Observing with NASA is out of this world


Sofiia Zaruchenko

A user demonstrates the Observing with NASA interface.

Kailee Shermak, Staff Writer

The Grinnell Area Arts Council is home to an Observing With NASA exhibit kiosk until May 27. The kiosk allows users to explore photographs of planets, constellations and other objects in space, courtesy of NASA telescopes. Users can also take their own pictures of various celestial objects via telescopes operated by NASA across the country.

As a Smithsonian affiliate since 2019, Grinnell College has the opportunity to apply to host traveling exhibitions sponsored by the institute, and it was selected as one of 30 locations to host Observing With NASA. Morgan Niner, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who works in the College’s community, partnerships, planning and research department, applied for and organized the exhibit alongside Sarah Smith, the director of outreach programming and events.

“Being an affiliate has granted the College many opportunities for programs and events that were not available before,” Smith said.

Niner emphasized the unique opportunity to collaborate with the Smithsonian and NASA in a rural area. “People will have the chance to interact with something that’s a Smithsonian name, a NASA name. It’s not something you typically find here in small-town Iowa,” she said.

Unlike past exhibitions the College has hosted from the Smithsonian, Observing With NASA is located in downtown Grinnell. Previous exhibits were located on campus in Burling Library. This choice of location was no accident, according to Niner.

“We wanted to make sure that the community also had an opportunity, not just students, to see and experience the exhibit,” she said.

At the center of this exhibition lies the goal of an approachable and accessible place to learn about space. Dr. J.R. Paulson, a physician and amateur astronomer who has exhibited his astrophotography at the arts council previously, echoed this sentiment. He expressed his excitement at the prospect of this technology and image of being available to the Grinnell public.

“The moon’s right there, you can see it better than Galileo,” he said, gesturing to the clarity and precision of the digital photographs.

Niner highlighted that exposure to new knowledge and technology is a critical part of this exhibit. She said local elementary schools will have a chance to explore the kiosk during class, and she intends on having Paulson host a talk on the exhibit. More information will be available on the Grinnell Area Arts Council website and social media.

“The goal for the exhibition is just for people to do something that maybe they’ve never done before,” Niner said.

The kiosk allows visitors to choose from photos already taken by NASA-operated telescopes or take an entirely new picture. This process starts with the user selecting which celestial object they would like to capture. Then, the user customizes their photo settings including frame size and exposure time. This picture will be taken during the next clear night by a telescope camera operated by NASA and then sent to the user via email.

Paulson explained how colors can be manipulated in these images, similar to the work he does in his own observatory. The kiosk includes blue, red and green filters as well as an invisible light option. This invisible light feature allows users to isolate elements within the image by differentiating their color. For example, oxygen particles within an image can be manipulated to display as green. 

“You’re just manipulating pixels. It all goes back to how many photons hit this pixel,” he said.

As a further interactive element, any images users develop on the kiosk are available for free printing through Total Choice Shipping and Printing in town. Visitors also have the option of exporting their final image via email.

The Observing With NASA kiosk will be in the Grinnell Area Arts Council building until May 27, and it is open to anyone during the council’s hours of operation. More information can be found on their website, www.grinnellarts.org.