Courses, Talks and Exhibits - Astronomy

This page describes USA Aloft's Astronomy exhibit content.  See our courses page for details on costs and reservation procedures. Unless otherwise noted, all of our courses are available as school programs or for a general audience. 

An opening announcement letter to educators for the exhibit is available for download as a PDF

Press resource pages exist for USA Aloft's astronomy offerings.  These pages contain selected press announcements and images for use in publications.  Follow the instructions there to gain access to higher resolution versions of the images for publication use.

Light, the Universe and Everything - Exhibit Carina Nebula

Since our ancestors first looked upward to the skies and continuing today as astronomers peer into the deep realms of the Universe, light has brought messages of the world around us.  Using light as a unifying theme, this exhibit mixes spectacular images from the night sky, explanatory texts, scientific papers and hands-on experiments.  Throughout, an effort has been made to adapt the materials to multiple age groups and interests.  View the stunning pictures,  use crayons and colored filters to uncover secret messages, or read about the use of spectroscopy to classify objects.  We are sure to have something to challenge your mind and provide fun for the whole family.
This astronomy exhibit explores the role that light plays in teaching us about the Universe and our place in it.  Come learn about the properties of light and what it shows us about our solar system, our galaxy and the Universe.  Separate light into different colors and to explain the distances and objects we see in the night sky.  View a 3D model of a constellation to understand how we observe these mythical patterns in the sky. Learn about quasars and look to the edge of time with some of the most distant known objects. View a picture of cosmic background radiation made with light from the beginning of time. Study some of the most recent findings from state of the art telescopes. Learn how you can assist astronomers in classifying galaxies. And of course, enjoy the outstanding pictures of the night sky.

Current Showing

Exhibit Summary

Exhibit Requirements



Promotional Card

Current Showing - through April 24, 2011

The exhibit is free and open to the public at Massabesic Audubon Center during normal business hours of Tuesday – Saturday, 9am – 5pm and Sunday, 11am – 1pm continuing through April 24.  Please call ahead for groups larger than 10 and to ensure that the meeting room housing the exhibit is not in use.

There will be a reception on April 9, 2011 from 6pm – 9pm.  Light refreshments will be served.  If the weather is good, we may do some star gazing, perhaps with a telescope or two, so bring warm clothing.

Massabesic Audubon Center is located at 26 Audubon Way, Auburn, NH, 03032. Telephone: 603-668-2045.

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Exhibit Summary

Presently there are 18 stations with images and text. Each station consists of a wall panel and, in some cases, additioonal materials on a table. The exhibit occupies approximately 100 linear feet of wall space. A summary of each station is given below.

1. Introduction
Mystic Mountain
Since mankind first looked upward to the skies and continuing today as astronomers peer into the deep realms of the universe, light has brought messages of the world around us. Using light as a unifying theme, this exhibit mixes spectacular images from the night sky, explanatory texts, scientific papers and hands-on experiments. The exhibit is arranged in 18 stations that build on one another. A printed guidebook has supplementary materials.
We wish to thank USA Aloft, LLC for providing this exhibit. More information about the exhibit contents, including press materials and resource links, may be found at www.usaaloft.com/LUE.

2. The Spectrum

A colored spectrum of visible light is shown and the nature and relationship of light to other forms of electromagnetic radiation is discussed. Visitors may create their own spectrum using a flashlight and a diffraction grating. The numerical representation of a spectrum for a star is plotted to show how astronomers can use spectra to classify objects.

3. Filtershe Milky Way

Astronomers use filters to take pictures of celestial objects. Each filter only allows light of a given color through to the final image. By combining different images made with different filters, they can create a color image. This is really very similar to how your digital camera or computer screen works. Visitors may use different colored filters to experiment with viewing different colors of felt.

4. Secret Messages

Let's put our new found observations about color and filters to work classifying. First, take one of the several coloring sheets and use the crayons and color key given to carefully color in the regions with the indicated color. Then use the different filers to see if you can read the embedded secret message. The right filter will cause the secret message to be revealed in much the same way that astronomers look at celestial objects. (If you like, you can try all of the messages using the pre-colored sheets, but it is so much more fun to color it yourself!)

5. What is Out There?

So what do astronomers see when they turn their telescopes outward? This poster gives us a sampling of some of the objects we might find. Examples of stars, planets, comets, nebulae, galaxies and globular clusters are shown. The visitor is asked to find an example of each on the poster. If you are here on a night when we have a telescope set up, you may be able to see examples of many of these objects.

6. Finding ObjectsUrsa Major Sky Map

The idea of constellations as star maps is introduced along with the use of a star finding device to represent the night sky at a given time of the year. If you are here for the evening reception, we may go outside to find constellations.

7. What is a Constellation Really?
Normally when we see two stars near one another in the sky it does not mean that they are physically close to one another. How can this be? A 3D model of the constellation Orion demonstrates how the familiar pattern in the sky would change if viewed from the side out in space.

8. Magnitude

How bright are the stars and other night sky objects? The scale we use to measure this brightness from earth is called apparent magnitude. A related measure of how bright an object is from a standard distance is called absolute magnitude. The relationship between apparent and absolute magnitude is one way astronomers have of measuring distance.

9. How Far Away is it?Measuring with Parallax

In the same way that you would use a ruler to measure the size of your room but would use a car's odometer to measure the distance across town, astronomers have different methods to measure different types of distances. Their collection of methods, known as the cosmic distance ladder or Extragalactic Distance Scale has been carefully derived using cross checks to ensure accuracy and correct calibration. A complete discussion of all the methods is a subject for a graduate course in Cosmology, but a few of the basic methods are described here, including parallax and the evolution of stars. The distances of an Astronomical Unit (AU), parsec (pc) and light year are introduced. Visitors may use a parallax method to measure the distance to a small star on the far wall of the room.

10. Red Shift – Building a Larger Yardstick

When a train blows its horn as it travels past you, a process known as Doppler shift causes the sound to rise in pitch and then descend as it passes and travels away from you. When this phenomenon occurs with light it is called redshift. Astronomer Edwin Hubble established a relationship between the redshift of distant objects and their distance from earth. He used this to demonstrate that the universe is expanding!

11. How Big is Everything, Really?

Distances to the planets , the size of the solar system and Milky Way are compared to the size of the universe using charts of the trail system around the center out to Battery Point. For example, if the sun is at the Center and Pluto is at Battery Point, then a BB sized earth is at the trailhead kiosk just 170 feet from the exhibit. Images show our place in the galaxy and its surrounds.

12. Strange StarsQuasars

In the early 1960s astronomers using radio telescopes were first able to match strong radio sources with optical features. In some cases they found objects that looked like stars but whose spectra were not that of known types of stars, or indeed any known objects. The story of how astronomers discovered what they really are is traced across several decades. Today, we know these objects as quasars and use them as flashlights to look across the universe to nearly the beginning of time. The spectra of quasars and gravitational lenses are introduced.

13. Hubble Space Telescope Ultra Deep Field

Pushing the limit of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers aimed it at a single patch of sky and took long exposures to create an image known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. In a recent result, astronomers have identified a galaxy that is a candidate for being the most distant object ever seen. Later studies will be needed to establish whether that is true or not, but the interesting method called dropout that combines the use of color filters and redshift to estimate distance is discussed.

14. Cataloging the SkySpectroscopy

The first observers of the night sky kept track of all those lights they saw by naming constellations. Later astronomers made sketches of the objects they saw. Lists of objects, known as catalogs, became necessary to keep track of all the objects seen. Catalogs could be consulted to determine whether a newly found object was indeed new. When photography became possible, large telescopes were fitted with cameras and catalogs were enhanced by photographic plates (often the negatives). Once digital imaging became possible (and long before consumer digital cameras) astronomers replaced their film based cameras with digital image sensors. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) has been creating a digital catalog for much of the last decade. The latest catalog consists of an image of more than a terapixel. (A million megapixels! ) The image here summarizes the data from SDSS.

Update: We expect to add to this portion of the exhibit with a spectroscopic plate from the SDSS telescope before April 9, 2011.

15. Let's Do Some Science!


A computer terminal allows visitors to classify galaxies as part of an online collaboration at the Galaxy Zoo. Hundreds of thousands of people have participated to classify galaxies. There are no right or wrong answers, the science comes from examining what large numbers of people believe. Visitors may continue this activity from their home internet terminal.

16. Cosmic Background RadiationWMAP Cosmic Background Radiation

No photo album would be complete without at least one baby picture. Here it is. Cosmic Background radiation is explained and the latest image from Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) is shown.
The results of the WMAP mission touch on some of the deepest subjects concerning the structure of our universe. Beyond the cosmic background radiation measurements, WMAP has fixed an age of the universe of about 13.73 billion years, established that around 23% of the matter in the universe is dark matter that we cannot see and determined that 72% of the matter is dark energy, an unknown repulsive force causing the universe to expand.

17. What Will We Do Next?

Every ten years, in a study sponsored by the National Academies, a panel of astronomers and astrophysicists prepares a report detailing what these experts in the field feel are the most important projects for the next 10 years. The four page pamphlet summarizes the nearly 300 page report for 2012 – 2021. In actual fact, years go into the creation of these projects. One example is the top rated ground based initiative in the report, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope or LSST. When the report was issued, this telescope had been in planning for more than 7 years and had issued a 600 page document describing the telescope and the science it hopes to accomplish. The poster paper here describes the major elements of the LSST. A planned European effort, the European Extremely Large optical/infrared Telescope (E-ELT) will have a primary mirror 42 meters in diameter and be the largest in the world.

18. Resources

Thank you for visiting Light, The Universe and Everything. Astronomers we know do not study the Universe because they have to, most do it for the joy of discovery and personal satisfaction of understanding how the universe works. We hope that you also may take home with you some appreciation of the magnificence and vastness of the world around you. But you don't need to stop here. While sources for this material ranged from books to personal communication and research, much is available on the internet. The web links below provide a bibliography for the material we used. The list is available as a handout, but it is also available online at www.usaaloft.com/LUE.

A note about sources: We have tried throughout our preparation efforts to verify all facts from multiple sources. We encourage readers to do the same. The process of science is one of constant review. In pursuing further understanding, start with accessible information such as found on Wikipedia links, but don't neglect to follow through to the sources. Similarly, popular press is fine for a public understanding of a topic and press releases may be better, but you may find reading astronomy course notes from an online source will provide you with a better understanding. Of course, you can always just read the scientific papers on a topic, and when possible we encourage you to do so. Remember that as you learn about a topic, the papers will become more readable, so keep trying. Many of the papers are to be found in online archives for free. Many journal articles may be read through your local library for free.

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Exhibit Requirements

This exhibit is available for hanging at your site. You must make reservations in advance. Typically, the exhibit will occupy about 100 linear feet of wall space. In addition, some of the hands-on portions require small tables for visitors to use. Internet access is required if you elect to support the interactive laptop portions. For costs, please refer to our course summary page.

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This is a preliminary list of web sites and other sources that were used to prepare this exhibit. Please check back in the near future for updates.  In particular, we will provide a full list of credits for pictures and quoted documents used in the exhibit.  We believe that the licensing for images that were used in this exhibit permits their display in this context.  If you believe this is not the case, please contact us through www.usaaloft.com/contact_us.htm and let us know.  The printed guide has some of this information in a printed form that is not included in the wall panels.  This list is provided in no particular order.

Finally,  USA Aloft would like to thank Don Schneider of Penn State for his thoughtful and helpful review of much of this material.  In addition, Angie Krysiak, Jane Hanson, Chris Kenney, Barbara Benton and Jim Watson all provided input and assistance.  Thank you all.

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We are assembling a comprehensive list of credits for all images used in the exhibit and will post it here shortly. For the images used on this page, the two nebulae pictures and quasar picture are from Hubble Space Telescope and Space Telescope Science Institute. The Milky Way representation is courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech). The quasar spectrum is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The sky map is from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons License. The Cosmic Background Radiation image is from NASA / WMAP Science Team. The parallax computation image is from USA Aloft.

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A promotional card available at Massabesic Audubon Center (while supplies last):

The MWTA map may be found at http://arbesman.net/milkyway/ and is used with permisssion.

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