Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Opens "Explore the Universe" Exhibition

Press Release

Thursday, September 13, 2001 (All day)

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The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum--continuing its yearlong 25th anniversary celebration--opens its newest permanent exhibition, "Explore the Universe," on Friday, Sept. 21. The gallery showcases some of the most significant observational tools astronomers have devised over the past four centuries and the role each has played in our continuing quest to understand the universe.

Visitors to "Explore the Universe" will pass through five sections representing the evolution of the astronomer's instruments:

    "Exploring the Universe with the Naked Eye" examines our first basic understandings of the universe. Featured artifacts include an 11th-century Islamic astrolabe, an early mechanical map of the universe; and a replica of Tycho Brahe's ornate armillary sphere, used to study the sky and teach the celestial coordinate system.

    "Exploring the Universe with the Telescope" illustrates how the telescope revolutionized the way we see the universe. Featured artifacts include William Herschel's 20-foot (6-meter) telescope tube, a British national treasure used for the first-ever mapping of the entire night sky, never before displayed in the United States.

    Exploring the Universe with Photography" shows how photographs changed the way astronomers recorded the universe. Featured artifacts include the huge observing cage from the Mount Wilson telescope, used by Edwin Hubble in discovering that the universe is made up of galaxies and they are all moving away from each other.
    "Exploring the Universe with Spectroscopy" demonstrates how the study of light reveals the compositions of stars and galaxies and their motions. Featured artifacts include an 1894 spectrograph from the Lick Observatory, the prototype instrument for high-accuracy observations of radial velocity, which is the speed of motion in the line of sight.
    "Exploring the Universe in the Digital Age," the largest of the five sections, explains how the advanced digital equipment of today has enhanced the power of earlier tools to portray a universe still evolving. Featured artifacts include the flight-ready backup mirror to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and instruments removed from the HST during servicing by astronauts.

The National Air and Space Museum has the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of scientific instruments for observing the stars from space. Approximately one-sixth of those artifacts--including the backup mirror to the Hubble Space Telescope--are displayed in "Explore the Universe." The Herschel 20-foot tube and the observing cage from Mount Wilson--parts of two of the most important telescopes in history--were generously loaned to the museum for the exhibition.

The gallery also features more than two dozen interactives including replicas of early astrolabes, quadrants and telescopes; mechanical representations of galaxies; an infrared camera and monitor station; and several computer stations and video kiosks for expanded illustration of how the artifacts are used.

The museum has produced three short videos for the gallery: the computer-animated adventures of "Priscilla the Proton," the artifact-appraising spoof "Museum Roadshow" and "Scott Hamilton Skates the Universe," in which the Olympic gold medalist and national champion zips through the cosmic rink to "Galaxy Song," from the Monty Python film "The Meaning of Life."

The "Explore the Universe" Web site ( offers an extensive virtual tour of the gallery, a detailed look at artifacts, plus links to scientific and academic resources.

The museum's education unit has designed a series of special programs for "Explore the Universe" including a "family day" on Saturday, Sept. 22; a teachers guide; and online lessons linked from the exhibition Web site. A staffed, hands-on "discovery" cart equipped with devices and games that demonstrate exhibition concepts will be featured at the museum."

The National Air and Space Museum is all about charting and celebrating mankind's technological advancements," said museum director Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey. 'Explore the Universe' presents these remarkable astronomical tools in the same way that our Milestones of Flight gallery takes visitors from Kitty Hawk to the moon. And while we haven't physically traveled very far from our planet, "Explore the Universe" shows how our quest has taken us millions of light years into space."

"Explore the Universe" is made possible through the generous contributions of the National Science Foundation and TRW, with additional funding from Corning Incorporated Foundation/Corning Incorporated, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Smithsonian Institution Special Exhibitions Fund. Additional support is provided by Analytical Graphics, Inc. and the Eastman Kodak Company.

The museum marked its 25th anniversary on July 1, 2001. Since opening in 1976, it has become the most popular museum in the world, attracting more than nine million people a year. The museum is currently building a companion facility at Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, which will house the 80 percent of the national collection that has not been accessible to the general public. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center will open in December 2003, to mark the centennial of the Wright brothers' first powered flight at Kitty Hawk.

The National Air and Space Museum, located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (Closed Christmas Day.) Admission is free.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Downloadable images of this exhibition and an electronic media kit can be found at: