Monthly Archives: February 2017

Electric Lighter vs Mints: Crystalline Energy

Have you ever wondered what electric lighters and Wint-o-green Lifesavers have in common? No? Well we here at AstroCamp wondered exactly that and the answer is a surprising one: they both involve energy released from crystals!

Electric lighters like this piezo ignitor don’t use the normal flint and steel ignition method of a normal lighter, and they don’t have a gas reservoir. Instead, they use a spark produced from a piezoelectric crystal (a crystal that releases a small electric charge when compressed, warped, or otherwise physically manipulated) to light a stream of gas coming from a stovetop or grill. When you press the button, a hammer strikes the crystal, releasing an electric charge that travels along the lighter until it lights the gas.

However, a different process is happening within the mints: triboluminescence. When you bite into the Lifesaver, you break apart the sugar crystals, which release small amounts of ultraviolet light. Ordinarily, this would be unobservable, as our eyes can’t see UV light, but the wintergreen oil inside the mints fluoresces under UV light. As a result, whenever one of those small pops of UV light are released, the oil absorbs that light and re-emits it in the form of visible light. It may look like sparks are being released, but unlike the piezoelectric ignitor, no electricity is being produced.

The ides of energy released from crystals may seem like something out of science fiction, but grab some mints and see how real it is.

DIY Phone Microscope

Here at AstroCamp we use microscopes to look at micrometeorites, tiny pieces of iron and rock that fall through Earth’s atmosphere and hit the ground from space. But that is not all they are good for. Microscopes allow you to see the world up close, way beyond what your eyes can.  They can give you a perfect view of the tiny building blocks that make up everything. But most people don’t have these awesome tools at home. Not to worry, you can make your own in just a few steps!

All you will need for a DIY Phone Microscope is a phone that has a camera on it, a cheap laser, a bobby pin, and a piece of tape.

The first thing you will need to do it take your laser apart. WARNING: The pieces are small and easy to lose. Keep track of the lens of the laser, this is the only part you will need from it.

Next, use the bobby pin to hold onto the lens for you. Then, center the lens of the laser over the lens of your phone camera and put a piece of tape over it to keep it in place. Voila! You’ve just made your own at home DIY Phone Microscope!

You can use it to look at all tiny things. Try sand, veins of leaves, finger nails and even the cellular structure of red onions. What other things look unbelievable under your DIY Phone Microscope?

Liquid Nitrogen Bottle Rocket Experiment

CAUTION! Do not try this at home. This experiment uses liquid nitrogen which is EXTREMELY cold. Safety precautions were taken in the filming of this video.

Many know that liquid nitrogen is extremely cold, at -321ºF.  When it is exposed to extreme temperature differences, you can observe something called the Leidenfrost Effect. To learn more about the Leidenfrost Effect click here. Once the insulating barrier from the Leidenfrost Effect goes away, then the liquid nitrogen will boil.

Due to the liquid nitrogen boiling, it will produce a lot of gas. Gaseous nitrogen has a lot more energy than liquid nitrogen resulting in a rapid expansion and pressurizing of the gas. While the bottle is right side up, the gas can easily expand and escape the bottle through the nozzle.  However, when flipped upside down, the gas has nowhere to expand to which pressurizes the bottle, forcing the water down and out of the bottle.

Newton’s’ Third Law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The water being forced to travel downward results in sending the bottle skyrocketing upwards! How high do you think this rocket launched?

Fireproof Balloons

If you’ve ever brought a match to a balloon (or been in our Atmosphere and Gases class), you know that fire and balloons don’t mix, but what if you could prevent a balloon from popping when it comes in contact with fire? The answer to this dilemma can be found in the simplest place: water. A little bit of water in a balloon that is otherwise filled with air can prevent it from popping when burned. To understand why, let’s take a look at what’s happening during a balloon and match collision.

With an ordinary air balloon, the flame heats up the skin of the balloon until it weakens, popping the balloon, but when that match is held against the water-filled part of a balloon, the skin doesn’t weaken or pop.

This experiment is all down to the difference in heat conductivity of water and air. Air is unable to conduct heat away from the skin of the balloon fast enough to keep it cool, resulting in a popped balloon. However, water conducts heat away much more effectively, cooling down the rubber and preventing it from breaking. Throughout this process, the hot water rises to the top, allowing the cool water to take its place, absorb heat, rise and continue in a cyclical current. Water also requires much more heat energy put into it before warming up than air, allowing it to maintain this current longer.

This current only exists so long as you heat the balloon from the bottom, and if you place the match on the side or air-filled section, the balloon pops normally. When doing this experiment, you may notice a black smudge where you placed the match, but this isn’t a burn mark; it’s actually just carbon deposited on the balloon from the burning match.

If this looks like fun, grab some balloons, a heat source, some water and an adult, and try it today!

CD Hovercraft

You can make a hovercraft from the comfort of your home! For this DIY science, all you need are a few things that you probably already have around your house: a CD (preferably one that you never want to listen to again), a bottle cap (preferably resealable, otherwise just poke a hole through the center), a balloon, and glue. Glue the CD to the bottle cap, then let it dry. The more complete a seal you form between the cap and CD, the better your hovercraft will perform; so don’t be afraid to hit any weak spots with some more glue. Cover the bottle cap with the balloon and blow it up. Place it down on a smooth, flat surface like a floor, table, etc. and let it go. It’s as simple as that!

Air from the balloon wants to escape through the hole in the cap, due to air pressure on the outside of the balloon. We usually experience air pressure as the force from the atmosphere pushing down on us. Here at AstroCamp we feel about twelve PSI, or pounds per square inch. The force of the air pushing down and out of the balloon lifts the hovercraft. This is just like Newton’s Third Law of Physics, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, the air pushing down on the table causes a push back on the hovercraft itself, lifting it up.

The hovercraft lifting up allows more air to flow out of the balloon and all around the CD, effectively creating a new surface for the hovercraft to rest on, which is air! It turns out that something doesn’t have to be a solid to be a surface. The new air surface is nearly frictionless which allows our hovercraft to seemingly glide across!

The hovercraft works very similarly to how an air hockey table works, though the directions of air flow and force are reversed. An air hockey table has a ton of tiny little holes all over it that shoot air upwards. That air lifts the puck and lets it glide across the table like a little hovercraft. It’s really just gliding along on the tiny jets of air!

More Slinky Science

You can use slinkies to demonstrate all things waves! Start with the basics: wavelength, amplitude and frequency. Once you’ve got those down, then you can play around with some things that are a bit more complicated like wave type, standing waves, and superposition.

Longitudinal waves, like sound waves, expand and compress as they travel through a medium like air or water. Transverse waves are like ocean waves.  They have characteristics that we more commonly associate to a wave: wavelength, the distance from peak to peak or trough to trough, amplitude, the height of the wave, and frequency, the number of waves per given time.

As you increase the frequency of waves, you can also increase the number of nodes and antinodes in the standing wave. Nodes are the part of a standing wave that stay in place.  Antinodes are the part of a standing wave that move with maximum amplitude, like the peaks and troughs.  There is always one more node than antinode.

You can also cause superposition of waves.  Superposition is when you combine multiple waves together to get either constructive or destructive interference.  To get constructive interference, the waves must be in phase.  When call that coherent. Coherent light can often be found in lasers.  The light waves travel at the same frequency and are in phase, which results in a single point of light.  To get destructive interference, the waves would need to be sent out of phase, or be incoherent.  Light from a white flashlight is a great example of incoherence, because the light has many different frequencies, resulting in a cone shape of light.

In the case of the slinky. If you send one wave down to try to knock the water bottle over, on their own they do not carry enough energy. But, if both ends of the slinky are sent in phase and work together, then we can achieve constructive interference to knock the water bottle down!

What other waves can you think of, and is there a good way to demonstrate them?

Did You Know: Steel Wool

You can do this experiment at home with just a few things.  9 Volt battery, steel wool, non-flammable surface, and some adult supervision.  

After fluffing up the steel wool a bit place it on your non-flammable surface, then simply touch the 9 volt battery to it. It’s that simple!  But what’s really happening? When you touch the 9 volt battery to it, the steel wool makes a completes the circuit of the battery.

Steel wool is made mostly of iron which is extremely conductive. The surge of electrical current from the battery heats up the iron which causes it to react with the oxygen in the air surrounding it. Electrical current is the flow of charged particles which collide with the iron atoms, slowing them down.  The slowing down of the charged particles is also known as electrical resistance.

The collisions create heat. The hotter something gets, the more electrical resistance it will have. It heats up so much, that it creates a spark. The release of heat from the spark causes a new piece of iron to heat up, react, spark, release of heat… and creates a chain reaction that can continue even when you remove the battery from the steel wool.

This reaction creates iron oxide, FeO2The hotter the steel wool gets, the more likely the oxidation reaction will happen. It can burn, unlike a nail, screw, knife, or forks because of the increased surface area ratio.  There is more oxygen available in a given area for it to react with, and there can be more of a heat build up in a smaller area.

Groundhog Phil’s Got Nothing On These Shadows

While the eyes of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania are focused on the shadow of a groundhog. We here at AstroCamp have different shadows in mind. Using red, green, and blue lights, we’re making up to seven different shadows at once!

The key to these shadows is the different lights, both their colors and their positions. Red, green, and blue are often referred to as the primary colors of light, as those three colors can be combined in different amounts to produce any other color of light. The most common of these combinations are red and blue to create magenta, red and green for yellow, blue and green for cyan, and all three primary colors to create white light. Now, if we were to just shine a magenta light at someone’s hand, they would still only show the normal shadow we’re used to. This is because a shadow is simply the absence of light, and all the light is coming from one direction. However, if we place the red and blue lights at different points and then angle them to mix into magenta light, we see the normal black shadow, as well as red and blue shadows!

These different color shadows exist because the hand blocks the blue light coming from one angle, which the red light still fills in to create a red shadow, and the reverse is true for the red light being blocked to create a blue shadow. There is still some space in the middle, however, where both lights are blocked, allowing us to still have the traditional shadow. This same concept applies to cyan, yellow, and white light, as you can see below.

You might notice something different about the shadows in the most recent picture, with good reason. When shining all three primary colors at an object, you can see yellow, cyan, and magenta shadows as well. These shadows are due to the same principle as before, but exist in spots where one color of light is blocked and both of the others can continue unimpeded and mix together. Try this at home for some of the coolest shadow puppets ever!


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 for additional information. Happy Reading!