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MHCC sky theater highlights Sleeping Beauties, Dwarfs and romance in February

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - This Eskimo Nebula is given off by an end-phase star, and bears the name because of the hood-like appearance of the gas emissions. This image is just one many of the 'sleeping beauties' on display at the planetarium tonight and this Friday. Many curious aspiring astronomers and laymen alike may wonder what will happen to our earth's sun when it finally gives out. As it turns out, there are many examples of what will happen already in the night's sky, and their stories sound as mythical as a fairy tale.

Planetarium Director Pat Hanrahan will be showing off these elder stars in his February "Sleeping Beauties and White Dwarfs" show at Mt. Hood Community College's Sky Theater, 26000 S.E. Stark St., Gresham. Viewings will take place at 6 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. tonight, Feb. 7, as well as 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. this Friday, Feb. 10.

During these programs, he'll display Hubble Telescope images of collapsed Red Giant stars near the end of their lives.

"When these giant stars collapse, they leave a beautiful shell of gas that surrounds the very compact remains of the collapsed star," Hanrahan says. "This shell is often affected by magnetic fields and can appear very intricate and unusual."

"I feel that they are some of the most beautiful objects in the sky," Hanrahan adds, explaining his nod to the famous fairytale in the show's title.

The gas nebula shells surrounding the star's remains manifest in a number of different shapes and patterns, many of which are complex in design.

Hanrahan says the reason these collapsed stars give off light boggles his mind. Though the collapsed star, known as a White Dwarf, emits an energy that produces light in the same manner as a neon light sign, the energy source is not active, like, say, in nuclear fusion.

"Instead the energy comes from leftover heat that it stores within it," Hanrahan says. "Its trick is that it is able to do with its incredible density — one teaspoon of a White Dwarf can weigh over 5 tons!"

Though the gas nebulae of these aged stars are certainly striking, they also represent the future demise of our most famous star — the sun. Not to worry, however, because as Hanrahan explains, even though the sun will eventually age into a Red Giant that "could grow large enough to engulf the earth's orbit," that won't be happening for about another five billion years or so.

The planetarium also has you covered if you're looking for an unconventional Valentine's Day evening, perhaps in the vein of Ross and Rachel's first date on "Friends." It will be hosting a one-night-only show at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14, called, "Romancing the Universe: An Exploration of Cosmic Beauty."

Hanrahan will pass the reins to MHCC Astronomy and Mathematics Professor Will Blackmore for this special presentation.

In an announcement for the show, Blackmore called the Valentine's show "an exploration of the nuclear furnaces where every atom in your body, and those of your loved ones, were once forged together in stellar fire." How romantic.

This month at the planetarium, the celestial bodies on display — as well as their origin stories — are sure to leave you enchanted.

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