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August 2002

Release Date: August 28, 2002

Planetarium Program to Examine the Origin of Stars

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are..." The questions that we asked from our youngest days have intrigued humans for thousands of years. What is a star? Are all stars the same? How do stars shine?

The newest sky show at the Angelo State University Planetarium, "Clouds of Fire: The Origin of Stars," begins Thursday, Aug. 29, and answers these questions while it explores the connection between the formation of stars and the formation of everything else in the Universe from galaxies to planets to humans.

"People are amazed to learn that they are made of stardust," said Mark Sonntag, astronomer at Angelo State University. "All matter, from stars to plants to people, comes from the same source. Everything in the Universe has been connected since the beginning of time."

"Clouds of Fire: The Origin of Stars" will be open to the public during showings at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Nov. 21 at the Angelo State University Planetarium in the Vincent Nursing-Physical Science Building at 2333 Vanderventer on the ASU campus. Admission is $3 for adult general admission, $1.50 for children and free for ASU students, faculty and staff. More information is available at 942-2136.

The origin of the Universe along with the resulting components has fascinated astronomers throughout history. According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, heavenly bodies did not and could not change. They were perfect and moved forever, regularly and predictably in circles.

Today, scientists know that the Universe is constantly changing. In the 1860s, astronomers discovered that each star has a different pattern of dark lines in its rainbow spectrum. These lines allowed scientists to compare stars. Among other things, the patterns of the lines enable astronomers to find out which elements make up each star. Another important tool for analyzing stars is color. Blue stars are considerably hotter than red stars.

Astronomers have found that the size of a star has a significant impact on how long it lives and how it affects nearby planets. An average star like our Sun steadily burns its hydrogen fuel, creating a comfortable range of temperatures on Earth for billions of years. Smaller stars burn their fuel slowly, but tend to send out huge flares of harmful radiation. These smaller stars cannot support life on the planets that may orbit them. At the other extreme, big stars explode after a few million years, broiling any nearby planets.

The Hubble Space Telescope recently provided scientists with beautiful pictures of a star-forming gas and dust cloud called the Eagle Nebula. These images allowed scientists to peer into the inner workings of star cluster formation.

"In every show we try to feature at least one completely new visualization of something unusual in outer space," said Sonntag. "For 'Clouds of Fire,' artists at Adler Planetarium in Chicago developed artwork for full-sky images, showing the formation of the Eagle Nebula and the way the nebula evaporates over time to reveal a beautiful star cluster."

In the long cycle of star birth and death, generation after generation of stars both big and small have created a rich blend of elements that gradually mixed with other gas and dust, forming our own Solar System and everything within it.