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SMC Planetarium Tackles Topics With a Sci-Fi Bent

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By Jorge Casuso

August 24, 2022 -- Samples brought back from Mars, a disc meant to be found by aliens and a system to deflect incoming asteroids might sound like science fiction topics.

But they are some of the real life space missions Santa Monica College’s John Drescher Planetarium will explore next month during the free, live virtual shows on Friday nights at 8 p.m., following The Night Sky Show at 7.

Mars Rover
Artist rendering of Mars Rover (Courtesy SMC/KCRW)

Next month's series kicks off Friday, September 9, with "an overview of the current and near-future missions to Mars" presented by Associate Lecturer Sarah Vincent.

"With multiple surface missions in operation and one (INSIGHT) moving into end-of-mission status, plus a small international fleet of orbiters, the Red Planet remains an object of intense scrutiny," event organizers said.

The show will look at the early steps taken by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring the first samples of Mars material back to Earth for detailed study in the early to mid 2030s.

"These first collected and returned samples could answer a key question: did life ever exist on Mars?" NASA officials said.

"Only by bringing the samples back can we truly answer the question by using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs, at a time when future generations can study them using techniques yet to be invented."

On Friday, September 16, Vincent looks back at the 45-year legacy of exploration by Voyager's twin crafts as NASA prepares for the mission's end.

Launched by NASA on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 was part of a pioneering program to study the outer Solar System and interstellar space beyond the Sun's heliosphere.

In operation for nearly 45 years, the craft still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and to transmit data to Earth, according to NASA.

Each Voyager probe carries a gold-plated disc containing earth sounds in the event the spacecraft is found by intelligent life forms. The disc contains, among other recordings, the sound of whales and a baby crying.

It also contains 27 musical cuts, including global folk music, "Melancholy Blues" by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry, the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and three cuts by Bach.

Voyager 1 is expected to reach the Oort cloud, the most distant region of the solar system, in about 300 years. It would then take another 30,000 years to pass through the cloud, which could contain, billions, maybe trillions, of objects.

On Friday, September 23, Senior Lecturer Jim Mahon will take a look at the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission that "aims to deliberately bump Dimorphos, the smaller of a pair of asteroids, on September 26 to slightly deflect the asteroid’s orbit."

"The show takes a look at this first small-scale demonstration of an active planetary defense technique as the time of impact nears," event organizers said.

“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth.”

Next month's offerings conclude on Friday, September 30, with the more down-to-earth show "Backyard Observing: Binocular Highlights of the Autumn Sky" presented by Mahon.

The show "explains how to use binoculars to enjoy the highlights of the autumn sky at a convenient hour, and enhance the experience by recognizing a few familiar bright stars."

Topics covered include "how to get oriented in the fall skies of Southern California, what the numbers printed on binoculars mean and what some interesting targets are to look at."

If weather permits, guests will be able to stroll outside for a little binocular observing immediately after the program, organizers said.

Planetarium lecturers are currently using the Zoom platform to present shows while the actual on-campus planetarium remains closed due to the COVID-19 emergency.

To attend the shows, the Zoom software must be installed on the viewer’s computer. A free download is available at

"The shows include the chance to chat with the planetarium lecturers and ask questions related to astronomy and space exploration," planetarium officials said.

More information is available online at or by calling 310-434-3005. Shows are subject to change or cancellation without notice.

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