Ingram Planetarium offers sights, knowledge that is out of this world

At Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach, N.C., you have to look up. Never mind that the universe might seem bigger, and we humans and this Earth smaller, than we ever imagined.

With some tips about the contents discovered so far in the heavens, take home some new highlights for which to look in the nighttime sky, whether at home, the beach or in a field, and unlock many other worlds before your eyes.

The planetarium departs from its Friday-Saturday schedule and goes into summer mode this weekend, with shows on its Sky Theater and other programs Mondays-Saturdays through Sept. 1.

Recline in the 85-seat dome and choose from a menu of shows that change hourly, including three new productions: “Dinosaur Passage to Pangaea” at 1 p.m., “Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure” at 2 p.m., and with narration by actor Tim Allen, “Back to the Moon for Good.” Then, after every screening, Ed Ovsenik, planetarium manager, gives a show on what to look for in the sky for the month.

At a showing last month of “Undiscovered Worlds” to start a Saturday, people spread across about half the 85-seat auditorium, and all left knowing about the Kepler Space Telescope. This NASA spacecraft in orbit this decade has been on the prowl for planets, detecting more than 3,800 objects, about one-quarter of which have been confirmed as “exoplanets,” orbiting their respective stars or suns. Six of those could have, or might’ve had, liquid water or characteristics for life-habitable possibilities.

Fact, not fiction

A subject “once considered science fiction” is now scientific fact, the narration in “Undiscovered Worlds” states about all this long distance unearthing of celestial objects hundreds of light years from Earth.

Closer to home, the movie lays out how the inner planets, going outward from the sun – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – are rocky, whereas the outer planets (amid our sympathies to the defrocked Pluto ...) – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – are giants made up of gas. Even the “Great Red Spot,” as the roving storm on Jupiter is known and measured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, would fit more than one Earth-size planet within its bounds.

Seeing a movie in the dome marks only half the journey for each visitor to Ingram, for afterward, Ovesnik casts a current outer space picture on the ceiling for nighttime viewing each month. This week in mid-May, he’s telling audiences about some gems to behold.

Look southeast in late evening, he said, for “a capital J,” the constellation Scorpius, or Scorpion. Then peer next to that for “a teapot,” part of the constellation Sagittarius.

Saturn, Ovesnik said, rises in the southeast about 25 degrees above the horizon, looking “brilliant and at opposition,” in a straight line with the sun and Earth, so the disc is 100 percent lit for us at night. Also, with Saturn being about 800 million miles to the sun, the planet’s ellipsis had brought it to about 700 million miles from Earth, hence its “much bigger” appearance in this interval.

Meteor shower coming

Ovesnik’s excitement for this weekend is overflowing for an “unexpected” meteor shower this weekend, as Earth passes through an inbound comet’s tail.

“You have to look toward Polaris,” he said, “the North Star. The best thing is to look for right part of the bowl of the Big Dipper to see where these meteors originate from.”

A biology major who earned his juris doctorate and worked as a corporate environmental lawyer, Ovsenik has become consumed by the world of astronomy.

The native New Yorker said “it’s OK to wonder” about the growing body of work that astrophysics covers, and “to have people walk away” from a planetarium show, thinking, “I never thought about that.”

Enjoying his educating role at Ingram, which first opened 12 years ago, and began showing laser music shows in 2009, Ovesnik said, “It’s not a job; it’s fun.”

Don’t leave the building without stopping at the various displays and interactive experiments in the science hall, across from the theater. Play with an orrery, a model of our solar system, or pause for a few minutes to watch a video of an astronaut’s tour aboard the International Space Station, as she shows how to wash her hair, or work out on a treadmill – a critical step because a person’s body mass and bone density change in a weightless world, where one does not sit for six months.

Also, as touched on in the movie “Undiscovered Worlds,” a person’s age will differ on a fellow terrestrial planet. Play with the numbers to feel older or younger, because traveling around round our sun at 67,000 miles per hour, Earth spends 3651/4 days to make that loop, but Mercury’s orbit takes only 88 “Earth days.” For Venus and Mars, on the other hand, the respective revolutions last 225 and 687 Earth days.

So, a 20-year-old on Earth would be 83, in Mercury years. (For that conversion rate, mutiply 20 by 365, which equals 7,300 Earth days, and divide that total by 88, resulting in 83.)