Thursday, February 4, 2016

Solar System App

 "Wildcats in Orbit" app logo, designed by Xander McCready
The Museum Studies program and the Museum of Culture and Environment are collaborating this quarter with a team of Computer Science seniors, supported by the CWU Mosaic2GearUp program,  to create an app, “Wildcats in Orbit,” to help over 2000 middle and high school students participating in the GearUp to  program explore the solar system during their visits to the CWU campus.  The app builds on the campus solar system model,  curated by Museum Studies student Liz Seelye (assisted by Drew Johnson), which is “anchored” by a three inch model of the sun, hanging in front of the entrance of the Museum of Culture and Environment.  Click here to see a diagram of the solar system orbits superimposed over a map of the CWU Ellensburg campus. The model, on a scale 1 : 18,560,000,000, was generated by the ThinkZone's solar system calculator.

We’ve really enjoyed working with Physics  and Science Education Professor Bruce Palmquist in conceptualizing the model. The  orbits of the inner planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars— all more or less fit within Dean Hall. Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt, has as an average orbital distance of 1038 feet--so the students placed their poster on Pluto over in the Art Department in Randall Hall.  I especially like the students’ poster of Uranus, placed at the entrance of the Language and Literature building, which emphasizes the planets’ many “literary moons,” most of them named after Shakespearean characters.  We hope this physical model helps the GearUp students and other visitors better conceptualize the vast scale of the solar system and grasp the relative distances between celestial objects orbiting the sun.  (For visual effect, the Museum Studies students have made large-scale models of the inner planets, hanging from the lobby ceiling; to be accurate in scale, we realize, the planets would be tiny specks relative to the baseball-size sun.)

Our physical model of the solar system is necessarily static and we wanted to create a large scale "orrery," classically a mechanical model of the solar system in which the planets physically rotate around a fixed center point representing the sun, to demonstrate their relative positions to one another.  Rather than a mechanical orrery, the new app is a virtual, digital model of the solar system, that tracks the relative positions of the planets in orbit around the sun.   The “Wildcats in Orbit”  app  (named for the university's "Wildcat" mascot) will encourage users to walk through campus and discover the relative locations of planets, asteroids, and Kuiper belt objects.

To make the model more dynamic, we have “sped up” the movement of these imaginary celestial objects, so that one earth year in orbit around the sun takes only one day on campus. Thus, instead of taking 248 years to orbit the sun, “our” virtual  Pluto will only take 248 days to complete a rotation around Dean Hall. The real orbital period of Saturn is  is 29.45 earth years; our virtual Saturn orbits Dean Hall every 29.45 days. Inside Dean Hall, our virtual Earth takes one day to complete its orbit; thus, Earth will pass the same point in the Dean Hall lobby at the same time each day.

Using virtual GPS, our “Wildcats in Orbit” app will inform users through a push notification each time they cross the orbit of a planet or celestial object, and give them directions on how to find the virtual location of that planet on campus, at that particular date. (For example, “Saturn is 150 meters northwest of your current location.”)  The user can also navigate through a dynamic overlay map of campus, showing the orbit and relative positions of each planet.  Once users reach the planet’s virtual location on campus, they will be "rewarded" with digital overlays--allowing them to take selfies of themselves in ways that are connected to the planet. A user who reaches “Pluto” for instance can take a picture showing her or himself standing on Pluto’s frozen surface with an image of Pluto’s moon Charon in the background.  These selfies can them be emailed or instagramed to friends with messages such as “Greetings from Jupiter,” or “If you lived on Pluto, you'd be home now.”  Users will also be able to access images of the planets and gather fun facts about space exploration. Push notifications will inform users of interesting celestial phenomena visible in the Ellensburg night sky, of the sort described in Bruce's Ellensburg Sky astronomy blog.

We are hoping the app will encourage GearUp students to learn more about the solar system and broaden their curiosity about astronomy and the sciences.  Perhaps there will be a way for specific high schools in the GearUp program to adapt the app to their own campuses, creating virtual solar systems across many home towns in central and eastern Washington. We also hope the app can be tied in with the university's planetarium classroom, slated to open in Fall 2016 in the new Science II building. Our hope is that, in time, CWU students in Physics//Astronomy, Science Education and Museum Studies, as well as selected GearUp and other K-12 students, will create planetarium shows, using the open source WorldWide Telescope platform,

We are planing a launch party of the app on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:00 pm in the Dean Hall lobby.  Please join us for the fun!

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