When a group of scientists got together to propose a NASA-funded project to study Supernova 1604, nobody was thinking about theater. They wanted a good photograph of Kepler’s Star, the first observed by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604. And they wanted it from the Hubble Telescope’s mighty camera.
"Think of it as a shock that has propagated through the universe," said Ilana Harrus, a NASA astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This is how the elements that we know are created — iron, carbon — from star explosions."
NASA’s funding for the project to study the supernova remnant included an educational component, and Harrus knew that a stage production would be a great way to teach kids about the stars and star explosions. So she collaborated with a New York actress and created "Galactika," a musical comedy for children older than 5.
"It’s a play that has minimum characters and few props because we wanted it to be portable," Harrus said. "We wanted a play that could be shown easily in the classroom. And I wrote a guidebook for teachers."
TWO COMETS star in the performance: Halley and Tempel-1. Halley is perhaps the world’s best-known comet, and Tempel-1 made a cameo in the summertime skies of 2005 as the play was being written. The celestial bodies appear as newscasters, broadcasting the lighthearted "Galactika News." It’s a format that lets Halley and Tempel-1 roll through astrological concepts like eclipses, solar flares and NASA probes with the greatest of ease.
"They report on what they are seeing in their journey through the solar system," Harrus said. "It begins with a dance."
As the play develops, the newscasting comets share a lively dialogue. They visit a nursery where stars are born and meet the forceful Orion. During an intermission, audience members are quizzed on what they’ve learned.
"The kids love it," Harrus said. "They shout back the answer."
Because the plot orbits around the sun, most planets are not included in the action of the play — only Mars and Venus, who testify about their neighbor. Halley and Tempel-1 never venture into the distant regions of the solar system, where Pluto has recently been kicked out of the planet club.
"We actually avoid the Pluto controversy altogether," Harrus said. "But my opinion on that is the Pluto is Pluto, whatever you call it. It’s a semantic problem."
At the Classika Theatre, the play was overwhelmingly received during a run of performances in June and July. So director Nicholas Allen is bringing the play back to the Arlington theater from Sept. 30 to Oct. 29. Yulia Kriskouts, director of development at Classika, said that the play will resonate with schoolchildren as well as those who are young at heart.
"It’s not your typical scientific show," Kriskouts said. "There’s a lot of movement and pantomime, so the kids love it. And it’s very funny."