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Family-friendly stargazing STEM Café explores moon rocks, meteors and Mars – and the possibility of extraterrestrial life

August 5, 2019

When you look up at the night sky, do you wonder whether there’s life on other planets? Or what it’s like under the surface of Mars? Would you like to see moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts or find out what makes a meteor shower?

The surface of Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA.

At the next NIU STEM Café, you can explore these and other galactically exciting questions with NIU experts, followed by a dazzling evening of stargazing and viewing of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Visitors will also get a chance to see moon rock and meteorite samples provided by NASA. This free, family-friendly STEM Café will be held – rain or shine – on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Open Range Southwest Grill in Sugar Grove.

NIU Associate Professor of Biology Wesley Swingley will kick off the event with a discussion of potential life on planets and moons in our solar system and elsewhere in our galaxy.

Swingley, a biochemist, microbiologist, astrobiologist and conservationist, says he began his science career with an interest in astrobiology and the evolutionary adaptations that allow life to inhabit any and all environments on our planet.

“As a consummate space nerd,” he says, “I am always looking to link theories of microbial ecology to life we might find elsewhere in our solar system or beyond.”

Swingley will discuss the major challenges extraterrestrial life might face, and he’ll explore how it might overcome them by looking at similar extreme environments on Earth. He’ll also show how scientists from nearly every discipline are working together to detect life and answer the age-old question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

“I hope everyone will be surprised to hear the extent to which life has spread to every environment on our planet and what this might mean for life elsewhere,” Swingley says. “At the same time, I hope to express just how hard it will be to detect or study extraterrestrial life, especially if it is microscopic, which is the most likely scenario.”

Next, Philip Carpenter, NIU professor of environmental geophysics, will introduce the audience to the geology of Mars before sharing new data about the interior of Mars gathered from NASA’s InSight mission.

Carpenter, a geologist and geophysicist who studies planetary interiors, has done two research projects looking at caves (old lava tubes) on Mars using orbital imaging and modeling. He’s now taking part in the InSight mission to Mars, which is designed to probe Mars’ interior through looking at seismic waves, heat flow and Mars’ polar wobble.

He says of the mission, “I expect we will discover that Mars is an active planet in its interior, with Marsquakes, possible liquid water and molten rock beneath the surface. Lava tubes and underground openings exist beneath Mars’ surface that could be incubators of primitive Martian life and locations for future astronauts to be protected from hostile conditions on Mars’ surface.”

Finally, Jeremy Benson, NIU STEM educator and director of NIU STEM Summer Camps, will prepare the audience to view the night sky and describe what causes a meteor shower. He’s also excited to show the audience something very special in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing: moon rock samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts, as well as samples from meteorites that have fallen to earth.

“Even though the samples are small, it’s an amazing experience to be able to see moon rocks and meteorites in person,” he says. “For the lunar samples, the audience will get to see on a map of the moon exactly where that particular sample was picked up, and by which Apollo mission. For the meteorites, they’ll get to learn where and when that meteorite was found on earth, as well as the type and the total weight.”

NIU STEM Café coordinator Judith Dymond says the annual stargazing STEM Café is the most popular café of the year, and she hopes the chance to see moon rocks will make it even more special for both adults and children.

This family-friendly STEM Café will be held – rain or shine – on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at Open Range Southwest Grill (Golf View Rd, Sugar Grove, Illinois 60554).

The event is free, with food and drinks available for purchase from Open Range. Food service begins at 6 p.m., and the speakers will start promptly at 7 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to arrive by 6:30 to ensure seating. To help with planning, we encourage people to RSVP to Judy Dymond ([email protected], 815-753-4751).