August 30, 2002

New Website Explores Mysteries in Astronomy

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Are there are any green stars? Is there a mysterious “Planet X” in our solar system? Was the Sun made in a supernova?

With the astronomy department’s “Curious? Ask An Astronomer” website (, officially launched May 1, answers can be found to these questions, as well as hundreds of others.

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According to Britt Scharringhausen grad, “[The new site] is much easier to navigate” than the old one, and contains much more information.

David Kornreich Ph.D. ’01 initially developed the site in 1997, and since then “students in the astronomy department at Cornell have been answering questions about astronomy e-mailed via the Ask An Astronomer website,” Karen Masters grad said in an e-mail.

Although most questions are answered through a direct correspondence with the inquirer, the especially interesting questions are posted on the website for all to see.


Though Masters, Scharringhausen and Lynn Carter grad, agree that most questions can be answered without doing extensive research, Masters noted, “sometimes I get a question where I think, I should have thought of that [question] myself.”

Most of the inquiries come from people who are simply interested in the subject, with a number even from elementary school students.

The website also includes fundamental information about astronomy, and a page for teachers to get guidelines about using the site in the classroom. “[The site] is good for teachers if they use it correctly,” Scharringhausen said.

Sometime after the website’s creation, it was “picked up by Yahoo!,” stated Masters; “we now receive between 60 and 70 questions a week.”

And what about people sending their homework sheets in as questions?

“We just don’t answer those,” Carter said.

One of the more interesting questions received by the website turned out to be an office room bet. “Someone made a bet on whether the Earth is gaining or losing mass,” Scharringhausen said.

“The website has some really great graphics. It’s so nice to have such an easy-to-use resource to go to when I have astronomy questions,” Melanie Manoach ’05 said.

“It’s interesting to see how the media influences people,” Carter said, referring to the wave of questions received because of news reports of a comet passing near the Earth.

The website update took about six months to complete, and has made the site more organized as a whole, according to the grad students who maintain it.