William Nestlehutt/Courier Pat Brennan of JPL showing Harry Murchison and his mother Vanessa Murchison ways they detect exo planets around other stars at the Pasadena Astronomy Festival on October 22, 2016.
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From the eight diverse planets of the solar system, to the unique constellations coloring the Milky Way’s night sky, the universe is an infinity of unknowns. Scientists in the astronomy niche are constantly studying for new discoveries about these distant wonders.

Though they exist millions of miles away, Pasadena was able to bring the solar system, the Milky Way, constellations, and more to the inaugural Pasadena Astronomy Festival at the Pasadena Convention Center on Oct. 22.

Scientists from NASA, Caltech, Carnegie Science, and other astronomy institutions presented current projects and research to an audience that ranged from children and families enjoying presentations inside the inflatable planetariums, to undergraduate and doctoral students yearning to exchange knowledge with scholars they hope to work next to one day.

Institutions brought several gadgets regularly used astronomers and researchers for guests to try to experience what it’s like to work in the space niche.

One gadget featured was the infrared camera, which formed images with infrared radiations. When the camera pointed at a subject, a separate screen attached to the camera detected the temperature of the subject. Darker colors, from black to purple, indicate a cold temperature, and warmer temperatures project the colors red, orange, and yellow.

While kids and families enjoyed taking selfies under the astronomer’s version of a “filter,” postdoctoral researcher Marianne Heida shared the camera’s uses and disadvantages.

“When the camera is used from the ground, molecules often block the subject, and that makes it difficult to identify the precise temperature,” Heida explained. “These come in handy most when looking at black holes.”

Carnegie Science featured one of their latest projects partnered with the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which is the development of the invention itself. This is a telescope that combines seven mirrors. Carnegie Science brought these telescopes to Chile to expand its use. Its unique structure produces 10x finer quality, and the hexagon-like mirror base allows lenses to pinpoint subjects in particular angles and in distant diameters.  

An astrophysicist for 4.5 years, Andrew Benson passionately shared his current research projects, along with the work life of working for Carnegie Science. He studies galaxies within galaxies, from the Milky Way and more inward, along with their formations. While his research emphasis is unique, Benson is always amazed at the overlap he and his teammates run into that help each other grow in their projects.

“Here at this festival, I’m experiencing that same concept,” said Benson. “Meeting the kids here and seeing what they already know has been a great experience so far. One of the funnest parts of working at Carnegie Science is that our individual projects leads to research that matches other colleagues, and seeing what kids already know about this niche is amazing.”

The most popular and kid-friendly attractions at the festival were the inflatable planetariums. One was nearly pitch black with only the projected constellations and stars being the only source of light. The speaker was impossible to see, but his stories of constellation formations were heard while guests were literally lying down and following along the stars’ journeys. The second planetarium journeyed through the solar system, identifying all the planets and its moons.

The festival continued outside the exhibition building with telescopes, rovers, a photo booth, and homemade comet cores.

Comet cores were made of dry ice, dirt, corn syrup, and ammonia. Dry ice was used to analogize the evaporation of comet cores. The carbon dioxide filling the air and the gradual disassemblance of the comet core awed kids of what environmental effects in space could take place.

Also, kids laid down on their stomachs while teammates of NASA steered Mars rovers over their backs. This brought a playful atmosphere among the parents and kids, as they learned first-hand that “it’s not easy being Mars,” said one of the NASA teammates.

Several telescopes were also brought to the festival by Caltech for guests to view the sun without harming their eyes during daylight, and the present night stars when nighttime fell. Though these telescopes were meant for outreach events and not used by any of the doctoral students and researchers of Caltech, all had an enjoyable time showing guests all ages the fundamentals of their niche.

“I’ve been enjoying sharing my current research the most with students interested in pursuing this niche, or anyone who’s already working in it,” said astrophysics graduate student Ivanna Esclia. “Telescopes for my research are actually in Hawaii, but I’ve also had fun showing kids what I really love to do and am interested in.”

Esclia is focusing on galaxy evolution. The mission of Caltech graduate students is to be an expert in their project, which she’s working hard towards achieving.

“The biggest challenge of graduate school is that there is no clear way to be successful,” said Esclia. “The independence is fun, but since projects have all been created from my ideas, it’s a matter of trial and error. However, project ownership also makes me prideful of what I do.”

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