions at the time—is angling to replace Maude with a man. The Park District also never formally recognizes Maude as director. They pay her the same salary she earned as Philip’s full-time research assistant—about two-thirds rate they offered Philip—and she is not permitted to hire an assistant of her own.

Maude Bennot talking about the total Solar eclipse of 1937. She got hooked on aviation after seeing an eclipse from an airplane, which got her hooked on aviation and Amelia Earhart. .

Meanwhile, Maude is busy creating the Adler we know and love. Maude IS the Adler—and not just in the sense that she runs the projectors, gives the lectures, writes the budgets, pays the bills, and answers the phones. She’s the Adler in spirit, too. She is smart, hardworking, generous with her time. Always eager to bring the joy of exploring the Universe to new people of all ages and backgrounds, no matter what brought them in the door, and ready to show everyone—soldiers, students, journalists, even people who just need help solving an astronomy clue in the daily crossword—the practical benefits of looking up.

Today, the Adler is fully staffed with people who, like Maude, would happily drop whatever they are doing to draw you a diagram or share a favorite mind-blowing fact about the Universe with you. It’s easy to imagine her here, walking the halls, placing orders, picking new topics for her monthly lectures, being mistaken for her own secretary.

Maude Bennot operating the Adler’s original Zeiss II projector. She played an important role in shaping our first sky shows & exhibits.

In 1945, that columnist’s ominous prediction came true: Maude was fired by the Park District, allegedly for “insubordination”—a failure to follow orders—and a less-qualified man was waiting in the wings to replace her.

And then, quite suddenly, Maude disappears from the records. At the age of 62, she leaves the Adler, furious, and (according to one historian) she quits astronomy for good. This is the ending I warned you about. But it wasn’t really the end. The story goes dark until Maude’s death at age 90, but because there are no more breathless profiles about this walking anomaly, the brilliant delicate fiercely independent flower who created our community from scratch, we don’t know what she did with those three decades. Maybe she spent them flying around the world like Amelia Earhart or playing first fiddle in a string quartet. Whatever happened, wherever she went, pieces of her will always be here at the Adler. A scrapbook and a scrappy spirit. A way of meeting people where they are, taking their hands, lifting their gaze to the sky, and showing them who they could be.