Explore Mars, Black Holes, and Space Potatoes In Witte Museum’s ‘Planet Pioneers’

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A life-size rover allows visitors to "drive" through a virtual human settlement on Mars.

Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

A life-size rover allows visitors to "drive" through a virtual human settlement on Mars.

Have plans yet for spring break? If you’re looking for a beach, the Witte Museum has one available: Mars. Vacationers are advised, however, that they will be greeted by the red planet’s current inhabitants.

“There is already a planet … populated by robots, and that’s Mars,” said Marise McDermott, the Witte’s president and CEO, during a Thursday media preview for Planet Pioneers, a new exhibition opening Saturday, Feb. 2, and focused on planetary exploration.

Humanity is already on the precipice of interplanetary habitation, she said, and Planet Pioneers offers glimpses into the technology and grit required to survive life on other heavenly bodies.

The centerpiece of the interactive exhibition is a full-size rover that allows navigation through a virtual Mars landscape, projected across a 30-foot curved video screen. Other features of the show are a 3D printer that replicates actual tools made on the International Space Station for its astronauts, and a live, computer-controlled interface that directly accesses the controls of a Deep Space Station radio telescope located in southern California.

During the media preview, a demonstration led by Witte STEM educator Sarah Rowley probed planetary nebula NGC-7027 and distant quasar J1927, tracking their energy outputs across light years of outer space.

Rowley pointed the telescope to its locations through a computer screen interlink, with help from Nancy Kreuser-Jenkins, an automated systems analyst located near the radio telescope.

The data collected during the Witte probes will actually be used by NASA, Rowley said, for missions and programs like the JUNO mission exploring Jupiter, and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program seeking habitable planets outside our own solar system.

Demonstrations will run twice per day, three days per week during the exhibition, except for spring break week, March 9-17, when they will run every day.

Another literally out-of-this world experience arrives via outer space, in the meteorites section of the exhibition, with planetary and interstellar artifacts donated to the museum by Phil Mani, a San Antonio attorney and geologist. The section contains a moon rock, a Mars rock, and fragments of meteorites found in Kansas and Texas, and touching is permitted.

At 4.6 billion years old, “they are literally the oldest things you can touch,” said Thomas Adams, Witte Museum paleontologist and geologist. “How often do you get to really touch another world?” he asked, noting that 2019 is the 50-year anniversary of the first moon landing.

Though Planet Pioneers offers glimpses into the near future of planetary settlement and exploration, the information is useful for current inhabitants of Earth, Rowley said.

Pointing to the “Space Potatoes” exhibit, which tracks the energy usage and light frequencies required to grow potatoes on Mars, she said, “Well, that’s useful when we’re trying to figure out what we’re gonna eat on another planet,” but also when trying to maximize output on a farm here on Earth, or growing a plant on a kitchen windowsill.

“A lot of the science in here helps us better understand what we do in our everyday lives,” Rowley said.

Planet Pioneers runs through April 7. Information on museum hours, ticketing, and parking is available here.

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