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Planetarium offers a different kind of star map

By Joie Guner

March 5, 2007 10:01 p.m.

The UCLA Planetarium is not conspicuous to the passerby and may go unnoticed by most students who have not taken astronomy courses.

But to some of those who are aware of its presence, the small dome located on the eighth floor of the Mathematical Sciences building serves as a galactic getaway Wednesday nights.

With a large telescope-shaped projector in the center and inclined seats circling the sides, the planetarium plays host to professors, their children, graduate students and undergraduates one night a week for a star show followed by a relevant presentation.

Eason Wang, a third-year mechanical engineering student, gave a presentation on life in the universe to last Wednesday’s attendees.

Wang started with the traditional star show presented each week.

The show began as the room darkened, and a projection of a sun appeared on the dome screen above the audience. Soon, the entire room was pitch black and the ceiling was full of brightly lit stars.

Initially, it looked as if the ceiling had lifted and the night sky had been exposed.

As Wang moved the projected star constellations, the audience traveled virtually around the sun, keeping the North Star as its guide.

The powerpoint presentation that followed explored the possibility of life beyond our planet.

“At least on the surface, we probably won’t find life (on Mars) because with a weak magnetic field there are lots of rays that can kill animals,” Wang said. “Life might be there, who knows. Let’s keep our minds open.”

Some characteristics of Mars have made it a potential candidate for hosting life. With polar ice caps, seasons, frozen water, a weak magnetic field and some atmosphere, Mars shares some of the same attributes that Earth does, Wang said.

Wang discussed thermophilic bacteria, which can live in extreme environments, such as in close proximity to volcanoes and ocean vents. These bacteria metabolize compounds emitted from the vents in the absence of sunlight in order to live.

He said such bacteria may be found in the extreme environments on the other planets orbiting our sun.

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, which has a water-ice structure on the surface, is a potential candidate for life.

“Europa is close enough to Jupiter so tidal heating has an effect on it. You probably have a layer of liquid water below. Maybe we can find thermophilic bacteria under this ice,” Wang said.

David Rodriguez, a first-year astronomy graduate student, gave support to this theory, saying that by drilling under the ice, scientists might find a liquid saltwater ocean.

Wang also named Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, as another location for bacteria that can live under the extreme conditions of its geysers.

“Maybe we can transport life via comets. Maybe when this meteor with bacteria hits a planet more suitable for life it starts up life. Maybe that’s how we got started. … It’s just a theory,” Wang said.

Though there has been no evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, the possibility has not been ruled out.

“With more advanced microscopes we might be able to detect terrestrial planets like the Earth,” Rodriguez said. “Mars might be one of the planets that’s most convincing.”

There were several people in attendance for enjoyment on Wednesday, while many students were fulfilling an astronomy class assignment.

“It’s interesting how many questions we have about where we came from and how,” said Caitlin Beitel, a second-year musical theater student.

Space missions continue to explore the possibility of life in the universe.

With research and missions into the universe, we just might find life beyond our planet, Wang said.

Since the universe is so expansive, many researchers believe there may be life on other planets.

“For us to be the only (living) creatures in the universe is a far stretch,” Rodriguez said.

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Joie Guner
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