Actual Questions from Curious Planetarium Patrons

Q. Was Neil Armstrong a real person?

A. With four decades separating today's generation from the Apollo program, the 1969 landing on the Moon may sound to some the stuff of urban legend. But yes, Neil Armstrong was a real person who, along with Buzz Aldrin, spent about two-and-a-half hours on the Moon's surface. A former test pilot, engineer, astronaut and retired college professor, Armstrong is a very private individual now in his 80s and living in Ohio.

Q. What is so important about meteorites?

A. Think of asteroids and meteorites as the archaeology of astronomy. As our Sun, planets and solar system were forming, these are the leftover bits and pieces that never got incorporated into larger bodies. Studying these objects not only gives us a glimpse into the physical composition of the early solar system but also clues as to how and why planets formed as they did.

Q. What's all this I hear about a solar maximum?

A. The Sun goes through a roughly 11-year cycle of minimum and maximum solar activity, which is measured by energy output and the appearance of sunspots and solar flares. The last solar maximun was in 2001, and the next is expected to peak in May 2013.

Presently, the Sun is experiencing a "very deep solar minimum" since 2008-2009, with the quietest Sun astronomers have seen in almost a century. The nature of these cycles is still poorly understood, and whether the current minimum is indicative of a stronger following maximum is not known at this time.

Q. What will happen when Earth aligns with the galactic center in 2012?

A. Earth and Sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy on a yearly basis each December, with no noticable effects. Earth will not cross the galactic plane in 2012, nor are any consequential alignments predicted to happen that year. Astronomically, the year 2012 is not significant in any way.

Both the galactic center and the galactic equator are poorly defined quantities, and each can span several degrees of arc and many billions of miles. Alignments such as these may proceed over several centuries and cannot be connected to a single year, much less a calendar date and time.

Q. The Pluto question: Why isn't Pluto considered a planet any more? (Variations exist)

A. Beginning as far back as the 1970s, astronomers began discovering many small, planet-like objects at the edge of our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. Debates arose about how to categorize these objects, a few of which are actually larger than Pluto itself. Fundamentally, even after thousands of years of stargazing, astronomers realized that they had no clear and formal definition of just what a planet is.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) drafted a definition of the term planet that included three characteristics:
  1. The object must have a stable orbit around a star.
  2. The object must be massive enough to have a clearly spherical shape formed by its own gravity.
  3. The object must have cleared its orbit of all other significant objects.
Although Pluto is clearly spherical and does have a stable solar orbit, it fails to meet this third criteria. Pluto shares and crosses its orbit with too many other bodies in this region of the solar system to classify it as a major planet. Instead, it and about 40 new objects in this region of space (and possibly an estimated 200 yet to be discovered) are now known as dwarf planets, remnants from the formation of the solar system that never grew large enough to achieve major planet-status.

Q. Which has more craters, Earth's Moon or the planet Mercury?

A. No one has actually taken a crater count of these two bodies but our guess is that Mercury has more craters. Both the Moon and Mercury have virtually no atmosphere, and no defense in the way of avoiding an impact with a comet or meteor. However, the Moon does have some evidence of relatively recent geologic activity (quakes, volcanoes, and so forth) that would provide a means of resurfacing the terrain and possibly eliminating some existing craters. In contrast, Mercury has been geologically inactive for a much longer time.

Q. Is this real?

A. Yes, dude, that is real.