Yearly Archives: 2014

Get Ready for the Geminid Meteor Shower

Want to watch possibly one of the best meteor showers of the year?  Then look up in the sky on the evening of Saturday, December 13th, or early the next morning to catch one of the most reliable meteor showers we have: the Geminid Meteor Shower.  Every year around this time of year the Earth crosses the orbit of the odd asteroid 3200 Phaethon and collides with debris that the asteroid has left behind in its wake.  To get the best possible viewing experience, follow these handy tips.

  1. Hope for good weather.  Can’t see meteors if you can’t see the sky.

  2. If you live in or nearby a city, travel far enough away so that your view isn’t obstructed by light pollution.  While some of the brightest meteors will be visible even in a big city, you’ll miss all of the smaller dimmer meteors that make the wait in between the big ones that much more amazing.

  3. Dress warm, if the meteor shower is as good as we hope, you might be outside longer than you think.

The best time to watch this particular meteor shower is conveniently just after sunset.  The constellation Gemini, which is the radiant or origin point of these meteors will just be rising in the eastern sky.  Luckily, the moon won’t rise until around midnight.  You won’t have to worry about the meteors getting outshone by the moon until that time.  So grab a warm beverage, a blanket, and a friend and head outside to see what we hope is the best meteor shower of 2014.

Orion Test Flight

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft is about the engage in its very first unmanned test flight.  A successful test flight for Orion is a big deal for the future of human space exploration.  That’s why we’re paying very close attention to this event.  Here’s what you can expect to happen on Thursday, December 4th.

The scheduled launch time is 7:05 A.M. Eastern Time from Cape Canaveral Florida.  If weather can be a factor to launch fortunately there is a window of 2 hours and 39 minutes to still get the launch off or else it will be postponed to another day.  In the future, Orion will be launched by a different rocket system, but for this test flight it will be riding on a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  After launch the whole test flight will take 4.5 hours as the spacecraft makes two orbits around the Earth before coming back to ground.

There are several systems that need to be tested during this launch.  First test is the separation or jettison of the protective coverings that keep Orion safe from the atmosphere during launch.  Once in space, these casings are no longer necessary and removing them will lighten the spacecraft.  After an initial orbit, the Upper Stage Rockets will boost the spacecraft into a very high orbit of about 3,600 miles.  The last stage of testing will be the reentry capsule.  NASA needs to see if the capsule can handle the intense temperatures and pressures that the spacecraft will experience on the return to Earth.  The parachutes will also need to deploy successfully to ensure a nice soft landing.  Let’s hope for the best!

If you are not fortunate enough to live close enough to Cape Canaveral to watch the liftoff in person you can watch coverage of the event on NASA TV or http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html# online.

For a look at the detailed sequence of events during the test flight, check out this article:  http://space.io9.com/heres-what-to-expect-during-the-first-orion-test-flight-1654607626/+AnnaleeNewitz

Soundtrack Info: “Running Fanfare” by Kevin MacLeod under the Creative Commons Attribution license. It can be found here: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Classical_Sampler/Running_Fanfare

 

AstroCamp’s “Winter is Coming” Space Contest!

Stay warm and curl up with some hot chocolate in new spacey AstroCamp gear! You can win by entering the “Winter is Coming” contest today!

Our Astro Goodie bag prize includes a hoodie, a beanie, a water bottle, and some tasty hot chocolate:)

You can earn entires by visiting the website or commenting on this blog post. Check it out and feel free to make multiple entries to increase your chances! Prizes can only be delivered to those within the United States.


Happy Thanksgiving

Today at Guided Discoveries we are thankful for so many things. Thank you to Ross and Kristi Turner who started it all over 35 years ago. Please watch these videos to find out just a few of the things we are thankful for at AstroCamp and CIMI. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!!

CIMI

ASTROCAMP

What’s a Light Year?

Did you know the nearest star to our sun is 24,942,474,700,000 miles away? The nearest galaxy is about 14,919,633,000,000,000,000 miles away? Those are enormous numbers that are difficult to even imagine or understand!

Proxima Centauri, Credit Hubble

This is why when scientists talk about the distance to nearest stars, they don’t use miles. Instead, they use a measurement known as a light year. Light is the fastest thing in the universe, traveling over 186,000 miles per second! Over the course of one year, it goes about 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000!!!) miles. This is what we know as a light year.

Some things are still really far away even in light years, but it makes it much easier to compare and understand what things are astronomically close to or far away from us. With our new way of measuring, the nearest star is about 4 light years away. The Andromeda Galaxy is 2,560,000 light years away! That’s still a big number, but its easier to understand how much further away it is than the nearest star.

Andromeda Galaxy (Creative Commons/flickr)

Light years have another convenient and very cool meaning. Since the light from a star or galaxy has to get to the Earth for us to see us, it means that the light had to travel here! Looking at that light means that we are looking at the star the way it was 4 years ago. Looking out in space is actually looking back in time, which can teach us lots of things about our universe.

Looking at the Andromeda galaxy, we are looking at it the way it was over 2 million years ago! Using the Hubble telescope, we have been able to look out at galaxies that are over 13 billion light years away, allowing us to look back to very early in the universe.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field Credit NASA/ESA/Hubble

Watch this video that further illustrates the enormity of a light year!

Gravity and the Vortex Table

When a Line Isn’t a Line or Who’s Line is it Anyway?

What is the shortest path between two points?  I bet most of you said a line, and in a lot of circumstances you would be correct.  The problem is that this is only true if you are using a flat space like a sheet of paper.  When your space begins to curve, you need to become more creative.  Let’s take the cities of New York and Tokyo as an example.  The shortest distance between them would be a straight line going through the Earth, but that’s no help to planes that need to stay above the ground.  So airlines need to figure out a more complex path to make the journey as efficient as possible.  This path is called a great circle! For our New York to Tokyo flight you need to travel north almost past Alaska to travel on the great circle.
Here is a fun site that you can use to map great circles connecting airports around the world: The Great Circle Mapper 

Now you might think that outer space would be an escape from these silly curved geometries, but you would be very wrong.  Einstein’s theory of General Relativity showed us that space is very far from flat.  Any object with mass will warp space much like a weight will warp a trampoline.  The heavier the object, the greater the warping.  This is the basic principle of gravity!  One of the interesting effects of this curving of space is that light will behave like our airplane and always follow the shortest path between two points, which often isn’t a line. That is what our vortex table is meant to show.  The marbles are trying to go from one side of the metal ball to the other.  If the ground was flat, they could simply go right next to it, but in our curved fabric space, the shortest path is a nice even circle several inches from the metal ball.

In space, we have even more extreme cases.  For example, the light from a star might be split going around an object like a black hole.  Some of the light goes around to the left, some of the light goes around to the right.  After navigating the black hole, the two beams of light might eventually converge when they get to the Earth.  A telescope detecting these two beams would see two identical stars on either side of the black hole, one on the right one on the left.  In reality, there is only one star behind the black hole, but the telescope doesn’t know any better.  We call this gravitational lensing, just one of the mind-bending things that can happen in space.  Here is a diagram to make things slightly less clear than mud. The gray stars are what you see, the black is what is real.

For more on gravitational lensing click here: NASA Gravitational Lenses

What to Freeze Series – Cryogenics

CAUTION: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! LIQUID NITROGEN CAN CAUSE TERRIBLE BURNS! (Death of living tissue caused by the extreme cold.)

Liquid Nitrogen can be scary. We call it a cryogenic fluid because it can rapidly cool substances down to temperatures around -321 degrees Fahrenheit. Unprotected human body parts are not immune to the danger at all. The water in our body will cool down rapidly and cause them to freeze solid, to the point where they could potentially break. That’s where we got the idea to pull this little maneuver, but with a banana in the glove instead of a finger. Just be warned though, we are professionals that know the limits of liquid nitrogen and how far to keep it away from our bodies. Please do not try this at home!!

But in science fiction, cryogenic substance like liquid nitrogen have a long and storied history; mostly being used to put humans into a deep freeze from which they can awaken many years in the future. Cryostasis as it would be called, could be very convenient for a couple of reasons: it could preserve astronauts on interstellar voyages that would normally last longer than a human lifespan, or perhaps preserve a person dying of a terminal illness until the cure is discovered. This type of technology could be very useful if it ever proves feasible. Studies have shown that if the cooling is done slow enough living cells can be preserved using this method. So perhaps we’ll see the first cryogenic human in our lifetime. Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists out there, but Walt Disney is not currently frozen in liquid nitrogen. That’s just a rumor.

In “The What to Freeze Series” we will experiment with freezing different objects. What do you want to freeze next?

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft AstroCamp Style

NASA’s first launch of Orion draws closer!

The new spacecraft is fascinating, and models of it were difficult to find, so we designed our own! This is the result!

For those of you who don’t know, Orion is NASA’s new spacecraft, filling the role of the retired space shuttle program. It is designed with versatility in mind, so if you go searching for pictures of it, you are likely to find lots of different things. In the video, the red piece that snaps on top is the Orion capsule, and is included in any of the pictures you will find, but the other modular parts change drastically.

One of the lesser known features is the Launch Abort System, which attaches to the top of the capsule during its ride into space on a Delta Heavy Rocket. Future launches will instead use the Space Launch System (SLS) which is still in development. The Launch Abort System is an added safety mechanism designed to pull the capsule–and crew inside–away should anything go wrong with the rocket behind them! This is the gray piece on the top.

The bottom gray pieces are the propulsion system. This is probably the most widely varied part of the Orion Spacecraft in pictures that you will see. The solar panels fold out–a feature that didn’t quite make it into the 3D printed version (although they do fold on a single hinge!) and that portion can also separate from the larger propulsion system sitting below.

Perhaps if there is interest, we’ll put together another video showing how each of the components work!

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft will make its first foray into space on December 4th, from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex!

Darth Vader and a Tesla Coil

What do Darth Vader and Tesla have in Common? Well the answer is AstroCamp!

We had a little fun playing with our giant Tesla Coil as Darth Vader from Star Wars.  The tesla coil is the most iconic and well known invention from the proud inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla’s inventions helped pioneer the modern use of Alternating Current electricity or AC.  Most of his inventions made use of high voltage high frequency electricity.  The tesla coil appropriately named after Nikola is an excellent example of such a device.

The coil uses a property of electromagnetism called “inductance” to create a high voltage current.  The process begins by sending a low voltage current through a primary coil of wire that has a few turns in the wire.  If the electricity is AC current, it will create a magnetic field inside the coil.  If a secondary coil of wire wrapped just above the primary coil, the magnetic field created by the first coil will create a new current of electricity in the secondary coil.  When the secondary coil of wire has significantly more turns of wire in it than the primary, the voltage will be increase many times over.  The increase in voltage will cause the tesla coil to discharge the classic bolts of lightning from the top.

Tesla imagined that this setup could be used to transfer energy wirelessly from one place to another.  Sadly for Tesla, the idea never caught on.  Part of this might be due to the large amounts of noise that the tesla coil produces.  It might also be due to the fact that the bolts of electricity could be very dangerous if they were to hit a person.  Still, the Darth Vader controlled Tesla Coil never fails to impress an audience, which is something that would probably make Tesla proud.

Exploring Magnets with Ferrofluid

Magnets can do some pretty strange things. In first year physics classes, people are usually introduced to a mysterious thing called a magnetic field. These are invisible lines that help describe how magnets interact. This can make thinking about magnets rather intimidating, as it seems that they must be taken on faith. However, this doesn’t have to be the case!

bar-magnet-magnetic-field

Classic drawing of a magnetic field for a single magnet. Lines leave the north pole and enter the south pole. Credit: Tutorvista

Magnets interact with lots of things, but in particular are fond of iron. In fact, magnetism as we know it is known as ferromagnetism. In chemistry, “ferrous” means “containing iron”. With this in mind, carefully using tiny bits of iron known as iron filings, magnetic field lines can be seen!

Magnet0873

Magnetic field viewed with iron filings. Credit: Henry Black, Practical Physics (1913)

See how the two pictures above line up? This particular picture is very accurate and mapped in painstaking detail. It tells us a lot about the magnet. Magnetic strength is indicated by the density of the magnetic field. In the image above, this shows us that–not surprisingly–the north and south poles of the magnet are the strongest!

We decided to take it one step further by using ferrofluid. By dissolving  this bits of iron in oil, the whole process becomes more dynamic–and a whole lot messier! If you are a follower of this blog, you probably realize this is pretty much exactly what we live for. You might expect when we bring our magnet next to it that it will just cover the whole magnet. However, that’s not quite what happens.

g5

Magnet and ferrofluid. The magnet isn’t completely covered. There are small spikes where the magnetic field is.

Our magnet is a bit strange, it’s actually two iron spheres attached to two strong neodymium magnets. When arranged in this manner, the entire thing acts as one large magnet. This is sort of the inverse of an important magnetic property: All magnets have a north and a south pole. This means that if you were to cut a magnet in half, it would become two magnets, each with its own north and south pole. This essentially means that each magnet is a stack of smaller magnets, just like the one we are using! Lots of research has been dedicated to finding just a single pole, but these mysterious monopoles remain undiscovered.

ferrofluid

 

Note that because ferrofluid is just iron filings and oil, it isn’t dangerous. It does leave a bit of a stain on skin, like oil can. In the animation above, you can see that our conglomeration of magnets has some cool features where the magnets connect. Using ferrofluid in this way makes magnets a bit less mystifying, and a lot more fun!

WELCOME TO OUR ASTROCAMP BLOG

We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. AstroCamp is a hands-on physical science program with an emphasis on astronomy and space exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and astronomical happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree in Physics or Astronomy, however it is not uncommon for them to have a Masters Degree or PhD. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science, space and astronomy information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.astrocampschool.org for additional information. Happy Reading!

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