Astrobiology outreach: UW’s mobile planetarium lands at space conference

UW astronomer Rory Barnes with the astronomy department’s Mobile Planetari

UW astronomer Rory Barnes with the astronomy department’s Mobile Planetarium at the astrobiology conference AbSciCon2019 Wednesday.

Rory Barnes inflated a big black fabric tent in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Wednesday and stood outside it inviting passers-by: "Come on in and watch the show - we’re talking about astrobiology.”

Barnes, a University of Washington research assistant professor of astronomy, was showing off the department’s Mobile Planetarium to colleagues at AbSciCon2019 , the national conference on astrobiology, which is the study of life in the universe and search for life beyond Earth. The conference is happening all week at the Hyatt, and dozens of UW faculty and students are involved.

The tent is about 10 feet tall and 20 feet across and stays upright with the help of a high-powered fan. Its graphics come via Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope. UW astronomy faculty and students created the planetarium in 2013 to conduct outreach about astronomy to area schools, and have been educating (and entertaining) thousands of students about the cosmos since.

But recently, Barnes and graduate students have been using the Mobile Planetarium to tell K-12 students about astrobiology. It’s a hit with middle school students especially, he said.

"They get excited about it. It’s a very visceral experience, very immersive, and there’s often a lot of screaming as they move through the universe,” Barnes said, smiling. "You can see they’re engaged.”

Astrobiology graduate students were conducting the shows inside the tent on Wednesday, starting a new presentation every so often as people filed by and stepped - climbed, really - through a fabric doorway into the dark interior.

There mid-Wednesday, astronomy doctoral students David Graham, then Rodolfo Garcia , gave engaging, illustrated lectures to visitors huddled in the darkness inside. Aided by graphics displayed in color against the rounded tent ceiling, they in turn took their audience from scenes of "extremophile” creatures living on Earth out through the solar system and into deep space - so far out, whole galaxies appear as mere dots.

Garcia talked of the "big questions” astrobiologists want to answer, leading with the most basic: "Are we alone in the universe?”

He added: "Personally I think this also tells me that life is precious. Even if planets are common we haven’t seen life on them yet, so the life on our own planet is really precious as well.

"So, it’s not just a scientific pursuit - astrobiology - but it’s also, how do we relate to our environment? And I think it’s really beautiful in that way.”

Barnes does assessments before and after his school visits and said they show the students enjoy the presentation, even if a little part of that might be just being away from class.

"But it’s all just about getting them to remember this experience. They remember they had a good experience - that’s still a win.”

He said one thing he definitely sees is that "people from all over, whatever their background, they do ’get’ this - they go, ’Whoa, there’s no life out there that we know, but that’s interesting and maybe I can think about this.’

"And the best, of course, is every time you go you get two or three kids who say, ’This is really cool - maybe I want to study planets.’”

Barnes also reported on the UW Mobile Planetarium to the conference in a separate session Thursday. He hopes to keep it going and is looking for further funding for the project.

Soon he was back out front, looking for the next audience.

"We’re talking astrobiology. Want to come in and see the show?”

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