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Dani Friedland/MEDILL 

Marv Bolt, collections curator at the Adler Planetarium, holds part of a 18th-century telescope. The ornate script instructs the user (in Italian) to choose between better magnification and a clearer image, depending on how the red insert is placed.  The telescope goes on display in May, part of a new exhibit celebrating the 400th anniversary of telescopes.

The stars come out at the Adler for the International Year of Astronomy

by Dani Friedland
March 05, 2009


Dani Friedland/MEDILL 

The twin of this fourth-stage rocket sent NASA's Interstellar Boundary Exploration satellite into an elliptical orbit, allowing it to map the boundary of our solar system.


 Dani Friedland/MEDILL

The 18th- century telescope is properly focused when pulled out to a length of 8 feet. The telescope can extend to 10 feet, but does not function properly at that length.

An 18th-century paper telescope and a NASA interstellar explorer might seem to be galaxies apart. But they’re both part of the Adler Planetarium’s celebration for the International Year of Astronomy.

The Chicago museum is kicking off the year with two new movies the museum produced and an exhibition covering 400 years of telescope technology. A Dutch optician invented the instrument and the astronomer Galileo, creating an improved version in 1609, soon discovered with it the four largest moons of Jupiter.

In addition to a 3-D video exploration of the universe set to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s "Pictures from an Exhibition," the Planetarium has produced a film about NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer.

The IBEX satellite was launched in 2008 to map the boundaries of our solar system. The boundary is estimated at as far as 15 billion miles from the sun, according to data from NASA's Voyager I space probe.   

The Adler Planetarium handles education and public outreach for NASA's IBEX mission.

The IBEX spacecraft is in an elliptical orbit around the Earth that reaches nearly to the moon. It detects atoms that are formed when the solar wind, a cloud of charged particles from the sun that travels outward at about a million miles per hour, interacts with interstellar particles from elsewhere in the galaxy, said IBEX principal investigator David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas.

Some of these atoms travel all the way back from the edges of the solar system and are picked up by IBEX, which beams the data about them down to earth. McComas said a quarter of the sky has been mapped thus far and he expects the full map to be finished this summer. Once the data set is complete, the IBEX video will be updated. A simulation of the finished map will be replaced with the real thing.

A fourth-stage rocket from the IBEX mission has also recently arrived at the Planetarium. IBEX launched using a Pegasus rocket, said Planetarium master educator Lindsay Bartolone. An airplane carried IBEX in a rocket hanging from its underside. Once the Pegasus rocket separated from the plane, it fired to send the spacecraft into orbit.

Pegasus rockets usually have three stages, but IBEX had a unique fourth stage that put the satellite into its elliptical orbit. Only two of these were made. One was sent up with IBEX, and the second one was used in tests that simulated the launch. The fourth-stage test module is now at the Planetarium.

The gleaming metal module is a stark contrast to another never-before-seen piece that will be displayed as part of the International Year of Astronomy: that 8-foot-long telescope made of colorful marbleized paper in the 18th century. 

It was fashioned in Milan from tubes that nest tightly together when the telescope is folded down. The lens, signed with a diamond-tipped pen by its maker, is powerful enough to see the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter, said Marv Bolt, collections curator at the Planetarium. He described the paper telescope as both light and durable and said holding a section of the telescope was “like holding the core of a roll of paper towels.”

Both “3-D Universe: A Symphony” and “IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System” will debut at the Planetarium on March 6 and will also be shown around the world. "Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass" runs May 22-Dec. 31.