Drive by the Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus on a weeknight and you might become disoriented. It appears the museum has captured the moon and put it on display in its grand, glass-walled lobby.
In fact, it's a 23-foot replica of the moon, suspended a few feet off the floor. For the next three weeks it's providing Minnesotans with a close-up view they could otherwise only dream of.
"Here at the Bell Museum we want to be Minnesota's astronomy classroom," said Holly Menninger, the Bell Museum's public engagement and science learning director. "What better way to welcome people into our Horizon Hall ... [than] the biggest moon they will likely ever see?"
This moon, part of the "Museum of the Moon" installation, was created using detailed NASA imagery of the lunar landscape. Each centimeter of the inflated sphere represents 5 kilometers of the moon's surface. Visitors can easily pick out individual craters that pock its surface, or gaze upon the Sea of Tranquility while they contemplate the moon's pull on Earth's oceans.
The museum's senior communications manager Andria Waclawski pointed out that when people enter the lobby, what they'll see is the near side of the moon.
"That's what we're very familiar with," she said. "Earth and moon are tidally locked. So that is why we see one side of the moon and not the other as it orbits Earth."
But here, visitors are free to simply walk around and take a look at the other side.
"You can see there are many more craters on this side of the moon," Waclawski said. "So you can glean that probably the far side is taking some more hits from space debris."
The Bell's moon is the creation of U.K. artist Luke Jerram. He was on a train to London at the writing of this story, but able to correspond via email. He said he was inspired by his bike rides in Bristol, when he noticed the huge tidal variation created by Earth's nearest neighbor.
Jerram has sent 10 moons on tour. They've traveled to 25 countries and been gazed upon by millions. Jerram said interpretations vary widely, depending on where the moon is being displayed; in other tour stops it's hung in a cathedral, in a park, even over a swimming pool.
Menninger said it's a great fit for the Bell Museum, "because it so perfectly brings together our mission. It combines art and science and cultural heritage all in one thing, and we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions, particularly the Apollo 11 mission which landed on the moon. And we thought no better way to kind of bring this down to earth to Minnesota than here in our Horizon Hall."
Menninger said she hopes the exhibition will inspire curiosity and awe in museum visitors. If Paxyshia Yang is any indication, that won't be a problem. Yang came to Monday night's opening party. She had seen images of the installation online, and knew she had to come.
"I was taken away," she said. "It's so breathtaking, and just gets more and more beautiful as the lights go down. I'm in love with it. I don't even want to leave right now."
For the next three Wednesdays, the museum will be open late for close-up nighttime viewing and special programming. There will be talks on nocturnal plant and animal behavior, a writing workshop and discussions on how the moon has been interpreted by both Ojibwe and Dakota people.
The Museum of the Moon is on display through June 9. On June 8, the Bell Museum will open its latest original planetarium production, "One Giant Leap," which transforms archival footage of Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon into an immersive experience.