The LodeStar Astronomy Center's Starry Nights exhibit, which lasts until the end of February, gives stargazers of all ages the chance to peer at constellations and planets after taking a virtual reality zoom through the galaxy and solar system.
The exhibit includes a 20-minute planetarium show followed by telescope observation outside. Shows run every half hour from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Saturdays until Feb. 23 at the LodeStar Astronomy Center, 1801 Mountain Road NW.
Laurel Ladwig, planetarium manager, said Starry Nights is great for families, first dates and anyone interested in learning more about astronomy.
"It's an excellent chance to see the night sky," she said. "You can get an up close and personal view of objects as they appear in the telescopes."
In the 55-foot planetarium dome, people can learn how to find the North Star and constellations and can take a virtual reality trip to the rings of Saturn.
After the show, visitors are invited to the outdoor observatory to look through telescopes at various planets and stars that are visible during winter, such as Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere's night sky.
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UNM student Michael Sepulveda focused a telescope on Jupiter and encouraged people to look at the planet's reddish brown cloud bands.
Sepulveda, a junior in astrophysics, has been working at the astronomy center for about two years and said he enjoys using telescopes and other high-tech equipment that he doesn't have at home.
UNM Student Shannon Maguire, who has worked with LodeStar for more than a year, aimed a telescope at Saturn and assured people that the small image of the ringed planet was not a sticker as they looked through the eyepiece.
"I've gotten to see a lot of deep space objects I didn't know existed," she said of her work.
The center began as part of UNM's Physics and Astronomy Department in the mid-1990s and is now under Auxiliary Enterprises, said Aileen O'Catherine, an education specialist with LodeStar.
On the second floor of the building people can visit several activity stations to learn more about the search for extraterrestrial life. O'Catherine said that astronomers have been able to find new, large planets beyond our solar system by observing stars that wobble. She explained that stars wobble because of gravitational pull from large planets that move around them.
One of this year's new Starry Nights activities is an alien-making table for children where they can create extra terrestrial creatures out of colorful pipe cleaners and plastic googley eyes.
"They have a blast over here with the activities," O'Catherine said, as a few young girls showed off their art. "It's great to see families get excited about bringing their kids out."
Betsy Soltero, a former UNM student, looked at various minerals behind glass with her daughter Rebekah, 15, and son Stephen, 18.
"We had the time and it was a beautiful evening with calm winds," she said of her decision to come to the exhibit.
Soltero said she loved taking astronomy at UNM and thought that coming to Starry Nights would be a great way to share it with her children.
She said she enjoyed the imagery of the planetarium demonstration.
"When they bring the planets close, that's really amazing," Soltero said.
Admission prices for Starry Nights are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors 60 years and older and $3 for children ages 6 to 12. For more information about the exhibit, lodestar or internships, call 841-5955 or visit www.unm.edu/LodeStar.