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Iridium Flares and the ISS

By Dave Grosvold

The real astronomical treat this week will not be planets, stars, or even comets, but man-made objects in the heavens. Iridium Flares are the result of sunlight reflecting off the surface of Iridium Satellites as they pass overhead.

Flare from Iridium 84, November 20, 2006 at 7:06 PM CST. Andrew Echols Photo.
Iridium Satellites are telecommunication satellites launched in 1997 and 1998. There are about 70 Iridium Satellites currently in orbit. What makes them interesting is that their particular shape and antenna configuration contribute to the occurrence of very bright flares – sometimes so bright they can be seen in daylight. The flares last only a few seconds, but are most impressive at night. You can view a flare simulation on Wikipedia.

These flares can reach a brightness nearly twice that of Venus at maximum, or nearly −8.0 in apparent magnitude, a measure of the apparent brightness of an object in the night sky when viewed from Earth. Although there will be several flares over the next week, there are two that will be visible in the evening. On Wednesday evening, January 20th, Iridium 50 will pass overhead to your NE at approximately 6:55 PM. Look for it at about 52° above the horizon. Remember – straight up (the zenith) is 90° above the horizon, so 52° is more than halfway from the horizon to the zenith. To make sure you see it, start observing at about 6:50 PM CST, and continue until at least 7:00 PM. It’s even better if you have several people looking in different parts of the sky.

On Thursday, January 21st, Iridium 53 will take nearly the same path across the sky, but just a bit earlier, at 6:49 PM CST. On Thursday, start looking at 6:45 and continue until about 6:55 PM. Look to the NE at an altitude of about 52° If you’re adventurous, Iridium 54 and Iridium 13 will pass at a low altitude of 22° in the SSE just after sunrise at 6:25 AM CST on Thursday, January 21st and at 6:10 AM CST Monday, January 25 respectively. These may be difficult to spot, but they are bright enough to see for sharp-eyed observers.

Saturn as viewed in a small telescope, 1:00 AM CST Thursday, January 21, 2010.
The International Space Station (ISS) will also make several bright passes in the evening this week, each brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. The ISS is visible over a much larger path in the sky than Iridium Flares, and consequently stays visible for a longer period of time.

On the evening of Thursday, January 21st, the ISS will pass low in the N starting at 6:09 PM CST. It will swing higher to a maximum altitude of just 16° above the horizon in the NE, then pass low to the ENE over a period of about 6 minutes. You can estimate 15° of altitude on the sky by viewing the width of your fist held at arms’ length.

Observers get another chance at ISS on Friday, January 22nd. This time, the ISS will rise above the horizon in the NW at about 6:30 PM CST, swing high overhead to about 45° altitude in the NE, and then sink back to the horizon in the ESE, again over about a six minute period.

On Saturday, January 23rd, the ISS makes another pass from the NW at about 6:51 PM CST over to the SW at a maximum altitude of 40°, and then back toward the horizon in the SSW at about 6:58 PM. Amateurs have reported seeing the shuttle docked at the station in small telescopes as it passes overhead in the past. However, no shuttle missions are in progress at this time.

Also, Mars and Saturn dominate the eastern sky after sunset once again this week. Mars rises at about 6:30 PM CST, and is high enough in the East by about three hours after sunset to see clearly in small telescopes. Saturn rises much later - after 10:30 PM. It will be 1:00 AM or so before Saturn is high enough above the thick eastern atmosphere for observing. You may spot several of Saturn’s largest moons, including Titan in a small telescope.
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Building a Case Against Ozone

NASA Space Placeby Patrick Barry

These images are TES ozone plots viewed with Google Earth. Colors map to tropospheric ozone concentrations. The image on the left shows ozone concentrations at an altitude of approximately 32,000 feet, while the one on the right shows ozone at approximately 10,000 feet. The measurements are monthly averages over each grid segment for December 2004.

Click image for larger view.
When it comes to notorious greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is like Al Capone—always in the headlines. Meanwhile, ozone is more like Carlo Gambino—not as famous or as powerful, but still a big player.

After tracking this lesser-known climate culprit for years, NASA’s Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer (TES) has found that ozone is indeed a shifty character. Data from TES show that the amount of ozone—and thus its contribution to the greenhouse effect—varies greatly from place to place and over time.

"Ozone tends to be localized near cities where ozone precursors, such as car exhaust and power plant exhaust, are emitted," says Kevin Bowman, a senior member of the TES technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But the ozone doesn't necessarily stay in one place. Winds can stretch the ozone into long plumes. "Looking out over the ocean we can see ozone being transported long distances over open water."

Unlike CO2, ozone is highly reactive. It survives in the atmosphere for only a few hours or a few days before it degrades and effectively disappears. So ozone doesn't have time to spread out evenly in the atmosphere the way that CO2 does. The amount of ozone in one place depends on where ozone-creating chemicals, such as the nitrogen oxides in car exhaust. are being released and which way the wind blows.

This short lifespan also means that ozone could be easier than CO2 to knock off.

"If you reduce emissions of things that generate ozone, then you can have a quicker climate effect than you would with CO2," Bowman says. "From a policy standpoint, there’s been a lot of conversation lately about regulating short-lived species like ozone."

To be clear, Bowman isn’t talking about the famous "ozone layer." Ozone in this high-altitude layer shields us from harmful ultraviolet light, so protecting that layer is crucial. Bowman is talking about ozone closer to the ground, so-called tropospheric ozone. This "other" ozone at lower altitudes poses health risks for people and acts as a potent greenhouse gas.

TES is helping scientists track the creation and movement of low-altitude ozone over the whole planet each day. "We can see it clearly in our data," Bowman says. Countries will need this kind of data if they decide to go after the heat-trapping gas.

Ozone has been caught red-handed, and TES is giving authorities the hard evidence they need to prosecute the case.

Learn more about TES and its atmospheric science mission at tes.jpl.nasa.gov. The Space Place has a fun “Gummy Greenhouse Gases” activity for kids that will introduce them to the idea of atoms and molecules. Check it out at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/tes/gumdrops.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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The 2010 Mars Apparition

By Dave Grosvold

Looking east at 9:00 PM CST Jan 14, 2010
January 2010 is a great time to observe Mars. This is the time just before the Red Planet passes closest to earth in its 687-day journey around the Sun. When Mars appears bright in the night sky, it is in opposition to the Sun, meaning that it is opposite the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth. It is also closer to Earth at this time than at any other time in its orbit. As such, this is when it is brightest and best positioned for observational study. Whenever Mars or any other planet is visible in the night sky for a period of weeks, this entire period is said to be a single apparition. Mars’ latest apparition began several weeks ago. This week, you will see it above the eastern horizon early on clear cold evenings as a bright ruddy “star”. By 9:00 PM, it will be high enough above the horizon that you can view Mars without the usual distortion caused by the thicker atmosphere lower on the horizon.

Looking west-southwest at 6:00 PM CST Jan 17, 2010
Mars will actually make its closest approach to us in its orbital cycle on January 29, 2010. As Mars approaches opposition it begins a period of retrograde motion, which means it will appear to move backwards in a looping motion with respect to the background stars. This is due to the fact that Earth passes Mars in its orbit. So initially, we see it in front of us, and then as we pass, it falls behind. The duration of this retrograde motion lasts for about 72 days, and Mars reaches its peak luminosity in the middle of this motion this coming March.

Careful observers should be able to identify the larger features on Mars’ surface using a small telescope. These include the polar ice caps and Syrtis Major, which appears as the largest dark splotch on Mars. These darker areas were once thought to be seas or canals, but have been revealed as areas of darker rock with less dust than the brighter surroundings.

Also this week, Jupiter is low in the southwest just after sunset. Jupiter will continue to get lower in the western sky every evening until it sinks below the horizon. On Jan 16, if the sky is clear, look for the waxing crescent Moon very low on the western horizon. By the evening of Jan 17, the Moon will be very close in conjunction below Jupiter in the western sky. A conjunction occurs when two or more celestial objects appear very close together in the night sky.
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Icy Skies, Moons, And A Stellar Nursery

By Dave Grosvold

The Moon and Saturn at 12:00 AM CST Jan 6, 2010
With the colder weather and snow this time of year, astronomical observing is usually limited to fairly short sessions. Although the cold is hard on the observer, it is also hard on the equipment. So, naked-eye targets are ideal for winter observing. At midnight on Tuesday evening, the Moon rises very close to bright, pale yellow Saturn, and will be far below the Red Planet (Mars) in the sky. This week, the Moon enters Last Quarter at 4:39 AM CST on Thursday morning, so it won’t be quite as bright as it was on New Year’s Eve.

Saturnian Moons, 4:00 AM CST, Jan 7, 2010.
With the aid of a small telescope, you may also be able to see Titan, Saturn’s largest moon in the early morning hours if the sky is clear. At about 3:30 AM all this week,Saturn is high enough in the sky to rise above the “muck,” which is what astronomers call the thicker part of the atmosphere that we must look through when objects are close to the horizon. A view in a small scope will show Titan off to the right at about 2 o’clock. The image shown here will be reversed in the telescope’s field of view.

Early January is also a great time to observe the Great Orion Nebula, as it is in an ideal position by about 10:00 PM on these cold winter nights. The constellation of Orion rides high in the South-Southeast in late evening all week this week, and the Great Nebula is a special treat for anyone with a good pair of binoculars or small telescope. Orion is recognizable by his belt and sword.
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End 2009 With A Blue Moon

Fantasy image of a Blue Moon
Blue Moon Endings

The Full Moon on Thursday, December 31st marks a rare ending this year. There are normally 12 full lunar cycles in a year, but some years have 13. The thirteenth moon is sometimes known as the Blue Moon. Although different definitions place the blue moon at different times of the year, at least one definition places it at the end of the year.

A March 1946 article in Sky and Telescope magazine by James Hugh Pruett misinterpreted the 1937 Farmer’s Almanac to mean that the second full moon in a calendar month was called the Blue Moon. This “misinterpreted” definition of a Blue Moon has come into widespread use in recent years after it was revived on the January 31, 1980 installment of the popular radio program StarDate.

There are several other astronomical definitions for a “Blue Moon”, but the two cited above make this coming Thursday’s Full Moon a Blue Moon. By either definition, this only happens every few years. Just remember — it’s referred to as a blue moon, but the Moon won’t look blue — it will look the same as any other full moon.

In any event, it’s an appropriate way to punctuate not only the end of 2009, but the end of the only decade in a thousand years where we’ll refer to the year as “something-thousand-something” rather than the more common “nineteen- or twenty-something-something.” I guess a situation like that only happens “once in a very blue moon...”

Sky view looking east at 9:30 PM on Jan 2, 2010
The Wandering Stars

Planet, in Greek, means wanderer. These objects are so named because they appear to move from night to night against the fixed background of the stars. A feast of planets is visible in the evening sky this week, even with the glare of the Full Moon.

Jupiter, known as the King of Planets, will be visible as a bright object low in the southwest just after sunset. Jupiter sets in the west by about 9:00 PM, and will only be visible in the evening sky for another month or so. After that, it sinks below the horizon before sunset - too early to be seen for observers in our part of the world. Binoculars or small telescopes will reveal Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa, the four brightest moons of Jupiter. Observing these at different hours of the night and on subsequent nights will show obvious movement with respect to each other and Jupiter. So far, scientists have discovered over sixty three moons orbiting the giant planet.

Neptune is approximately 1-1/2° lower toward the western horizon than Jupiter, and is much harder to spot. A small telescope will reveal it as an obvious disk with a blue-green cast, rather than as a point source. You can measure 1° on the sky by the width of your pinkie finger held at arm’s length. Neptune will set only about 6 minutes earlier than Jupiter.

Saturn presents a great observing target for those who might be awake in the early morning hours. Saturn’s rings are at just 4° from edge-on right now, so the planet looks much like a “spike in a ball” in small telescopes. The ring angle will open somewhat in 2010. Saturn will be rising in the east just before midnight, and will be appear to be a bright object with a slightly yellow cast. Small telescopes will reveal the rings and perhaps up to six of Saturn’s brightest moons — Titan, Hyperion, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, and Mimas. These will be stretched out along the same plane as the ring system. Of all the moons in the Solar System, Titan is unique in that it is the only one that has an atmosphere. Saturn has over sixty-one known moons.

Mars rises big and bright at about 8:00 PM and should be visible all night. Mars is in one of it’s close approaches (or opposition) to Earth during the month of January, and should be easy to observe. Small telescopes should show enough detail to see the markings or “canali” that lead early observers to believe there was an active civilization on the Red Planet. These markings were first observed by Giovanni Schiaparelli during the opposition of 1877, and he dubbed them canali, which is Italian for canals or channels. Improved astronomical observations in the early 20th century proved this to be false. Look for Mars in the east as a brilliant object with a ruddy hue. On Saturday, Jan 2nd, Mars and the Moon will rise together about 7° apart in the eastern sky. For reference, 7° of sky is about the width of four fingers held at arm’s length.
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Sunglasses for a Solar Observatory

NASA Space PlaceBy Patrick Barry


X-9 class solar flare December 6, 2006, as seen by GOES-13's Solar X-ray Imager. It was one of the strongest flares in the past 30 years.
In December 2006, an enormous solar flare erupted on the Sun's surface. The blast hurled a billion-ton cloud of gas (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) toward Earth and sparked days of intense geomagnetic activity with Northern Lights appearing across much of the United States.

While sky watchers enjoyed the show from Earth's surface, something ironic was happening in Earth orbit.

At the onset of the storm, the solar flare unleashed an intense pulse of X-rays. The flash blinded the Solar X-Ray Imager (SXI) on NOAA's GOES-13 satellite, damaging several rows of pixels. SXI was designed to monitor solar flares, but it must also be able to protect itself in extreme cases.

That's why NASA engineers gave the newest Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite a new set of sophisticated “sunglasses.” The new GOES-14 launched June 27 and reached geosynchronous orbit July 8.

Its “sunglasses” are a new flight-software package that will enable the SXI sensor to observe even intense solar flares safely. Radiation from these largest flares can endanger military and civilian communications satellites, threaten astronauts in orbit, and even knock out cities' power grids. SXI serves as an early warning system for these flares and helps scientists better understand what causes them.

“We wanted to protect the sensor from overexposure, but we didn't want to shield it so much that it couldn't gather data when a flare is occurring,” says Cynthia Tanner, SXI instrument systems manager for the GOES-NOP series at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (GOES-14 was called GOES-O before achieving orbit).

Shielding the sensor from X-rays also reduces the amount of data it can gather about the flare. It's like stargazing with dark sunglasses on. So NASA engineers must strike a balance between protecting the sensor and gathering useful data.

When a dangerous flare occurs, the new SXI sensor can protect itself with five levels of gradually “darker” sunglasses. Each level is a combination of filters and exposure times carefully calibrated to control the sensor's exposure to harmful high-energy X-rays.

As the blast of X-rays from a major solar flare swells, GOES-14 can step up the protection for SXI through these five levels. The damaged sensor on GOES-13 had only two levels of protection — low and high. Rather than gradually increasing the amount of protection, the older sensor would remain at the low level of protection, switching to the high level only when the X-ray dose was very high.

“You can collect more science while you're going up through the levels of protection,” Tanner says. “We've really fine-tuned it.”

Forecasters anticipate a new solar maximum in 2012-2013, with plenty of sunspots and even more solar flares. “GOES-14 is ready,” says Tanner.

For a great kid-level explanation of solar “indigestion” and space weather, check out spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/goes/spaceweather.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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A Cosmic Crash

NASA Space Place

Artist's rendering of cosmic collision involving two objects whose combined mass was at least twice that of our Moon. Discovered using the Spitzer Space Telescope in the planetary system of a star called HD 172555 100 light-years away.
Click image for larger view.
by Patrick Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

Two small planets hurtle toward each other at 22,000 miles per hour. They're on a collision course. With unimaginable force, they smash into each other in a flash of light, blasting streams of molten rock far out into space.

This cataclysmic scene has happened countless times in countless solar systems. In fact, scientists think that such collisions could have created Earth's moon, tilted Uranus on its side, set Venus spinning backward, and sheared the crust off Mercury.

But witnessing such a short-lived collision while pointing your telescope in just the right direction would be a tremendous stroke of luck. Well, astronomers using NASA's Spitzer space telescope recently got lucky.

“It's unusual to catch such a collision in the act, that's for sure,” said Geoffrey Bryden, A cosmic Crashspitzer_an astronomer specializing in extrasolar planet formation at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the science team that made the discovery.

When Bryden and his colleagues pointed Spitzer at a star 100 light-years away called HD 172555, they noticed something strange. Patterns in the spectrum of light coming from nearby the star showed distinctive signs of silicon monoxide gas — huge amounts of it — as well as a kind of volcanic rock called tektite.

It was like discovering the wreckage from a cosmic car crash. The silicon monoxide was produced as the high-speed collision literally vaporized huge volumes of rock, which is made largely of silicon and oxygen. The impact also blasted molten lava far out into space, where it later cooled to form chunks of tektite.

Based on the amount of silicon monoxide and tektites, Bryden's team calculated that the colliding planetary bodies must have had a combined mass more than twice that of Earth's moon. The collision probably happened between 1,000 and 100,000 years ago — a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.

The scientists used the Spitzer space telescope because, unlike normal telescopes, Spitzer detects light at invisible, infrared wavelengths.

“Spitzer wavelengths are the best wavelengths to identify types of rock,” Bryden says. “You can pin down which type of rock, dust, or gas you're looking at.”

Bryden says the discovery provides further evidence that planet-altering collisions are more common in other star systems than people once thought. The “crash-bang” processes at work in our own solar system may indeed be universal. If so, Spitzer has a front row seat on a truly smashing show.

See Spitzer Space Telescope's brand new Web site at http://spitzer.caltech.edu/. Kids can learn about infrared light and see beautiful Spitzer images by playing the new Spitzer Concentration game at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Staring at Lightning

NASA Space Place

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) on the next generation of GOES satellites will detect the very rapid and transient bursts of light produced by lightning at near-infrared wavelengths. This image was taken from the International Space Station and shows the Aurora Australis and lightning.
Click image for larger view.
There's something mesmerizing about watching a thunderstorm. You stare at the dark, dramatic clouds waiting for split-second bursts of brilliant light — intricate bolts of lightning spidering across the sky. Look away at the wrong time and (FLASH!) you miss it.

Lightning is much more than just a beautiful spectacle, though. It's a window into the heart of the storm, and it could even provide clues about climate change.earth_lightningThe

Strong vertical motions within a storm cloud help generate the electricity that powers lightning. These updrafts are caused when warm, moist air rises. Because warmth and lightning are inextricably connected, tracking long-term changes in lightning frequency could reveal the progress of climate change.

It's one of many reasons why scientists want to keep an unwavering eye on lightning. The best way to do that? With a satellite 35,800 km overhead.

At that altitude, satellites orbit at just the right speed to remain over one spot on the Earth's surface while the planet rotates around its axis — a “geostationary” orbit. NASA and NOAA scientists are working on an advanced lightning sensor called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) that will fly onboard the next generation geostationary operational environmental satellite, called GOES-R, slated to launch around 2015.

“GLM will give us a constant, eye-in-the-sky view of lightning over a wide portion of the Earth,” says Steven Goodman, NOAA chief scientist for GOES-R at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Once GLM sensors are flying on GOES-R and its sister GOES-S, that view will extend 18,000 km from New Zealand, east across the Pacific Ocean, across the Americas, and to Africa's western coast.
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Meteor shower to light up skies for two days

Lunar & Planetary

MANILA, Philippines - A “prolific” meteor shower is expected to light up the skies of Asia and Europe for two days – tonight (Nov. 17) and Wednesday (Nov. 18), the government-run weather bureau Pagasa said yesterday.

Here in the Philippines, Pagasa administrator Prisco Nilo said Filipinos will get a glimpse of the meteorological phenomenon known as the “Leonids” meteor shower between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. of the following day.

“We have a very good chance to see the meteor showers,” Nilo said.

He, however, stressed that people in the Visayas and Mindanao will have a difficult time seeing the meteor showers because of the intertropical convergence zone which is expected to bring scattered rainshowers this week.

According to a NASA statement, “The Leonids meteor shower is created by bits of debris left behind by the repeat passages through the inner solar system of comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. This year, it may produce another enhanced return, with Zenithal Hourly Rates (ZHRs) predicted to peak at more than 40 meteors per hour according to independent theoretical work by Astronomers David Asher, Esko Lyytinen and Marku Nissinen, Mikhail Maslov, and Jérémie Vaubaillon.”“There are several streams and this year, the Earth will pass through one of the streams laid down in the year 1466. Most astronomers did not expect it to produce much, but observers in Asia and Europe may see as many as 100 meteors per hour, which shows the 1466 stream is rich in meteor-producing debris. This year our planet will pass through this stream again, but this time closer to its center where more material will slam into our atmosphere. The meteoroids, typically the size of a sand grain, vaporizes as it travels downward in the atmosphere. Some pea-sized objects create dramatic fireballs,” the statement added. - By Dennis Carcamo (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)

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Galileo Events and Star Party Set for January


Galileo Galilei
Fort Smith, Arkansas — The University of Arkansas - Fort Smith will host special events and provide a “star party” in January to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's historic discovery of the moons of Jupiter with the newly invented telescope.

Dr. Todd Timmons of Fort Smith, professor of mathematics and history of science, said multiple events will be scheduled on Jan. 19 and 21.

“Each activity is devoted to Galileo, his work and his significance,” said Dr. Timmons. “Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter is one of the most important events leading to the eventual acceptance of the Copernican system and a critical component of the scientific revolution.”

Sponsors are the Arkansas Oklahoma Astronomical Society and UA Fort Smith's College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; and the Center for Lifelong Learning.

A showing of “Galileo's Battle for the Heavens,” a PBS dramatization of Dava Sobel's best-selling book “Galileo's Daughter,” is planned for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 in room 101 of the Math-Science Building.

Dr. Kerry Magruder, curator of the history of science collections at the University of Oklahoma, will present a multi-media talk titled “The Works of Galileo: A Guided Tour” at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Boreham Conference Center, room 101 of the Baldor Technology Center.

Those attending Magruder's talk will move to the Campus Green immediately after he speaks to view the moons of Jupiter and other revelations discovered by Galileo.

“All events are free and are open to the public,” said Dr. Timmons. “We encourage everyone interested in the PBS documentary to read the book prior to the event.”

Dr. Timmons said he was excited about what Dr. Magruder will share when he comes to Fort Smith.

“OU's Galileo exhibit is one of the most extensive in the world,” said Dr. Timmons, “and this is a wonderful opportunity for residents of our area to glimpse what is included in the exhibit.”

Dr. Timmons said Dr. Magruder's talk will present Galileo's life and works, showing what Galileo accomplished and what made him an international sensation.

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