- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

The night sky looks beautiful and peaceful. However, the twinkling stars belie the chaos that occurred millions of years ago and millions of miles away.

“Cosmic Collisions,” a 23-minute movie showing at Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, gives visitors a visually gorgeous lesson on the complexities of space.

In fact, the film breaks down the subject so that even a small child can understand — that things crash into each other and split apart to make other objects.

“You throw rocks together, and things happen; when things collide, things happen,” says David DeVorkin, the museum’s senior curator for space science. “The film does a good job of visualizing that and presenting the information in an accessible way.”

Watching the movie on the planetarium’s dome gives visitors a space explorer’s view of what they would have seen if they had been there, for instance, 4.5 billion years ago when a collision between our still-forming Earth and another planetary body helped form our moon.

“The collision nearly destroyed Earth,” actor and director Robert Redford, the show’s narrator, says in the movie. “The collision spread rock into space. Most of the rock fell back down to our planet, but some stayed in orbit.”

Gravity and collisions with one another kept the remaining rock from falling into space. The rock fused to form the Earth’s moon.

The scientists who made the film estimate that the moon was formed in a month. Mr. DeVorkin says that time period is still open to debate.

“Not all planetary people agree on this,” he says. “There are good arguments for it, though. The formation of the moon happened a lot faster than people realize.”

Another well-regarded scientific theory — how the dinosaurs became extinct — has to do with a cosmic collision. The movie explains that “not all collisions have beautiful results.”

Sixty-five million years ago, Mr. Redford says, an asteroid measuring seven miles wide and traveling at 40,000 mph hit Earth near what is now Mexico.

“The fireball scorched everything in sight,” the narrator explains. “Everything caught fire, and the temperature [on Earth] was 500 degrees. … Three-quarters of life on Earth became extinct.”

Can it happen again? Maybe. That’s why scientists spend considerable resources mapping out a plan to divert a significant asteroid, the movie explains.

Another collision explored in the movie: proton collisions on the sun, which create energy that leaves the sun as light.

The movie explains — and spectacularly shows — how the northern lights are created when solar storms collide with Earth.

Watching the movie makes a nice complement to a visit to the vast halls of the Air and Space Museum. Viewers of all ages will come away with a few basic lessons — that collisions can transform the universe; that change is constant; that the Earth has a system of natural defenses; and that space involves a huge expanse of time and distance.

Still, collisions can change all of these things almost instantly.

When you go:

What: “Cosmic Collisions”

Where: Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, Independence and Sixth Street Southwest, Washington

Hours: Shown every half hour, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no 11 a.m. show on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday).

Admission: Members, $6.50; adults, $8.50; seniors older 60 and older, $7.50; children ages 2 to 12, $7. Combo tickets are also available in conjunction with “Stars Tonight” planetarium show and Imax movies. Museum admission is free.

Parking: Limited street parking. Nearest Metro is Smithsonian (Blue/Orange lines).

Miscellaneous:

• “Cosmic Collisions,” is a 23-minute movie shown on the dome screen of the planetarium. It is a fantastic view of space and the stars while presenting a science lesson about how collisions between planets, meteors and space debris have transformed planets and space into what scientists know today.

• There is a gift shop located right outside the planetarium.

• Young children may not enjoy the darkness of the planetarium.

Information: Click on www.si.edu/ planetarium or phone 202/633-4629.


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