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Published March 19 2012

A starry, starry night at the MSUM planetarium

MOORHEAD – Looking for a midweek getaway? How about trek among the stars?

The Minnesota State University Moorhead physics department is hosting a jaunt through the universe tonight, turning the school’s planetarium into a virtual intergalactic tour bus.

“The plan is to look at the universe on a bunch of different scales,” said Matt Craig, physics department chairman and the program’s host. The event, which is free and open to the public, will begin with a look at familiar planets in our solar system and pan out to explore the local cloud of stars, the Milky Way galaxy and eventually the universe as a whole.

Along the way, Craig will highlight recurring patterns carved out by the laws of physics: why planets and stars are all round and why orbital bodies from the rings of Saturn to the stars swirling around the center of the galaxy move in a flat, orderly fashion.

“There’s a reason you see those shapes over and over again,” he said. “I think the most surprising thing to me – and it took me a long time to appreciate this – is that there’s really just a small number of physical laws that really shape everything.”

The program will also highlight new projector and software technology acquired by the planetarium last fall, which enables it to render the cosmos in far greater detail than before.

“In the past, we could do a great job of showing you what the nighttime sky would look like with your eye,” Craig said.

Now, the planetarium can eye heavenly bodies from a wide range of perspectives. Craig’s favorite is a rendering of satellites orbiting the Earth that reminds him of a shot of the Death Star from the original “Star Wars” film.

Craig will also take suggestions on what the audience wants to see – and might even let tech-savvy participants “steer” through the skies.

The program is the first in a new public outreach series at the planetarium from the physics department. The next program in the series, Physics of Music and Sound, will be April 17.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502