- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Did you know the brightest star in the sky is Sirius? It is the brightest because it is the closest star in the Northern Hemisphere aside from the sun to our planet and is bigger and more luminous than the sun. It would take nine years traveling at the speed of light to reach Sirius from Earth.

These are just some of the fun facts that can be learned by visiting a planetarium. Though city lights obscure the stars, those in a planetarium offer a bright alternative to outdoor stargazing. The planetarium also is a good place to begin learning about the stars and the solar system.

The Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall offers a number of daily shows designed to re-create the stars, the five planets closest to Earth and various constellations. Its 70-foot-wide domed ceiling provides the backdrop for 9,000 stars, half of which are visible at one time.

"The Stars Tonight" is a journey through the current night sky, geared toward families with children ages 6 and older.

Five-year-old Jacob Devasagayam from Green Bay, Wis., was enjoying the show recently. When staff astronomer Sean O'Brien pointed out planets and asked if anyone knew their names, young Jacob shouted out the correct responses. How did he know the names of the planets? He has a place mat depicting the planets and their locations.

"I have to be more careful than usual when we have sharp kids in the audience," Mr. O'Brien remarked.

Other planetariums in the area, though smaller, also offer opportunities to learn about the night sky. The Nature Center's planetarium in Rock Creek Park is the only one in the national park system. It has a 24-foot-wide dome, and its projector, "George," can display 1,354 stars. Its programs are suitable for youngsters from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

Arlington Planetarium is operated by the Arlington Public Schools as part of the system's science department. Though it is used primarily as a teaching tool, it is open to the public on the first Monday of the month for a show, "The Stars Tonight," and also on weekends during the school year.

Jonathan Harmon, the planetarium's director, is a teacher who loves what he is doing and makes the show interesting and informative. He uses visual aids to help in the discovery of the constellations.

He recalls the visit of a young Japanese girl who had moved to the area.

"During the show, she saw stars that looked familiar to her, and because of the latitude, they were the exact same stars she was seeing in Japan. She became ecstatic that she was seeing the same stars she had always seen. It gave her a little piece of home. That gave me such a sense of pleasure," Mr. Harmon says.

Though planetariums are a good starting point, there's nothing like the real thing. The winter sky offers more opportunity to view the stars. For beginning astronomers, a field guide, such as the National Audubon Society's "Night Sky," is invaluable.

Constellations are groupings of stars aligned by imaginary dots to form patterns. Orion the hunter is visible to the naked eye and can be found to the west of Sirius. A red star, Betelgeuse, marks one "shoulder" on Orion, and a blue star, Rigel, marks a "knee." Orion is easy to find, as three bright stars in a row make up the hunter's belt. This constellation is highly visible in the eastern half of the winter sky.

Also visible in the early evening winter sky are Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Venus can be spotted in the southwest up to four hours after sunset. Jupiter and Saturn can be found high in the east as darkness descends.

Though stars appear to be white, careful observation can detect color. The spectrum of star colors ranges from blue to red. A star's color is determined by its temperature.

Sirius dominates the winter sky and has a bluish cast. Blue stars can burn at 64,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while red stars chill out at around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Our sun a yellow-white star weighs in with a surface temperature around 100,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

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