Fiske Planetarium Examines Phenomenon Of Distant Worlds

January 28, 1998

A slight wobble in starlight provides evidence of a planet orbiting a distant star, and what next? The question of whether there is other life in the galaxy is revived.

But why has it taken so long for astronomers to verify the existance of other worlds, suspected since long before recorded time? And what is the next step in determining whether there is life on another planet?

The discovery of several new planets beyond our solar system during the last two years will be the topic of a new star show at Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The show, called “Searching for Distant Worlds,” opens Feb. 13, and will run frequently throughout the spring semester. The show is appropriate for eighth-grade students through adults.

Nine or 10 planets -- possibly outnumbering the known planets within our own solar system -- have been discovered since the fall of 1995 when the first evidence was found of another planet orbiting a sun-like star, according to Planetarium Director Katy Garmany. The star, 51 Pegasi, is in the constellation Pegasus and is 50 light-years distant from Earth, or several million times farther away from us than Pluto.

The planet was discovered because its gravitational pull caused the star it is orbiting to wobble ever so slightly, creating a Doppler shift in the star’s light spectrum that was detected on Earth, Garmany said. The planet itself, which cannot be seen, is massive -- about half as heavy as Jupiter -- and its orbit around 51 Pegasi takes only 4.2 days because it is so close to the star.

Garmany, who is also a member of CU’s astrophysical and planetary sciences department and director of JILA, said the show’s visual effects demonstrate the scientific principles behind the discoveries, while artists’ drawings will illustrate what distant worlds might look like.

“We are also going to encourage audience participation through our program format, and conclude with an opportunity for everyone to consider how many distant planets might harbor intelligent life,” said Garmany.

While many of the recently discovered planetary systems probably would be unfriendly to life as we know it, the next step will be to design a telescope that can examine the planets’ atmospheres to look for signs of life.

Show information

Scheduled showings of “Searching for Distant Worlds” are on Feb. 13, Feb. 14, Feb. 20, Feb. 27 and Feb. 28; March 13, March 14 and March 20; April 17 and May 8.

Friday shows begin at 7:30 p.m., with admission $3.50 for adults, $2 for seniors and children. Saturday shows are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $3 for adults and $1.50 for seniors and children.

Sommers-Bausch Observatory is open following Friday evening shows for public viewing of the night sky.

The planetarium is located at Regent Drive and Kittredge Loop Drive on the CU-Boulder campus.

For a complete schedule of planetarium shows, call 492-5001, or visit the homepage at www.colorado.edu/fiske.

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