Planetarium show takes viewers beyond range of visible light
If you go
What: "Seeing the Invisible Universe"
Where: Mt. Hood Community College's Planetarium Sky Theater, 26000 S.E. Stark St., Gresham 26000 SE Stark
When: 6 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 5, and Friday, Feb. 8.
For his latest presentation at the Mt. Hood Community College Planetarium Sky Theater, director Pat Hanrahan has a simple — if profound — request: let's look at the universe in a whole new way.
"Incredible discoveries in astronomy have been made in recent years as a result of us viewing the sky outside the range of visible light," he said in an announcement. "On the ground, we have built large arrays of radio telescopes that are showing us how new stars form.
"In space, we have launched telescopes into orbit that allow us to see other forms of light that are otherwise mostly absorbed by our atmosphere. And the images that they have taken are amazing and have opened our eyes to new ways of viewing our universe."
Hanrahan will present "Seeing the Invisible Universe" with showtimes at 6:00 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 5, and Friday, Feb. 8.
The MHCC planetarium uses data collected from many telescopes and viewers will get to see the entire night sky as seen from different wavelengths — most of which are invisible to the human eye.
Hanrahan discussed the planetarium show with The Outlook:
OUTLOOK: What inspired the "Seeing the Invisible Universe" topic/presentation? What goes into choosing your themes?
PAT HANRAHAN: Choosing my themes is one of the best part of my job. I simply pick the subjects where I have the most interest. Part of my inspiration for next month's show comes from my involvement as a member of a group that visited Chile last year. I was selected as an Ambassador for the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program (ACEA). One of the places that we visited was high up in the Atacama Desert where we saw one of the most powerful radio telescope arrays (ALMA) in the world. Radio waves are invisible, but astronomers are deriving beautiful images of star formation and other very interesting phenomena. We also have a number of space telescopes that are getting us new images outside of the visible part of the spectrum.
OUTLOOK: Over what period of time was the data collected? About how many telescopes and sources?
HANRAHAN: This period is different for different sources. We started placing space telescopes into orbit not too long after the space race began. Much of the data that I will be using has come from studies from the last decade. The radio telescope array that I visited in Chile began normal operations in 2014. I also will be showing images from a number of space telescopes. These include the Spitzer infrared telescope, the Chandra X-Ray telescope, the GALEX ultraviolet telescope, the Fermi gamma ray telescope and others.
OUTLOOK: Have the discoveries of recent years only been possible through rapidly evolving technology? More telescopes?
HANRAHAN: Radio astronomy has been possible since before 1950 and has been improving all the time. The ALMA radio telescope array that I mentioned has been providing pictures that have rewritten textbooks on how stars begin their lives and how planets form around them. The Chandra X-ray telescope has allowed us to learn more about how black holes interact with their surroundings (including the monster black hole in the middle of our galaxy). We have also used multiple space telescopes to much better understand where new star formation occurs within galaxies. And most recently, a completely new way of observing the universe comes from gravitation waves. These were first documented up at a place called LIGO, which is near Richland, Washington. Here, we have some of the first data of what happens when very heavy objects (such as black holes) collide.
OUTLOOK: How do you approach your part of the presentation? Do you write a script?
HANRAHAN: I start by researching my topics using information from NASA and other internet sources. I already have some ideas of what I'm looking for and then I arrange my research findings to fit an outline of how I want to cover my subject.
OUTLOOK: How are MHCC students involved in this and other planetarium presentations?
HANRAHAN: Up until recently, I was actively teaching all of the astronomy classes at MHCC and I had lots of opportunities to talk with students about things where they have interests. As I have turned over my teaching duties to a younger professor, I have fewer of these opportunites. Recently, volunteer students have been helping me collect admissions so that I can concentrate on my presentations.
OUTLOOK: What do you enjoy most about the planetarium shows?
HANRAHAN: It's the people. I actually measure my success by the number of children that ask me questions about space. And some of the second graders often surprise me with some very good ones.
OUTLOOK: There are five presentations on the calendar. Are you working ahead to the next four?
HANRAHAN: I'm always working ahead and work on multiple presentations at one time. Some are in the stages of early research while others are largely already developed. These keep me going as when I may get stuck on one presentation, there is another that is just full of good stuff for me to explore.