Tag Archives: Astrophysics

Make Your Own Cloud Chamber

Clouds usually form when water molecules clump together on small particles of dust in the air. These particles are called condensation nuclei. In clean air, they’re hard to come by, so clouds don’t form easily. If conditions are very humid, the air can become supersaturated, or rich with water molecules that would form a cloud if condensation nuclei were available. With nothing to grab on to, though, the molecules stay suspended and invisible… that is, until something disturbs the system.

StJohnFisherCollege contrail Image courtesy of St. John Fisher College.

You’ve probably seen this happen before! Jet planes leave contrails, or condensation trails, when they introduce exhaust into supersaturated areas of Earth’s upper atmosphere. RochesterDecayThis is a common example of foreign particles triggering condensation. Air molecules themselves can also act as condensation nuclei if they’re electrically charged. One way that air molecules become ionized (or charged) is by colliding with radiation from outer space.

Earth receives a constant shower of cosmic rays. Most primary radiation that reaches our atmosphere comes in the form of ultra-high-energy protons, followed in frequency by helium ions and a smattering of other particles. These decay in the upper atmosphere into elementary particles, which go on to ionize thin streaks of the lower atmosphere as they continue hurtling Earthwards. In a supersaturated environment, the newly charged air molecules act as condensation nuclei, leaving a cloudy trail in the wake of the decayed cosmic radiation. The image at left (courtesy of the PARTICLE program at Rochester University) shows primary rays decaying into pions, muons, neutrinos, and gamma rays.

Below, a streak of mist reveals cosmic radiation as it travels through our tabletop cloud chamber. To see cosmic rays for yourself, you’ll need a contained, supersaturated vapor and a bright light source to highlight cloud trails. Science Friday has an excellent step-by-step instruction set that helped us a lot in our DIY design process– check it out!

CloudChamberGif

Written By: Caela Barry

How Many Stars are Out There?

The numbers used in Astronomy are truly staggering.  For starters, the Earth is about 25,000 miles around. The nearest star to us is–obviously–the sun, which is 93 million miles away. To travel that distance, you would have to circle the Earth nearly 4000 times! The larger the numbers get, the harder it gets to understand what they mean.

For example, if someone is a millionaire, they have at least a million dollars. If someone is a billionaire, they have at least a billion dollars. What is the difference between that million and billion? A factor of one thousand! That means that to be a billionaire, you have to make a million dollars one thousand times! Getting to trillions is similarly outrageous. To be a trillionaire, you would have to make a million dollars ONE MILLION TIMES!

Moving back to astronomy, the numbers naturally get even more difficult to understand! We learned from the video that our galaxy has around 300 billion stars! Remember how big a billion was!? Even when Max was typing 3,050,374 zeroes per day, he still had to go on for 270 years to type that many zeroes! Take into account that there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in our universe, and things really start to get out of hand.

We estimate that the number of stars in the universe is around 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Thats 70 sextillion, or 70 thousand million million million if that helps! For Max to type out that many zeroes would take 62,871,248,000,000 years (62 trillion!). Keep in mind that the accepted age of the universe is only 13.8 billion years. It would take Max over 1,000 times the age of the universe, just to type out the number of zeroes that there are stars in the universe!

Perhaps Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best: “There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived”.

And it isn’t particularly close.  http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/universe/201367/cosmic-perspective?page=2

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