New Museum Exhibit Invites Visitors to Smell the Moon, Nuke an Asteroid or Colonize Mars
“Beyond Planet Earth,” the slick new exhibit on space exploration at the American Museum of Natural History, is thoroughly modern. It has an augmented-reality iPhone app that produces hovering, three-dimensional animations. It has an interactive station where museumgoers can terraform a virtual Mars on a giant touch-screen to make the Red Planet habitable. It even has an interactive display that challenges visitors to divert a giant asteroid bearing down on Earth.
But the thing that struck me most during a recent media preview of the exhibit, which opens November 19, was also one of the least hands-on. It was a scale model of NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity, which is scheduled to launch as soon as next week. Curiosity is huge—it weighs almost a metric ton, and its anthropomorphized head towers over most all humans not currently out of work due to the NBA lockout.
I had seen a scale model of Curiosity before, but its placement in the new exhibit—perched above the viewer on a simulated Martian slope, its many-pronged arm outstretched, its cyclopean eye staring down at the puny Earthling below—was awe-inspiring. Unlike the cute little solar-powered explorers of Mars missions past, the car-size, nuclear-powered Curiosity is intimidating, almost militaristic-looking. As I stood there staring up at the model rover, I thought to myself: That is one bad-ass robot.
The rover is just a small part of the new exhibit; other notables include a device that releases the scent of moon rocks (an interesting but not especially pleasant burnt odor), a life-size re-creation of a space-suited astronaut working on the Hubble Space Telescope and fascinating artifacts such as a compacted disk of trash from the International Space Station. (Before return to Earth, the mundane contents of the trash pellet—a protein-bar wrapper, a Russian trail mix package—were sucked clean to recapture any available water, heated to kill germs and then compressed.)