The upcoming Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum will give visitors a new perspective on the many worlds within our solar system, which then can aide our understanding of the many worlds being discovered around other stars. Spacecraft sent throughout the solar system have given humanity its first close-up look at the diverse worlds tied to the Sun. The new gallery will share with visitors not just the information learned from these missions but also the historical perspective of how we learned that information. The exhibition also introduces visitors to a concept of time that may be new to them: while the internet has put information at our fingertips in a way that can seem to condense time, the rocks and ice of planets and moons force us to consider time spans of billions of years.
How do we take an exhibition such as this from concept to reality? It is a complex journey of discovery for everyone fortunate enough to work on gallery development. The structure of this gallery grew out of many months of discussion among the staff, resulting in the decision that since we are now finding many planets orbiting other stars, the new gallery should highlight our solar system in such a way that we may eventually explore other stellar systems, going from ‘outside in’ toward the central star. Four years of intensive work followed, including writing and editing the script, selecting objects and artifacts to be displayed, developing and approving video and computer media, and now to the ongoing installment in the new space.
Following the ‘outside in’ theme, as the visitor enters the gallery, they first encounter icy worlds orbiting the Sun outside the region of the planets. Only recently has this outer zone of comets and other frozen objects been recognized as a third distinct part of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt, with Pluto as the best-known inhabitant of the region. Next come four giant planets, all much larger than the Earth: Neptune and Uranus have interiors that include materials abundant in the icy region, Saturn has its spectacular rings, and Jupiter is the largest planet. The four giants are primarily made up of gas, but at the asteroid belt things begin to be dominated by rocks. Since 1965 Mars has been visited by dozens of spacecraft, some flying past it, some orbiting it, and some landing and roving on it, but accompanied by many missions that failed to reach their objective. Earth is the largest rocky planet, mostly covered by liquid water; it is the only planet (so far) where we know that diverse life is abundant. Venus, with its hellish surface conditions, and Mercury complete the rocky quartet (sorry Star Trek fans, there is no Vulcan). In the exhibition, Voyager, Mariner 10, and three generations of Mars rovers illustrate the changing engineering designs required to explore the different environments within the solar system.
People can learn information in different ways. Above their heads the visitors will see scaled versions of the planets and their large moons, displayed with photo-quality surface markings. Numerous interactive stations are located throughout the gallery, allowing visitors to expand their knowledge beyond the written labels. Some stations provide the opportunity for tactile interaction with devices that illustrate important concepts, as well as actual rocks that represent the building blocks of planets. Two large video presentations transport the visitor to places beyond their everyday experience. An 11-screen ”Tour of the Solar System” introduces the key players around the sun, along with some of the spacecraft used to visit these places. At the center of the gallery, ”Walking on Other Worlds” immerses visitors on the surfaces of seven celestial bodies visited by various spacecraft. Finally, ”Exploration Continues” has three large screens to update visitors about new discoveries, plus it provides a dedicated place for live presentations by educators and scientists.
The gallery is made possible by the generous support of Kenneth C. Griffin. To view the behind-the-scenes development, visit the Griffin Gallery’s Flickr page.