Pacific Science Center exhibit shines spotlight on research by local NASA scientists

PSC Portal to Research exhibits

Many scientists working in the fields of space physics and planetary science (myself included) grew up looking up at the stars and wondering what was out there. Asked what we wanted to do when we grew up, we would say: “I want to explore the solar system and help send people to other planets.”

Now as adults, while most of us have not left Earth, we are actively exploring the solar system through our research. For the past two and a half years, I have been lucky enough to participate in the development of a six-month exhibit on planetary and space science for the Pacific Science Center. The exhibit is part of their Portal to Current Research project, which allows the public to learn about current scientific research and its impacts.

In the exhibit, you can experiment with a thermal imaging camera to learn how my colleague, Dr. Josh Bandfield, uses the same technology on satellites orbiting Mars to map minerals and geologic deposits on the surface. These maps may one day help us figure out the best location for the first human colony on Mars, as they tell us where important resources, like water, are located.

You can play videos on a touch table and watch giant explosions from the Sun, in which millions to billions of tons of hot gas, called plasma, are violently ejected into space. You will learn how I use satellite observations to create computer models of how the material in these explosions interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. My goal is to understand what kinds of solar activity can do the most harm to our people and technology in space. Solar activity is a concern for anyone living outside the Earth’s atmosphere or anyone trying to use GPS to navigate.

One thing I love about my research is that I can envision any world I want on my computer and then figure out what that world would really be like. I am not bound by our ability to travel to the planet, or even whether or not the planet actually exists. I am only bound by the laws of physics, such as conservation of mass and energy. Once I create a world, I can look at it from any location, and fly around it like a space explorer.

My goal is for everyone to leave the exhibit with a new understanding of how fun and exciting science and research can be. We as scientists get to explore new worlds, make discoveries and see things no one has seen before. It’s a fascinating Universe out there. Come explore it with us!


Erika Harnett is a research associate professor in UW’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the associate director of Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium. Exploring Our Solar System with Local NASA Scientists will be on display at the Pacific Science Center until February 16, 2014. Funding for this exhibit was provided through a NASA Education and Public Outreach Grant.

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