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February 1, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, February 1, 2008

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The newest exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Natural History could be considered its star attraction.

Alien Earths focuses on stars and other celestial bodies, as well as the search for life beyond the planet we inhabit.

The exhibit opens today at the museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville and will be on display through April 30.

There is a major correlation between nature and outer space: The origins of elements that make up the Earth, and even the human body, are traced to the development of stars, one component of the exhibit points out.

Alien Earths was developed by the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. Topics covered by the exhibit include how what we know about life on Earth can help us search for life elsewhere in the universe, what type of intelligent life might be found in outer space and how to search for intelligent life.

Interactive and multi-media presentations in the exhibit include:

"Our Place in Space," which shows a representation of an area of outer space beyond the solar system that scientists now are studying.

"Star Birth," which provides information about various types of stars.

"Planet Quest," which shows the methods scientists are using to search for planets outside the solar system, and

"Search for Life," which shows the techniques scientists are using to discover life beyond Earth - if it exists anywhere.

Scientists so far have discovered more than 100 planets outside the solar system, but no evidence of life on those planets or elsewhere in space has been found, according to museum curators.

The Milky Way galaxy where Earth is located is only one of many billions of galaxies believed to exist, and each galaxy is believed to contain numerous stars and planets, the exhibit states.

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to, among other things, use an infrared camera to study ordinary objects, compare the sun's life cycle to those of other stars, put planets into motion around a star and explore microbes, which are perhaps the most abundant life form in the universe.

They also will learn about the "building blocks of life" - atoms, molecules and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the latter of which stores and transmits genetic information in organisms.

Exhibits include hands-on activities ranging from listening to strange sounds and deciding whether they were made by natural or intelligent life to making educated guesses on how many grains of salt are in various containers. The salt represents the abundance of stars in the universe.

"The exhibit should be popular with school groups" due to those activities, said Ryan Barber, the museum's marketing and public relations director.

Alien Earths is sponsored by Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC), which paid $5,000 toward the cost of bringing the exhibit to the museum.

Kris Landrum, PHCC's public relations director, noted that both the college and the museum have missions to educate the public, but in different ways.

"It's academic, it's knowledge and that's what we're (the institutions) all about," she said of the exhibit. "And, it's fun."

Together, the college and the museum paid $45,000 to bring Alien Earths to Martinsville for three months, said museum Executive Director Tim Gette.

The expense is worthwhile, he said, to lure visitors to the museum and teach people - especially children - about the universe and life.

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