Fascination with astronomy at experimenta

Everyone can get to the telescope here. (Source: experimenta)

A very special observatory: the all-sky dome on the roof of experimenta Heilbronn offers visitors to the Science Center a heavenly panoramic view. During the day, our home star is in focus: Under the guidance of the supervisors, visitors can watch the bubbling glow of the sun. David Mülheims reports from experimenta that there are also special nightly events for special astronomical events, and scientific use of the observatory is also planned, says the astrophysicist.

Science at your fingertips, combined with fun and games: Since 2009, this concept has been attracting large and small visitors to the Science Center on the Neckar. The success led to growth: In the past two years, experimenta has been expanded to become the largest science center in Germany. Since April 2019, visitors can now experience over 275 exhibits in four exhibition worlds and experiment in nine laboratories. In addition, the Science Dome provides wow effects: in the high-tech dome building, experimenta presents its visitors with specially produced 360-degree films, live experiments, various types of shows and science theater.

The experimenta is crowned by a telescopic dome

Since July 2019, the Science Center has had another attraction to offer: an observatory on the roof of the main building opens up the realm of astronomy to visitors. Its central element is Germany’s largest all-sky dome. It houses a powerful mirror telescope and a lens telescope that is equipped with special filters. “The All-Sky dome is a special form of a telescopic dome,” explains Mülheims: “Normally, these systems only have a comparatively small slot through which the telescope looks. The all-sky dome, on the other hand, can open like a shell so that visitors to the observatory can see the entire sky. ”

Mülheims is one of the two full-time “star attendants” at experimenta: he and his colleague Markus Emmerich take care of the technology, present astro shows in the Science Dome and take turns taking care of the groups of ten visitors each in the observatory. The astrophysicists provide information, help with the operation of the telescopes and answer questions. “In addition to astronomy, they naturally also include space travel or the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life,” says Mülheims. With all of these topics, visitors have the feeling of being very close to the sky: the open all-sky dome gives those who are not looking through a telescope a panoramic view of the sky.

Sharp look at our home star

One can, however, ask what there is to see in the observatory in daylight during the opening hours of experimenta. “The brightest star in the sky can be ideally observed during the day: the sun,” says Mülheims. “Our home star also serves as an example for the distant stars that we can only recognize at night as dots on the firmament. Because for many, what is happening is what we can observe in our observatory on the surface of the sun. ” The view goes through the large lens telescope of the All-Sky dome: Visitors can take turns looking at the sun, while what they see is displayed on a screen for everyone to see. “We can still capture the winter sun, which is flat over the horizon,” says Mülheims.

As he explains, special sun filters make it possible to look into the blinding light safely and to observe the lively structures of the sun. Certain devices also allow different representations of the sun and studies of its light spectrum, reports the astrophysicist. The detailed view reveals exciting structures such as the granulated surface of our star or the spectacular prominences. “These gas emissions are particularly impressive for visitors,” says Mülheims. As he reports, on August 27, 2019, the most spectacular observation of a protuberance was achieved: The earth would have fit five times next to each other in the gas cloud that hurled the sun over 60,000 kilometers away.

“Visitors can also take cell phone photos as a souvenir of their personal view of the sun,” says Mülheims. In addition, the observatory at experimenta is characterized by another important feature: it is completely barrier-free: the construction has lifts and the telescopes offer special devices so that wheelchair users can also take a look into the firmament. “Even people with visual impairments can get an impression of the sun,” says Mülheims: The observatory offers images of the sun in tactile Braille display.

Opportunities for young astronomers

In addition to the sun, the telescope also focuses on the moon, the planets and the stars. So far, night events have only taken place during special astronomical events. For example, the partial lunar eclipse was targeted in July 2019. In June 2020, the Venus cover by the moon could be an interesting event. “Our observatory has only been in operation for half a year – we are therefore still in a development phase,” emphasizes Mülheims. “The demand is high and that’s why we want to gradually expand the offer. In this context, it is also planned to expand our possibilities for astro photography, ”says Mülheims. Because the mirror telescope offers potential for spectacular images: its resolution enables details of the Saturn rings or the structures of the Jupiter atmosphere to be reproduced. And our gaze can also go beyond our solar system: gas nebulae, galaxies or globular clusters can be admired. “In the future, more and more visual material could be created that we can present at experimenta,” says Mülheims.

According to the “Star Keeper” of the Science Center, it is also planned in the long term to give young people the opportunity to do their own research in the observatory – for example, to take part in competitions like “Jugend forscht”. “Our system offers the technical possibilities,” says Mülheims. “You can, for example, target asteroids or record how fast the Saturn rings are rotating”.

In this context, he once again emphasizes the literally fundamental importance of the astronomical offer of experimenta: “Visitors go to other observatories in a targeted manner and they often already have previous knowledge and are already enthusiastic about astronomy,” says Mülheims. “The experimenta observatory, on the other hand, is also visited by people who have never had astronomical experiences before”. A visit can thus become a spark for astronomical enthusiasm: “In some cases, we may be able to create a basis for starting out in hobby astronomy or even in a scientific career,” says the astrophysicist.

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Science center with heavenly views
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Link: experimenta

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