An Evening of Astronomy at the White House

(CBS/Mark Knoller)
They were waiting till dark at the White House today to bring 150 middle school kids from the D.C. area out onto the South Lawn for an evening of astronomy.

NASA scientists and other astronomers spent the afternoon setting up a variety of telescopes through which the kids will get a rare view of the moon and the planet Jupiter, among other things in outer space.

President and Mrs. Obama were hosting the event to imbue local youngsters with the excitement of science. And the president sounded pretty excited himself.

"I am really looking forward to this," he said earlier in the day. "This is going to be fun."

He said the kids will "peer through telescopes, wander through exhibits, and hopefully feel a sense of wonder that might one day lead them here to receive a medal themselves."

(CBS/Mark Knoller)
It's a sentiment shared by former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space.

"It's really important to have events like this to remind (kids) that science is really cool," Rise said as reporters toured the South Lawn in advance of the evening of star-gazing.

More than a dozen telescopes of various sizes were set up in the White House backyard.

There were three inflated domes the kids will enter to see various exhibits. They'll be able to handle a small piece of moon rock brought back to earth by the crew of Apollo 17.

"It's designed to be one that you can touch," said the NASA official overseeing the exhibit.

Even more unusual, NASA brought along a chunk of rock it claims is part of a meteorite from Mars. Yes, Mars!

(CBS/Mark Knoller)
"It was discovered in Antarctica," said another NASA aide. He said his agency acquired the extra-terrestrial rock during one of the expeditions the space agency and the National Science Foundation have been funding for 25 years.

But how do they know for sure a rock found in Antarctica is from Mars?

"When we finally sent spacecraft to Mars and sampled the Martian atmosphere, it turns out it has a chemistry that's identical to gasses that were trapped inside of these rocks," said the NASA expert. It's a good bet the kids examining the rock will have plenty more questions about it.

It's a great excuse to stay out on a school night.


(CBS)
Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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